Cooper bartholomew is de.., p.19
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       Cooper Bartholomew Is Dead, p.19

           Rebecca James
 
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  She attempts a smile but it comes out as something else, an unhappy-sounding groan that is not what she intended at all. And then she retches, throws up onto the floor, her entire body heaving violently. It’s odd because she can feel her stomach cramping, her mouth opening, she can even taste the sick in her mouth, but it feels very far away, as if these things are happening to someone else. She knows that she has vomited, but it means nothing to her, no more than if she’d unconsciously scratched an itchy spot on her arm. She does wonder vaguely for a moment if she has spewed in her hair.

  She can hear Bree talking on the phone. She sounds hysterical, and Claire wants to tell her to stop worrying, that everything is good, better than ever. But her mouth won’t work. The words get stuck somewhere deep inside and refuse to come out. Her body has a will of its own, and is behaving like a naughty, uncooperative child. Her mind, on the other hand, is all serene calm, a smooth blue lake in spring.

  ‘Fuck, Claire, fuck. What the hell have you done to yourself?’

  She tries to smile, to lift her hand and let Bree know that everything is fine. But she feels her back arch, and her head bend back, and her body thrashing around in a way that is completely out of her control. And then there is nothing.

  58

  SEBASTiAN

  Sebastian’s phone rings at some hideous time in the early morning, waking him from a deep sleep. He’s pissed off. It’s the first decent night’s sleep he’s had for days. He grabs the phone, sees Bree’s name on the screen, puts it straight back down on his bedside table without answering it. A minute later he hears the sharp ping of a new text. He sighs, picks up the phone and reads.

  Claire in hospital. Overdose. Call me!

  He gets straight out of bed, starts pulling his clothes on. He notices as he bends over to tie his shoelaces that his hands are shaking hard. Not Claire. Please, god, not Claire. Please don’t let her die. His gut clenches at the mere thought of it. No way. No fucking way. Not fucking possible.

  In the bathroom he brushes his teeth and runs his fingers through his hair. He catches his reflection in the mirror and stops to gaze at himself. He looks ugly, his black-rimmed eyes ridiculous, his styled hair laughable.

  He turns away in disgust, goes to the hall, grabs his wallet and keys and steps outside.

  Once he’s in his car he presses his foot to the accelerator and speeds all the way to the hospital.

  When he gets there, the nurse at the station outside Claire’s ward tells him that she’s going to be okay. She’ll be sick and sorry for a few days, but she isn’t about to die. They don’t let him see her – she’s sleeping, they tell him. But he doesn’t mind, he’s just desperately relieved he’s not going to lose her. He stops in the courtyard of the hospital for a celebratory cigarette before returning to his car.

  Sebastian drives through town slowly, his grip loose on the wheel, his body relaxed in the seat, everything in stark contrast to the tense, too-fast trip he had on the way there. He doesn’t go straight home. He drives up to Bradley’s Edge and parks, turns the engine off. He leans over the steering wheel and starts to cry. He cries like a baby – shoulders heaving, mouth open and gulping. For once he doesn’t care what he looks like or what anyone would think if they could see him. He’s just glad Claire’s going to be okay. So fucking glad.

  59

  LiBBy

  The day after visiting Claire, I decide to confront Sebastian. I borrow Mum’s car and drive to the Hills. I don’t text or call. I’m not going to give him any notice. I want to turn up unannounced and take him by surprise.

  I park on the street and walk down to Sebastian’s private entrance. I knock and wait. When there’s no answer I go up to the main house and ring the doorbell. A few seconds later, Sebastian’s father opens the door. I haven’t met him before, but he’s immediately recognisable. He’s an older, darker and thicker version of Sebastian. I’m surprised that he’s at home on a weekday. I’m even more surprised by his appearance. His eyes are bloodshot and he smells strongly of alcohol. He’s wearing work pants and a proper shirt, but it’s untucked, the top buttons undone, the sleeves rolled up.

  ‘Sebastian’s not here,’ he says shortly, looking me up and down. He doesn’t bother to introduce himself or say hello. ‘He tore off in his car hours ago.’

  ‘Do you have any idea where he went?’

  ‘Not at all. Sebastian’s not in the habit of informing me before he leaves the house.’

  ‘Maybe I could wait for him here?’ I don’t want to go. If I leave I might lose my nerve and never come back.

  He frowns, glances inside the house and then back at me. ‘I don’t see why not. I’m Leonard, by the way.’ He reaches out to shake my hand. ‘And you are?’

  ‘Libby.’

  ‘Why don’t you come inside?’ He leans against the door. ‘Come through. Have a drink. Sarah is out shopping as usual. So I’m afraid it will just be you and me.’ He laughs strangely. ‘Nothing to fear, though. I don’t bite.’

  I follow him into a large office. It’s the epitome of a masculine space: dark leather sofas, timber bookshelves, a massive desk. Leonard walks to a side-cabinet to make drinks. He sways as he scoops ice and and I realise that he’s actually quite drunk. He pours whisky into two glasses, splashing it on the sideboard, making a mess. He swears and makes a half-hearted effort to wipe it up. When he’s done he turns around and hands me a glass.

  ‘Sit down, for god’s sake,’ he says, gesturing towards the sofa. ‘Relax. I told you I don’t bite.’

  I do as he says. He sinks into the armchair opposite me, crosses one leg over the other.

  ‘So how do you know Sebastian?’ he asks. ‘From school? Or down at the uni?’

  ‘Through Cooper mainly,’ I say.

  ‘Cooper?’ He frowns. ‘You knew him?’

  ‘He was my boyfriend.’

  ‘Ah,’ he says. He watches me over the rim of his glass. ‘Pretty girl,’ he says randomly, then just as randomly, ‘Sebastian doesn’t like girls. Did you know that?’

  ‘I know Sebastian is gay. Yes.’

  ‘And I suppose that doesn’t bother you. Of course it doesn’t. Why would it? You’re not his father, are you? It’s no reflection on you. Doesn’t mean you miss out on having grandchildren or a normal family life. It’s probably all just a trendy thing to you. All just theory.’

  I don’t say a word. I remember what Cooper told me about Sebastian having a difficult relationship with his father and now I can see why. I’m also starting to wish I’d waited in the car. I try to listen for noise from outside, for Sebastian arriving home, but the house is so big and so solid I doubt I’d hear him. I lift my glass to my mouth and pretend to drink. Even the fumes make my eyes water.

  ‘Cooper’s girlfriend, you say?’ he asks.

  ‘Yes.’

  There’s a drawn-out and uncomfortable silence. I can hear Leonard drinking, swallowing, the clatter of ice against glass. He breathes heavily, sighs frequently. I stare at the wall behind him.

  ‘Don’t ever think . . .’ he says suddenly, lifting his glass in the air in an expansive gesture. Half of his drink spills out, wetting the carpet around him. ‘What’s your name again? Jillian? Don’t ever think life lets you get away with anything, Jillian. Because it doesn’t and it won’t. It all catches up with you eventually. Everything you do. Every little mistake. You pay for everything in the end. The universe always makes you pay.’

  I wonder if he’s talking about his affair with Tessa. Is that his mistake? And I wonder how he has paid.

  He drinks the rest of his whisky in one swallow, then lets the glass fall to the ground. I watch it roll over the carpet, settle beneath the desk. He digs into his top shirt pocket and takes out a piece of paper. When he unfolds it I know from the gloss of the paper, the stamp on the back, that it’s a photo. He presses the photo to his chest and lets out a low moan. Then, to my horror, he starts weeping. I’ve never seen a grown man cry and I don’t know where to look.

/>   After a while he grows quiet and closes his eyes. A moment later his head falls forward. He makes a deep, throaty snorting noise and startles himself awake. His head bounces up and he stares at me with wide, alarmed eyes.

  ‘This isn’t what I wanted.’ He dribbles out the words as if his mouth is full of cotton. His hand slips off the arm of the chair and the photo drifts to the ground. ‘I’m so bloody sorry. It’s all my fault. This isn’t what I wanted.’

  When I know that he’s asleep again, I get up to leave. On my way past him, I pick up the photo. Sebastian. One or two years old. He’s standing in a cot, holding the rail, beaming out at the person taking the photo. He’s wearing an orange and black tiger jumpsuit. I leave the photo on the desk and let myself out.

  As I’m approaching my car, Sebastian’s red Volkswagen appears. He lifts his hand in a salute as he passes me and pulls into the driveway. He gets out, locks his car and comes straight over.

  ‘Libby,’ he says. His voice is neutral, neither friendly nor unfriendly. ‘What are you doing here?’

  When he’s close enough I notice that his eyes, too, are bloodshot. He is pale, his normally perfect eyeliner smudged. He looks like he’s been crying.

  ‘I wanted to see you,’ I say.

  He nods.

  ‘I was at Claire’s yesterday.’

  ‘You were?’ He looks shocked.

  ‘I know you didn’t want me to talk to her.’

  ‘It’s not that, it’s just . . . Claire’s in hospital,’ he says. ‘I’ve just come from there.’

  ‘What happened?’

  ‘She overdosed.’

  ‘Oh my god. Is she okay?’ I’m surprised to realise that I actually care.

  ‘She will be.’

  ‘Oh.’ I put my hand on my chest, breathe out. ‘Thank god.’

  ‘I didn’t think you two were particularly close.’

  ‘We’re not. We weren’t. I mean, I still don’t want—’

  ‘She’s going to be fine.’

  Neither of us speaks for a moment. Sebastian looks down at his feet, kicks some loose pebbles over the bitumen. There’s no way of being delicate about what I’ve come here to say, so I just dive straight in.

  ‘Why did you lie? Why did you say you hadn’t seen Cooper for ages? Claire told me you both saw him the night he died.’

  He blinks, tilts his head back as if he’s holding in tears. He sighs heavily. ‘Because the last time I saw him we had a big fight. I was wasted. I didn’t want to remember him that way. I didn’t want anyone to know.’

  ‘What happened?’

  ‘I just told you. We had a fight.’

  ‘No. I mean exactly.’

  ‘Why do you have to ask all these questions, Libby? What are you trying to prove?’

  ‘I want to know exactly what happened. Is that so unreasonable? Claire told me about the video. Tessa and your dad. The affair.’

  He sighs again, walks to the gutter and sits down. He rests his head on his knees for a moment. When he looks up he’s crying. ‘Sorry,’ he says. ‘Pathetic, I know. I’m just so fucking tired.’

  I sit next to him.

  ‘Don’t apologise for crying.’

  ‘You know what, Libby? Bree texted me this morning and said Claire was in hospital and for a moment I thought . . . I actually thought Claire might be going to die too. Cooper first and then Claire. And you know what else? It would have been my fault if she’d died. All my fault. I gave her the drugs. And if Claire died . . . if she . . . I honestly could not have handled it. I would have—’ He stops, buries his head in his hands.

  I wait. I can see that he’s miserable and I feel sorry for him, but he still hasn’t told me what happened and I won’t leave until he does.

  ‘Cooper was my best friend,’ he says. ‘I loved him. I would never have hurt him. Never. I loved him.’

  ‘Just tell me what happened. Please, Seb?’

  ‘You’re not going to stop, are you?’

  ‘No.’

  He nods. ‘Okay,’ he starts. ‘Claire and I were wasted, really wasted. Whisky and speed, a bit of everything. Cooper called out of the blue and said he was coming over. I was happy, you know? I hadn’t seen him for a while and I was just glad he wanted to hang out with us. But then he got here and we ended up arguing.’

  ‘What about?’

  ‘This and that. Shit, mainly. Nothing worth remembering.’

  ‘Seb. Please.’

  ‘We fought because I was a jerk. I was pissed off because I hadn’t seen him in a long time. I felt like he’d forgotten his old mates. And so I was sarcastic and rude. It was fucking stupid. And I’ll regret it for the rest of my life.’ He closes his eyes for a moment, takes a deep breath. ‘Cooper got the shits and said he was going. Claire asked him for a lift home.’

  ‘She did?’

  He nods.

  ‘And did he give her one?’

  ‘Yep. They drove off and that was it. The last time I saw Cooper I was an absolute fucking jerk. That’s why I didn’t want to tell you. I wanted to forget it.’

  ‘And what happened then? In the car?’

  ‘I have no bloody idea. All I know is Claire told him about the affair. It wasn’t me. I didn’t want him to know. I didn’t want anyone to know. It would kill my mum, you know? It would kill her.’

  ‘But it might be relevant. You can’t just pretend—’

  ‘Relevant to what, Libby?’ He glared at me. ‘Relevant how? And what the fuck does it even matter now?’

  ‘It just does,’ I say. ‘And Claire didn’t tell me she was the one who told Cooper. She made it sound like you both told him.’

  Seb shrugs. ‘Don’t expect me to have any insight into Claire’s mind. Even Claire doesn’t have that. In any case, she may well have forgotten. She forgets a lot of stuff when she drinks.’

  We’re both quiet for a moment. Sebastian picks a handful of grass from the kerb, tosses it onto the road.

  ‘It’s all just shit,’ he says sadly.

  ‘Total shit.’

  ‘I just wish . . .’ He stops, shrugs.

  ‘How did he seem?’ I ask. ‘That night? What kind of mood was he in?’

  ‘We’d just had a fight. He was pissed off, I guess. Angry.’

  ‘But not . . .?’

  ‘Suicidal? Not that I noticed. But then I wouldn’t really know, would I? I was pissed off too. And I wasn’t exactly in the best condition to be making judgements.’

  ‘Thank you,’ I say. ‘Thanks for telling me.’

  ‘Well. I hope it helps.’

  I stand up. ‘I should probably get going.’

  He follows me to the car. When I’m in the driver’s seat he stops next to my open window, leans down and looks in.

  ‘You didn’t really think I hurt him, did you?’ he asks.

  ‘It doesn’t matter now, does it? You’ve told me what happened.’

  I start the car, put it into gear and drive away.

  THEN

  60

  COOPER

  On Monday night I bought steaks on the way home from work and cooked dinner for Mum and me. I wasn’t a very adventurous cook, but Mum had taught me the basics. I pan-fried the steaks in butter, made a green salad, boiled some chat potatoes.

  I called out to Mum to tell her dinner was ready. I took the salad bowl to the table. The steaks.

  The new table would be ready very soon and I’d be able to bring it home. I was looking forward to seeing Mum’s face. I was also going to enjoy chucking this one out, dumping it at the tip where it belonged.

  ‘Oooh, wow, it looks delicious, Coops,’ Mum said, taking her seat.

  I sat opposite and handed her the salad tongs. ‘After you.’

  ‘So?’ she asked, smiling widely. ‘How was Sydney? You haven’t told me a thing.’

  ‘I haven’t properly seen you,’ I said. ‘But it was really awesome, Mum, thanks.’

  ‘I’m glad. You deserved it.’

  We cut into our steaks. T
he meat was tender. Cooked perfectly.

  ‘So tell me what you got up to? What was the room like?’

  I told her about the view of the harbour, the buskers we saw at Circular Quay, our dinner in the Spanish restaurant. I tried to make a bit of a story of it, but there wasn’t much to say. The truth was that the highlight of the weekend had been all the stuff that happened in the hotel room. And it wasn’t just the sex.

  After dinner we both cleaned up, then Mum went to her room to read and I went to the lounge room to watch television. I flicked through the channels, but there was nothing good on. Reality TV. A gardening show. A movie I had no interest in. I thought about driving over to Libby’s, but it occurred to me that I should probably try to catch up with Seb. I hadn’t spoken a word to him since the night Libby and I walked out of his party.

  I could do both. Go and say hello to Seb, then see Libby on my way home.

  I found my phone and texted Seb.

  What are you up to? Thought I might come over for a while. We could have a game of pool or something?

  A few minutes later I got his response. It was typical Sebastian.

  I’d be up for a game.

  I went to say goodbye to Mum. She was sitting on her bed, reading. I went right into her room, leant over and kissed the top of her head. I didn’t normally kiss her before I went out, but I was still feeling grateful for the trip to Sydney. Grateful and happy. ‘You’re the best,’ I said. ‘Seriously, Mum, thanks.’

  She smiled and took my hand, gave it a squeeze.

  ‘Pleasure,’ she said. ‘Off you go, then. Drive carefully, and don’t stay out all night. I need the car in the morning.’

  I drove up to the Hills, parked behind Seb’s VW and went down to his room. The door was open so I walked straight into the bar area and then into the pool room, but it was dark and empty, so I looked out on the deck.

 
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