Ben saw the ambulance up the street when he was coming home from footy training, but he didn’t think that much of it. When he got inside, his mum and dad were quiet, looking at the telly. The Wonder Years was on, but the sound was turned off. Then the phone rang and his mum ran to it, almost like she knew it was coming.
At dinnertime, his dad put on the black-and-white telly in the kitchen. The A-Team was on and Hannibal and Murdock were making some sort of catapult to help them escape from prison. They were using a bed frame, steel springs and even the bed sheets to make it. They had tools though, which really didn’t make sense if they were supposed to be in prison.
Mum and Dad were both still quiet and Ben tried to think of something to say, so he told them about the ambulance up the road. Dad stopped chewing, looked at Mum and said, ‘Ah yeah.’ Then he went back to his chops and The A-Team. Mum didn’t say anything.
After dinner, Mum served dessert, which was weird because they only ever had dessert on Sundays if they sat in the special room. In the special room they would sometimes have chocolate mousse with chopped-up nuts on top, especially if guests came over.
Even with chocolate mousse, Ben didn’t like the special room because it didn’t have a telly in it, and the chairs were uncomfortable. This time though, they were in the kitchen and there was no chocolate mousse. It was just Neapolitan ice-cream, but only the vanilla and strawberry were left. Ben never understood why his mum didn’t just buy chocolate, but he never asked about it.
Dad went back to the couch and turned on the big telly, but Mum sat there at the kitchen table and watched Ben eat the ice-cream until he was finished. Then, after he’d licked all the melted bits at the bottom of the bowl, she told him that Daisy was dead. She had hanged herself on the clothesline.
No one said anything else after that.
Daisy Wolfe was fourteen, three years older than Ben, and they got on the same bus at the same stop. She never talked to anyone much, just chewed gum and listened to her Walkman.
One time, this total psycho grade six kid, Tom Joiner, was gonna bash Ben behind the bus shelter for no reason at all. But Daisy found out, grabbed hold of him and choked him in a headlock til he cried. She was pretty tough for a girl. And Ben kind of loved her a bit after that, though never told anyone.
He wondered why she’d done it, why she hanged herself. Maybe she was failing at high school or something. Or maybe the kids were teasing her. He didn’t reckon it would be that, but. She was pretty good looking. ‘Very popular with the boys’ – that’s what his mum said.
She must have been upset about something though. Ben wondered why she didn’t just run away. That’s what he would do if things ever got really bad. He’d never hang himself, no way. And definitely not in the backyard where his mum would find him.
He tried to imagine Daisy’s body hanging from that old steel clothesline, creaking as it shifted in the wind. He could see her dark eyes and her legs, perfectly white, swinging in the air.
Then the wind would blow harder, the clothesline would creak, and her summer school dress ripple as the shit and piss slid down those smooth, creamy legs. He knew about the shit and piss because Fab had told him that’s what happens. And Fab’s cousin, Marco, had told him about it. Marco was eighteen and from Melbourne, and he knew about things like that, so Fab said it must be true.
Ben imagined that’s how Daisy’s younger brother, Joe, would have found her, with the shit and piss running down her legs. Just before she did it, she’d given Joe fifty cents to buy mixed lollies from the milk bar. He’d bought raspberry jubes, jelly teeth and a ‘Big Boss’ cigar. The milk bar was opposite the footy oval and Ben had seen him walking past, showing off with his cigar. Joe didn’t know then that Ben and Fab had smashed his cubbyhouse at the block over the back. And he didn’t know the real reason Daisy had given him fifty cents.
Ben heard his mum say that Joe had tried to wake Daisy up. That he got hold of her legs, tried to lift her, and was screaming at her to stop mucking around and just wake up. That’s how Mrs Pickering, who lived next door, found out – she heard Joe crying like she’d never heard before. She called the ambulance and all that, but it was way too late.
And Mum said that Joe would never recover. But Ben didn’t really know what she meant by that.
They buried Daisy quick. That’s what Ben’s dad said, that it was really quick. Mum said, quietly, they were doing it quick because of what she did. Ben wondered if that was because she’d start rotting sooner than normal, but he thought he better not ask.
The funeral was just a couple of days later, a Saturday. It was the only time Ben had ever seen his dad in a suit. It was navy blue and it made him look like the prime minister, but smaller and with brown hair. Mum even made him put a tie on. She said it was the first time he’d worn one since their wedding day, but he hadn’t needed to tie that one up. So Mum had to help him do it and it took ages.
After she got Dad sorted, she cooked pancakes, then got all dressed up in a black skirt and jacket. She even had lipstick on, which made her look a bit fancy. But no one hardly said a word.
Ben was happy though. Mainly because he was allowed to stay home on his own, eat pancakes, and watch cartoons.
Two days after the funeral, Ben’s dad offered to get rid of the clothesline and Daisy’s parents agreed. He put his long blue overalls on and got the angle grinder from the shed. Ben wanted to go with him, but Mum said no. She said it wouldn’t be right. Then his dad said he could come to the tip after, which was even better. They always picked up some good stuff at the tip, and Ben liked chucking rocks at the feral cats.
Dad said he’d be about an hour, but he came back from the Wolfes’ nearly right away, his face all white. Mum asked what had happened and Dad said that Mrs Wolfe told him to get the fuck away from it you cunt in a voice like he’d never heard from a woman.
So the clothesline stayed. They didn’t go to the tip. And the Wolfes left town.
It was three months later that the new neighbour moved in.
‘A Statesman De Ville,’ his dad said, without shifting his gaze from the telly. It was Friday, so he was drinking a big bottle of beer without a glass. ‘Nice car. Must be on good money.’ Mum didn’t say much about it, but slipped a cork coaster on the table, while his dad took a swig. The cork ones were for family – she had fancy wooden ones with pictures of kangaroos that she used for guests in the special room.
The news was on – it was something about the World Expo that had been on in Queensland and how they reckoned it was the best ever. Ben pretended to watch, but it was boring and he was mainly thinking about the new neighbour.
Ben wondered if the neighbour knew about the clothesline and the last thing that hung there. The clothesline that rattled in the wind when he rode his bike past, like it was calling him closer. The clothesline with its cold steel poles, bolts and wires, spinning forever in that relentless southerly wind.
In the front yard, weeds had sprouted and the grass had grown long. And that nice, shiny blue car just sat there in the driveway.
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Mark Brandi has been published, broadcast and shortlisted in journals and competitions both locally and overseas. Originally from Marche, growing up Italian in a rural Victorian town influences much of his work. Mark graduated from a criminal justice degree and his career includes roles as a policy advisor and project officer in the Department of Justice, before changing direction and deciding to write. Mark's writing has appeared in The Guardian, The Age, the Big Issue, and is often broadcast on Radio National. He is the winner of the 2016 UK Crime Writers' Association Debut Dagger for his first novel, Wimmera, which he developed during two residential fellowships at Varuna.
In the long, hot summer of 1989, Ben and Fab are best friends.
Growing up in a small country town, they spend their days playing cricket, yabbying in local dams, wanting a pair of Nike Air Maxes and not talking about how Fab's dad hits him or how the sudden death of Ben's next-door neighbour unsettled him. Almost teenagers, they already know some things are better left unsaid.
Then a newcomer arrived in the Wimmera. Fab reckoned he was a secret agent and he and Ben staked him out. Up close, the man's shoulders were wide and the veins in his arms stuck out, blue and green. His hands were enormous, red and knotty. He looked strong. Maybe even stronger than Fab's dad. Neither realised the shadow this man would cast over both their lives.
Twenty years later, Fab is still stuck in town, going nowhere but hoping for somewhere better. Then a body is found in the river, and Fab can't ignore the past any more.
Wimmera is the 2016 Winner of the Crime Writers' Association Debut Dagger (UK).
'Very little fiction is as emotionally true as this. Wimmera is a dark and disturbing story from a substantial new talent.' Saturday Paper
'This is literary crime fiction at its best.' Books + Publishing