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A Straight Line to My Heart
By Bill Condon
Allen & UnwinCopyright © 2011 Bill Condon
All rights reserved.
There's nothing quite as good as folding up into a book and shutting the world outside. If I pick the right one I can be beautiful, or fall in love, or live happily ever after. Maybe even all three.
If you can't get a boy, get a book, that's my motto.
Here I am in Gungee Creek Library. It's tiny and cramped but it has ceiling fans and the bus stop is only a short walk away. I have twenty-five minutes to wait for my ride home. That's plenty of time for me to visit an old friend named Wuthering Heights.
It's all so sad. Catherine died two hours after the birth of her daughter. Just like my mum. And Emily Brontë, the author, died not long after finishing the story.
Young Cathy is asked why she loves Edgar Linton. She dodges around before at last admitting: 'I love the ground under his feet, and the air over his head, and every word he says ...'
On and on she goes with this romantic drivel. It's too much, Cathy. But still, I wouldn't mind feeling that way about someone, especially if he felt the same way about me. I wouldn't go for Edgar, though; tall and windswept Heathcliff for me, every time. And there wouldn't be any tragic misunderstandings if we hooked up. It would be ...
A guy stands in front of me.
'Sorry to interrupt.' He grins for no reason. This is not a promising sign. 'You don't know where there's a toilet around here, do you?'
He's large and slouchy, like a vertical beanbag.
'Go out the door. Take a left. Take another left. Toilet.'
'Must have gone right past it. What was it again? Take a left and then ...?'
'Two lefts. One. Two. It's the second one.'
'You can't go wrong. Come back if you do.'
'Ta. I'll go check it out.'
'Yes. Do that.'
He gives me a toothy smile then holds and holds the pose as though he's being photographed for Village Idiot Weekly, before at last he turns and lopes away.
I feel like writing a stern note to the librarian.
Dear Ms Dombkins,
I strongly suggest the library overhaul its security procedures. Today my sanctuary was violated by a Big Foot!
Outraged, of Gungee Creek.
I try to slip back to Wuthering Heights.
'Oh, these bleak winds, and bitter northern skies, and impassable roads ...'
Oh, forget it. One minute ago I had no trouble imagining myself battling along on the frozen heath, but now an invader has trampled all over the mood. I've left Wuthering Heights and I'm stuck back here in the boiling heat of Gungee.
He was wearing red shorts with a blue stripe. So he plays for Tarwyn, forty-five minutes drive north of here. He's more hulk than hunk, but I have to admit he's got a cute smile. About my age or just a bit more, probably blown in for the day to have a game at the oval tomorrow. The Tarwyn crew often arrives a day early. My guess is their coach likes to have some of his gorillas stroll around town to intimidate the Gunners. Smart move. This guy looked like he eats smaller footy players for breakfast.
I kinda want to see him again, if only to do a little exploring. Who knows – I might even like what I find. Only problem is, exploring takes bravery and I'm fresh out. It's easier to hunch down and bury my head in some musty pages, while trying to watch the library exit sign out of the corner of my eye. In a few minutes he should be on his way.
I wait and wait. Where's he got to? Maybe he's pushing on the toilet door instead of pulling on it. He might never get out of there.
Uh-oh. Here he comes.
I look up and there he is.
'You didn't get lost, did you?' I ask.
'Nuh. No trouble at all. Your directions were spot on.'
'Good ... so you're probably looking for the exit. Out that door.'
'I know. I was looking for you.'
He's grinning again.
Ms Dombkins, where are you? Help!
'Yeah, I didn't introduce myself before; was in a bit of a rush. When you gotta go–'
He puts out his hand – I say a silent prayer that he washed it – and reluctantly give him mine.
His handshake is almost gentle. That's a trick serial killers use to lure you into a false sense of security.
'And you'd be?'
No, no. Wait. I've had second thoughts. I'm no explorer. I'm not interested in knowing you.
Look at you. Now look at me. What is wrong with this picture?
Both of us!
He's a bumble-headed sleepwalker, twice my size.
And I'm just an ordinary girl – too ordinary. No boy ever notices me.
Tell him that. Tell him!
I always talk to myself but I hardly ever listen.
'Ohhh, Tiff,' he says, pretending he understands, when it's obvious to me that he doesn't. Looks like I have to explain it.
'Short for Tiffany. Tiff is what I usually get – Tiffy sometimes – basically I'll answer to any name that starts with a T.'
Oh God, now I'm grinning. I'm as bad as him. And I'm babbling, too. I'm nervous, that's the problem. It's a natural reaction when you're confronted by a Big Foot who won't take his eyes off you.
Look at something else. The library has lots of pretty pictures on the wall. Stare at them, not me.
'Tiff like in Breakfast at Tiffany's,' he says. 'Right?'
I couldn't be more shocked.
'Um ... yes, that's right – it's an old movie.'
'Is it? Don't watch much tv. I've only heard of the book – got it at home. I bought it 'cause Truman Capote wrote it. I was stoked by In Cold Blood. He wrote that, too. You read it?'
'Aw, you gotta. It rocks.'
I look away as if I've been suddenly distracted by something out the window. It's my version of the pause button. There's a lot of information to process. Here's a boy my own age; he shakes my hand, he talks to me – not just to ask directions to the toilet – and he reads books.
'Oops. Almost forgot why I came back in to see you.'
Those words hit my brain and just reverberate – he came back to see me! I try hard not to let my feelings show, but there's nothing I can do about the wave of redness that engulfs my face. I so hope he's colour blind.
'Um ... so why did you come back?'
'Raffle tickets.' He takes out a book of them. 'The Blues are raising money for equipment. You want to buy some? Three for five bucks. Top prizes.'
As i sit at the bus stop I see Mrs Muir's sunflowers. Her front garden is infested with them; tall and vibrant. To me they're a symbol of sheer happiness. That is really rubbing my nose in it. Well, I've had enough and I'm not going to take it anymore!
Even as I stomp over there, the evil thought swelling up in me, I tell myself I can't do this. I won't.
Another voice rages.
I hate that boy! I hate me! I am so incredibly stupid!
A sunflower leans over the fence, smiling.
How dare you!
I rip off its head and throw it in the gutter.
The smart thing to do is to keep on going. Walk away quickly and no one will know what I've done.
But I can't move because my eyes are locked on the slowly opening front door – locked on Mrs Muir.
'I'm sorry.' My tiny voice sounds so pathetically lame, but I've got still more lameness for her.
'I never do this sort of thing. I like sunflowers. I was just angry about something – nothing to do with you or the flower. I'm really, really sorry.'
'Oh, you are upset. Well, never mind.' Mrs Muir comes closer to me. 'Goodness, we all get cross. The main thing is: did it make you feel any better?'
'No. Yes. Maybe. A little bit.'
'Would you like to do another one? There's more out the back, too. You go for your life, dear. I don't mind at all – they need a good pruning.'
She's an old, close-to-the-ground, jelly-belly woman with bald patches showing through her wispy grey hair. It doesn't seem like she's got a lot going for her, but she's still smiling. Been around the sunflowers too long, I'd say.
'No thanks, Mrs Muir, but I'll keep it in mind for another time.' I open the gate and walk into her yard. 'Are you going to the game tomorrow?'
'Oh yes. I always get along to support our boys.'
'Thought so. Please take these to make up for the flower.' I put them in her hand. 'Raffle tickets. They're drawn at half time. All paid for. Top prizes.'
'What a lovely thought.'
She wraps her arms around me and holds me like I'm hers.CHAPTER 3
On the bus home I ring my best friend Kayla to tell her about my strange visitor.
'What a creep! Hitting on you – at the library of all places – and then trying to sell you raffle tickets. I would have told him where to go.'
'Thanks, but boys don't actually hit on me, Kayla. I am not exactly flavour of the month.'
'Yeah, that's true.'
'You didn't have to agree so quickly.'
'Aw, Tiff, I'm sorry. It could be different, if a boy ever got to know you ...'
Kayla and boys go together like chocolate and pimples. She can have her pick of any guy she wants. She's friends with Jarrod and Ryan and once she almost agreed to Gabriel Bronkowski's suggestion that they live together. But then she realised that Gabe meant 'live together with him and his mum'. Pass.
Mostly Kayla can't be bothered because she thinks boys are too possessive and she likes her freedom, doesn't want to get tied down to just one person. As for me, I wouldn't mind, not if he was the right person; wouldn't mind at all.
'This guy sounds like a tool,' she says.
'No, he wasn't that bad – I was just being naïve, as usual.'
'Don't defend him. I know you, Tiff. He must have made some impression on you, or else you wouldn't have told me about him. I bet you got your hopes up – I bet you were hurt.'
'Okay, but it was my own fault. He was being friendly, that's all.'
'Of course he was. So he could sell you raffle tickets.'
I know she's right.
'Please tell me you didn't buy any. That would be really tragic if you did.'
'Not a chance. Are you joking? I still have some pride.'CHAPTER 4
I stroll into the kitchen. Bull's making lunch. He's actually no relation to me, though secretly I look on him as my big brother, sometimes even my dad. When I needed a father for parent–teacher nights, Bull was there; if I fell out of a tree he'd run to catch me. He usually dropped me, but at least he tried; he's my full-time bodyguard and chauffeur, and, when I was thirteen and feeling depressed after spending too long in front of a mirror, he was the one I asked – 'Do you think I'm pretty?'
'No, mate,' he said, 'I wouldn't call you pretty at all. No way. You're beautiful.'
It's still near the top of my all-time favourite lies.
I don't tell him how I feel about him because he'd get a swelled head. And one thing Bull doesn't need is a bigger head.
Nor do I tell him about Big Foot. I figure it's best to forget him and his stupid raffle tickets.
Reggie's sitting at the table looking more despondent than usual. His face has as many lines as the state rail system, and though he still has some hair, most of it is poking out of his ears and nose. Hair on the head is too ordinary anyway. If I think of Bull as my dad, then Reggie has to be my grandfather. He's way old and he's kind to me like a grandfather should be, but if I call him Pops or Gramps he goes right off. Says it makes him feel 'like a relic'. So to me he's always Reggie.
Our family tree is kind of twisty-turny. Reggie and his wife, Nell, were friends with my mum's only sister, Debbie. When Mum died, Auntie Debbie couldn't look after me herself, and there were no other volunteers for the job, so she asked Reggie and Nell if they'd take me. I think it was only a stop-gap fostering thing at first, but I was probably a really cute baby, so I stayed.
Nell was married before, when she was a lot younger, but it didn't last long. One dark and stormy night she left her husband and moved in with Reggie. Her little boy was part of the package deal. That was Bull. He was twenty-two by the time I joined the family.
* * *
'What's up?' I ask Reggie.
That's the noise a snarl makes.
'As bad as that, huh?'
'Yeah, Tiffy. It's that bloke over there.' He points to Bull to make sure I know who he means. There's no one else in the kitchen so I could probably have guessed. 'He's got no respect.'
'You're not wrong.' I pat Reggie's back as I wander past. 'He's a lowlife, all right.'
'Who you callin' a lowlife?' That's the unmistakable, deep-down-in-the-dungeon voice of Bull.
And then I'm next to him, leaning in like a pesky calf pushing up against a tree. If I didn't annoy him he'd think there was something wrong.
'Get out of it, you!'
I take both barrels of his steely gaze as he tries to look mean. It only makes me laugh.
He used to be a boxer: Wild Bull Bennett. Gave that up years ago and joined the police. His mates don't need a battering ram when they have Bull with them; they send him charging first though the door every time. Just the look of him scares the crooks half to death. But he doesn't scare me. It's the other way around, as it should be.
'What's cookin', Greg-ory?' He hates it when I call him that.
'Bacon, tomatoes, scrambled eggs; food for the gods. But Wolfie's gunna be havin' your share if you're not careful, Tiff-a-ny.'
Ouch. I hate being called that, too. It's hard to score any points when you know each other's weaknesses so well.
I pull up a chair next to Reggie.
'What's all this about him giving you no respect?'
Bull jumps in before Reggie can open his mouth. 'His usual garbage. Yesterday he felt a bit off-colour so now he decides he's on his way out. Tells me he's going to leave me the Falcon. Whoopy-do. Only been working on it ten years and he still can't get it on the road.'
'But I will. You can put money on it. And by the way, I felt more than off-colour, boy. I tell yer, there's somethin' wrong with me throat. I can feel it.'
'Not another tea leaf is it?'
'Aw, give it a rest. When are you gunna forget that? It was ages ago.'
Only last year, actually. Reggie was convinced he had cancer because he had a black spot on his tongue – he switched to tea bags after the doctor told him it was a tea leaf.
'Look,' Bull says, 'if you're really concerned, go and see Anna. She'll put your mind at ease.'
'I'll save me money, thanks. Already diagnosed meself, anyway. I'm cactus.'
'Cactus? Right. Great work, there, Doc. I'm glad you're not my bloody doctor.'
'Well what do you want me to say? That's how I feel.'
'You're a misery guts, that's what's wrong with you. Ever since Rupes died you've been like this.'
'He was me best mate, Bull.'
'He was a rabbit.'
'Still me best mate.'
'You'll always have me,' I say.
'And don't think I'm not grateful.' Reggie manages a craggy smile. 'But you'll be leavin' here one day. Sure as eggs.'
I wish I could say it wasn't true, but I know it is. Soon as I can I'm getting out of Gungee. I'll keep on going until I find where I'm meant to be.
Nell died when I was five so I was raised by these two boofy blokes. It was a challenge for all of us, but we've scraped through. No, that's not fair – we've sailed through, had the best time. Still, I can't stay their little girl forever, even though it's very tempting.
'I'll be in your life, no matter what,' I tell him, which isn't a lie – it just might be from a distance. 'And you've got Wolfie.'
'Nah. The Wolf's your mutt now – I'm leavin' her to you in me will. Got it all sorted; I'm packed and ready to go.'
I'm really fascinated to know what sort of things he's packed in preparation for dying – how would you know what the weather was going to be like? But before I get around to asking, Bull interrupts.
'Better unpack, old fella. You're not going anywhere. Don't even think about it.'
'Sooner or later I need to get the arrangements settled.'
'You and yer flamin' arrangements.'
'Now you remember this – when I go you can burn me up in the incinerator out the backyard and then bung me ashes in the garbage bin. Green one if yer like, so I get recycled. That's me last wish and testament.'
'Wait a second.' Bull pauses to flip over the bacon. 'Okay, now listen. When you go you're gettin' a proper funeral with all the bells and whistles. And I don't want to hear any arguments.'
'No one would turn up to see me off.'
'Of course they would – they'd want to make sure you didn't change your mind.'
'Funerals are too sad.'
'Sad? You're havin' yourself on, mate. No one's gunna be sad over you. They'll be dancing in the street.'
'All right then, have it your way; but whatever you do, I've got instructions.'
'Thought you might.'
'There are only two things.'
'One: If anyone feels the urge to get up and say what a good fella I was, they can put a sock in it. If they haven't told me when I'm alive, then it's too late when I've carked it.'
'Two: I want you to have a party. Be sure you have sparklers – they were always me favourite – no crackers 'cause they'd scare the Wolf. Fire up the barbie, play the old Beatles' records, some Elvis, sing and dance, have a beer, tell some jokes – you get the idea?'
'Think so, Reggie.'
Excerpted from A Straight Line to My Heart by Bill Condon. Copyright © 2011 Bill Condon. Excerpted by permission of Allen & Unwin.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This was an enjoyable read full of humour, heart and good Aussie characters. Set in Gungee Creek, it¿s a funny and warm story about Tiff¿s first few weeks after she finishes school. She lives with Reggie and Bull who mean everything to her and she loves to hang out with her best mate Kayla, even if it¿s at the local cemetery. With school finished Tiff takes an internship at a local newspaper and hopes it will lead to her first job. And with some disbelief she meets the first boy ever who really wants to get to know her. It¿s a poignant story about interesting beginnings and unexpected endings.