Cooper bartholomew is de.., p.3
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       Cooper Bartholomew Is Dead, p.3

           Rebecca James
 
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  ‘Thanks.’ Cooper sat next to me. We all said hello. Sebastian was polite but aloof. He sat right at the edge of the booth and stared out at the crowd, as if he’d rather be somewhere else. Hari rolled her eyes, flashing me a surreptitious smirk.

  ‘So how was the party?’ Cooper asked.

  ‘What?’

  ‘Saturday night – the beach party?’

  ‘Oh, good. We had fun. Thanks.’

  I could feel Hari staring at me, and I knew how curious she must be. I gazed at her mildly, giving her nothing, until eventually she shrugged and put her elbows on the table.

  ‘Anyway, girls,’ she said, ‘we need to decide on this present. I still think the best thing would be some kind of easel.’

  ‘But we’ve already looked in the art supplies shop,’ Cate said. ‘Didn’t Libby tell you? They don’t have anything big enough.’

  ‘Really? That’s hopeless.’

  ‘Typical of Walloma, though. What do you expect?’

  ‘Can we order something? Did anyone look online?’

  Cooper sipped on his beer, leaned in. ‘Sorry. What are you after?’

  Hari glared at him, and Cate – no doubt feeling bad for Cooper – gushed, ‘Oh, we’re just looking for a present for our friend. We want to get him something special for his birthday. He paints. And he works on really big canvases. He can’t find an easel big or strong enough to hold them. He usually works on the floor, or he leans them up against the wall. But it’s not ideal.’

  ‘An easel?’

  ‘Yes.’

  ‘You know . . . I could probably make you one of those.’

  ‘You could?’

  ‘I think so. I work with timber and we do a fair few small jobs like that. I can’t see why we couldn’t make one. If you told me what you wanted . . . gave me some kind of design.’ He shrugged. ‘I could have a look, anyway.’

  Cate beamed. ‘That would be brilliant.’

  ‘Hold on,’ Hari said. ‘We can’t design it, Cate – don’t be daft. We have no idea how to design things like that. We’re not engineers. It would fall straight over.’

  ‘I could probably help you out with the design side of things. It doesn’t sound too hard. Just needs to be strong enough to hold the weight. Balanced. And if I get stuck, my boss is excellent at all the design details.’ Cooper reached into his pocket and took a card from the side pocket of his wallet, handing it to me.

  ‘I’m there Monday to Friday,’ he said. ‘Give me a call or come down to the shed. We’ll work something out.’

  10

  CLAiRE

  When Claire saw Cooper on campus, she felt her heart do its stupid, deluded little flutter. For a moment she let herself imagine that he’d come to see her. He’d forgiven her, he wanted to make up, get back together. She was fantasising about the hot sex they’d be having later when she noticed that he was heading to the bar with Sebastian.

  She followed them at a distance, and went into the bar behind them. It was so crowded it was easy to keep herself hidden. She got herself a vodka and tonic, and stood near a crowd of people in a corner, watching Cooper and Seb over the top of her glass.

  They stood there for a while looking lost. Eventually they walked to a booth and sat down with a group of girls.

  Claire considered joining them. She’d stroll over, plonk herself right next to Cooper. Trap him in the booth and force him to talk to her.

  He wouldn’t be happy to see her. He’d go quiet and stiff and unfriendly. She could picture the exact look he’d get on his face – eyes distant, mouth set, deliberately unwelcoming. She blinked back a few unexpected tears, took a deep breath and downed the last of her drink. She concentrated on how unfair everything was until eventually she was filled with an emotion that sat more comfortably with her – anger – familiar and simmering. How dare he make her feel like this? This was her university and Cooper wasn’t even a student here. Sebastian was one of her best friends. She’d sit wherever she damn well liked!

  It wasn’t until she got close to the booth that she recognised the girl Cooper was sitting next to. Libby Lawson. Libby fucking Lawson.

  Why were they sitting together like that? And so close. How did they even know each other? Claire stopped to stare and her anger level rose to a boil. She clenched her fists and continued towards them.

  The next thing she knew, Sebastian had taken her by her forearm and was guiding her back towards the entrance. He pushed the doors open and pulled her outside.

  ‘What are you doing?’ She pulled her arm free of his grip and glared up at him. ‘What the hell?’

  ‘Saving you from yourself.’

  ‘What?’

  ‘You looked a bit psycho in there,’ he said. ‘You were going to do something stupid. I could see it a mile away.’

  Claire was about to tell Sebastian off, march back inside and get herself another drink, when she realised he was probably right. She would only make a fool of herself.

  ‘I was just coming to say hello.’

  ‘It was an angry-looking hello.’

  ‘Fuck off,’ she said mildly – then sighed. ‘Got a cigarette?’

  ‘In the car,’ he said. ‘Come on. Come with me. I’ll give you a lift home.’

  11

  SEBASTiAN

  They didn’t talk for most of the trip. Claire smoked. Sebastian drove. They kept the music up loud.

  When Sebastian pulled up outside Claire’s block of flats, she didn’t get out immediately. She finished her cigarette, ground her butt into the ashtray, turned the music down. Sebastian sighed inwardly. Claire was so inconsiderate sometimes. Sebastian smoked too, but he would never do it in a car. He couldn’t stand the smell, the little flecks of ash that went everywhere. Now he would have to clean the tray. Get rid of the stench.

  She turned to look at him. ‘He doesn’t have a thing for her, does he?’

  ‘Who doesn’t have a thing for whom?’

  ‘You know what I mean. Cooper. For Libby Lawson.’

  ‘I doubt it. Which one was she, anyway?’

  ‘The tall one with stringy red hair. Fat. Enormous tits.’

  None of the girls had been remotely fat, and Sebastian didn’t recall any stringy hair, but he knew the girl she meant. Dark red hair. Big breasts. Actually quite beautiful, if you were that way inclined.

  ‘Nah,’ he said agreeably. ‘Why would he? Nothing special there, believe me. She’s, like, totally beige.’

  Claire smiled with satisfaction. ‘That’s what I thought.’ But the smile didn’t last. She sighed, rubbed her hands over her face. ‘I just couldn’t stand it if he ended up with someone like that. Libby Lawson. She’s just so—’

  ‘You really hate her. How come?’

  ‘Because she’s a cow, Sebastian. A complete backstabber. I mean, I know she seems all sweet and nice, but that’s because you don’t know her properly. It’s all fake. And I know from personal experience. I know her real side.’ She laughed bitterly. ‘God, can you actually believe it? Me and Libby Lawson as best friends? Back then I was actually thinking about joining the debating team. How weird is that?’

  ‘Debating?’ He laughed. ‘You? You’re kidding.’

  She glared at him. ‘So you think I’m too dumb, huh?’

  ‘I didn’t say that. But you’ve never exactly been the most studious person in the world. I mean, you don’t—’

  ‘Whatever. I don’t care. You can shut up now.’

  Claire helped herself to some of his cigarettes, dropped them into her bag and got out of the car without saying thank you or goodbye. Then she slammed the car door and marched off. Sebastian watched her go. At the entrance to her building, she stopped and turned back. She lifted her hand and gave him the finger, stuck her tongue out.

  All was forgiven.

  Sebastian turned the music back up and pulled out, accelerating down Claire’s street, speeding up until he was just over the limit. He thought of Cooper and Libby, and wondered if Claire’s paranoia was
founded on something real. He hoped not.

  The very idea of Cooper having a girlfriend made him miserable. A girl from outside their circle would be even worse. Cooper would be so preoccupied and caught up there’d be no room for anyone else. No room for friends. No room for Sebastian.

  12

  COOPER

  My boss, Cameron, and I were working out the back the next day when we heard the showroom bell.

  ‘I’ll get it.’ Cameron put his tools down.

  I kept working. I was finishing up an enormous bookshelf. Doing the final touches. Sanding and oiling, filling imperfections with resin. Making sure the surfaces were smooth.

  ‘Someone for you,’ Cameron said when he came back to the shed.

  ‘Who?’

  ‘Dunno,’ he said. ‘A girl. Libby, I think she said her name was.’

  Cameron must’ve been the least curious bloke I knew. He rarely asked personal questions, never pried. It could have made him seem cold, but he wasn’t like that. He was just a bit of a loner, a bloke who liked to keep his private life to himself. He was well known in Walloma for his craftmanship and perfectionism. He took pride in his work and was scrupulously honest. I had a lot of respect for him.

  I wiped my hands on a rag and went to the showroom. Libby was holding a sample piece of timber in her hands, running her fingers over its surface.

  ‘So beautiful,’ she said, putting it down as I came in. ‘Such a rich colour.’

  ‘Red cedar,’ I said. ‘One of my favourites. Also one of the most expensive.’

  ‘Oh . . . well . . . I can see why.’

  ‘You’re here about the easel? For your friend?’

  ‘I didn’t think you’d remember.’

  ‘Of course I do. You guys were going to try to work on a design.’

  She took a piece of paper from her pocket and handed it to me. ‘We drew this up, but we’re not sure . . . we were hoping you’d know whether it would—’

  ‘Stay up?’

  ‘Exactly.’

  I unfolded the paper and spread it on the work desk.

  ‘Looks okay to me,’ I said. ‘But I might get Cameron to have a quick look.’

  I left Libby in the showroom and took the drawing to the shed. Cameron checked the design and made some simple changes. He said I could do it in my own time if I wanted to make a bit of cash.

  I went back to Libby and explained Cameron’s changes. She had a pretty tight budget, so I suggested we make it from pine.

  ‘But will it still look okay?’

  ‘We can stain it, so yeah, it’ll look good.’

  ‘Great. Well . . . Do you want me to sign something? Pay a deposit?’

  ‘Nah. You can pay when it’s done. When do you want it?’

  ‘Soon. His birthday is next week.’ She bit her lip. ‘Have we left it too late?’

  I had this sudden inexplicable urge to make her happy.

  ‘How about I try and get it done this week?’

  ‘Really?’

  ‘Yep. I’ll do my best.’

  Maybe I was just trying to crack through her polite but standoffish demeanour. Maybe I just wanted her to like me. Maybe I was trying to impress her with my awesome work ethic. I wasn’t exactly sure, but whatever I was trying to achieve, I’d just effectively made my week a whole lot busier.

  She looked at me and grinned – she had an excellent smile, broad and contagious, like a sudden beam of light in a dark room. It was impossible not to smile back, not to feel that it was worth it.

  13

  LiBBy

  On Thursday night after I’d had dinner and helped Mum clean the kitchen I went to my room to start my essay for film studies. Discuss the notion of popularity as represented in the films Mean Girls and Heathers.

  When we’d first received the essay question I’d rolled my eyes. The whole concept of writing about popularity had seemed banal, puerile even. But my recent contact with Cooper, and to a lesser extent Sebastian Boccardo, had got me thinking. It wasn’t such a stupid topic at all.

  I googled the word popularity and discovered that from a sociological perspective there were two ways of seeing it. There was what I thought of as a genuine kind of popularity, which was based on actual likeability, which basically described the fact that kind and agreeable people were well-liked. Then there was a second kind of popularity – the kind that most high-school students were concerned with – which was all about perceived social status and reputation.

  Sebastian, Cooper and Claire and their crowd had been the ‘popular’ kids at my school, and in my view their popularity had been of this second kind. They were good-looking and confident, and this gave them social kudos. They definitely weren’t the most likeable kids at school. We’d envied their confidence and swagger – we’d even been intimidated – but we hadn’t necessarily liked them.

  I was chewing the end of my pen, trying to think of a way of explaining all this in an academic manner, when I heard the ding of a new text coming in. I checked my phone and found a message from Atticus.

  Hey. I’m here. Meant to be resting but not tired. What are you doing?

  Hey! When did you get back? How does it feel to be home?

  Got home yesterday. Feels like freedom. You coming over? I’m bored.

  Bored? Already?

  Yup. Been bored for weeks. Hospital is not the most exciting place. Come over. I need someone to talk to.

  Be there soon!! Gladly! I’m sitting here in essay-writing purgatory. Dying for an excuse to stop.

  Good to hear. You know I approve of procrastination.

  I went to the kitchen and told Mum I was going out for a while. She was sitting at her desk, thick legal textbooks and notebooks spread around her. She was a social worker but she’d given up her job when my father died. There had been enough life insurance to cover the mortgage and our living expenses and Mum had thought it was important to put her energy into our home life for a while. When I was in my final year of high school, she announced that she was bored and soon after she got a job at a legal centre. Now she was also studying law.

  For most of my life she’d been a complete homebody. A real cake-baking, house-cleaning, meal-cooking type. Getting a job had transformed her. She swapped her comfortable around-the-house clothes for smart black suits and shoes with heels. She got a better haircut and started wearing make-up. She was full of a new enthusiasm and energy. She even looked younger.

  She was also a lot less focused on me, which was both good and bad. She was too preoccupied to nag or worry too much, and I had a lot more freedom. But I often came home to a dark and empty house. I missed the cakes, the regular cooked meals, the warmth. Sometimes I missed being the centre of her world.

  But I could hardly begrudge her a life.

  ‘I thought you were writing an essay?’ she asked.

  ‘I was. I mean, I started. But Atticus texted. He’s home.’

  She was so happy to hear about Atticus that she offered to give me a lift, but I told her I’d walk. She smiled and waved me away, went straight back to her books.

  Atticus lived an easy ten-minute walk from my place. When I got there, Theo, Atticus’s fifteen-year-old brother, opened the door, and a moment later Atticus’s father appeared. He chastised Theo, told him he was supposed to be in his room studying, but the whole time he was smiling and cheerful – obviously ecstatic to have his eldest son back home. He gave me a hug and told me to go straight through.

  Atticus had a massive space to himself at the back of the house. It had been the family rumpus room, but when he got sick his parents had converted it to a combined bedroom and living area for him. He’d be spending a lot of time resting, and they wanted to make him as comfortable as they could.

  I found him crouched on the floor, painting. His canvas was on the floor too, leaning against the wall. With his new easel, he’d be able to stand up, or at least sit on a stool and work more comfortably.

  When Atticus saw me, he jumped up. As usual I found
his height startling. He didn’t walk, he loped, reminding me of an intelligent, wisecracking giraffe.

  ‘You look so good,’ I said. We hugged, and I kissed his cheek. ‘And your hair is coming back. God, I am just so glad to see you.’

  ‘Likewise, mi amigo.’ He ran his hand over the stubble on his head and gestured towards the sofa. ‘Come in, come in. You don’t need to wait for an invitation.’

  As I stepped inside I looked around the room – it was almost impossible not to, because the walls were covered with Atticus’s work. He painted in dark, intense colours and he used the biggest canvases he could find. You had to stand at a distance to see them properly, or to experience the complete nightmare, as Atticus liked to put it. The images were hidden, subtle, insubstantial and fleeting, like a shadow or reflection. Only at the exact right distance did the picture become clear. First you’d make out a pair of terrified eyes, a chin, an open, screaming mouth. And once the image did emerge, the hairs on the back of your neck would rise. His paintings were mesmerising and frightening and powerful all at once.

  I took a look at what he was working on now. If anything, it was even darker and scarier than his others. The entire painting was in shades of black and a deep, dark blue. Staring out of the shadows was a man’s face. He wasn’t screaming or running from monsters. It was just his face, still and staring. But the fear in his eyes was palpable, haunting.

  ‘That’s really good,’ I said.

  ‘I know.’

  ‘And I love your modesty.’

  ‘I find modesty tedious,’ he said in his most pompous voice. ‘Seriously though, if nothing else, being sick and facing the grim reaper has made my paintings better. More authentic. I feel like I was kind of faking it before – I’d never really felt any true fear.’

  ‘It must be scary,’ I said. ‘Having cancer, I mean.’

  ‘Scary, yep. Depressing, yep. Angry-making, yep,’ he said. ‘And don’t call me brave. I’m sick to death of people calling me brave.’

 
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