Cooper bartholomew is de.., p.8
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       Cooper Bartholomew Is Dead, p.8

           Rebecca James
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  ‘Libby. Wait a sec!’ She ran up beside me, grabbed my arm.

  ‘I just wanted to say, don’t worry about Hari. You know what she’s like.’ She grinned. ‘I noticed Cooper watching you the other day at Atticus’s. I think he really likes you, and I think it’s romantic. He’s lovely. Not to mention completely and utterly drop-dead gorgeous.’



  Claire caught the bus home. She was meant to be waitressing that night at Alfredo’s, a popular and rowdy Mexican restaurant in town. Bree worked there too, which was a bonus. It meant Claire had someone fun to hang out with, and she could often count on a lift to and from work. And because she wasn’t driving, she could also down a few sneaky drinks, which helped smooth out the long hours and late nights.

  Claire quite liked her job, but she had to be in the right mood for it. That night she knew she couldn’t handle it. The customers, the spicy food, the noise – they would do her head in. As soon as she got home she called to say she wouldn’t be able to make it. She spoke to some girl called Sally, a waitress she’d never met, and told her she had a bad case of gastro.

  She texted Bree. Where are you? I’m home at the Palace. Sick. Not going in to work.

  She went to the kitchen, searched in the pantry for something to eat. There wasn’t much. A few tins of coconut milk. A can of corn. A bag of greenish potatoes. A bulk box of instant noodles. She found a family-sized bag of chips at the back, which seemed promising at first, but when she picked them up she realised they were already open. The chips were stale and soggy.

  She sighed, tossed the chips back, grabbed a single packet of noodles from the box. She left them on the counter near the sink. She’d microwave them later.

  What she really wanted was a home-cooked meal. Roast lamb and baked potatoes. Peas and carrots. Her mother’s gravy. Comfort food.

  The Palace, as she and Bree jokingly referred to their home, was a dingy and dark two-bedroom flat on the western edge of town. It was near the industrial area, miles from anywhere interesting. They had to drive or get a bus if they wanted to go out. They rarely had decent food, and they had to pay for their own electricity and gas. But it was all theirs. They could come and go as they pleased and do what they wanted. There were no parental interrogations. No ridiculous curfews. No rules except for the ones they both agreed on. Claire loved it, even if she did have to work three nights a week to afford it. Even if she did have to go without her mother’s roast lamb.

  She poured herself a large vodka, found some ice in the freezer, topped it up with a splash of half-flat lemonade, took it to the sofa. She had a million essays and assignments to do but the thought of getting out her books and laptop filled her with despair. She was studying urban planning. The course had sounded good when she’d first researched it in Year 12, and her parents had been encouraging, but from day one she’d known it was a mistake. She’d survived first year, scraping by with a pass average, but now, in second year, the work she hadn’t done, the stuff she didn’t understand, had started to feel insurmountable. She was so far behind she had no idea how she was going to get through the semester, or even if she wanted to.

  She grabbed the remote and turned on the television, pushing the thought of uni from her mind. There was nothing good on, but it didn’t matter: the noise and colour were a welcome distraction. They only had two channels in the flat – they’d never bothered to get their reception fixed, so she switched between a corny soap opera and a documentary about a guy climbing Mount Everest. But she’d never watched the soap before and couldn’t follow the plot, and the documentary was just too boring to bother with. Before long she was back to thinking about the one person who was never far from her mind: Cooper.

  The first time Cooper had kissed Claire, they’d been in the back of a car. It wasn’t a passionate kiss, wasn’t even on her lips, but it was romantic, beautiful – a kiss she’d never forget. There’d been six of them in the car, two in the front and an illegal but nicely squashed-up four in the back. She’d been the last one to get in and there’d been no seat space left, only a choice of laps. Cooper patted his thighs and grinned, said he’d happily be her throne. When she manoeuvred herself on top of him, he put his arms around her waist and said he’d try to keep her safe.

  It was Seb’s car, but Toby was driving – he was the only one who was straight. Claire had had a few drinks, but she was a long way from being completely smashed, and as far as she knew Cooper had only had a couple of beers. They were going to the beach. It was a stinking hot day in January, the kind of day they’d normally spend lazing around the pool at Sebastian’s. But Seb’s parents were home and his dad was in one of his moods and had come out to the pool and told them all to bugger off, he needed to work, before they even got a chance to get wet. Poor Seb had tossed his hair and laughed in his indifferent way, but Claire knew that he was cringing with embarrassment inside. He was good at hiding it, that’s all, good at controlling his emotions. Just like she was.

  Claire was wearing a new pink bikini, and had a towel around her waist. When they pulled up at the beach, she pushed open the car door. As she was about to get out, Cooper put his lips against the bare skin of her shoulder and kissed her. It was tender and soft and he kept his lips pressed against her skin for what seemed to be a very long time. It wasn’t a jokey or brotherly kiss, and he did it in front of everyone, which made Claire feel precious and ecstatically happy. The others teased and laughed about it, but it gave Claire a buzz that lasted for hours – a natural high better than any drug.

  They all got out of the car and ran straight into the water, which, because of the heat, seemed icy cold at first. Bree and Claire screamed, the boys swore, and mothers of small children shook their heads and looked at them with disapproval. They mucked about for over an hour, splashing and pushing and diving beneath the waves, playing until the salt water started to sting their eyes and their fingertips and toes became wrinkled. Cooper and Claire took no obvious notice of one another, made no particular attempts to be close, but Claire was conscious of his every move, watching him from the corner of her eye. When they all started getting cold and the others headed up towards the sand, she waited back with him. She was planning on saying something smart and witty, but he reached out, wrapped his fingers around her wrist.

  ‘Sorry about before. In the car. Sorry if I embarrassed you,’ he said. ‘I couldn’t help it.’

  She wasn’t sorry and she certainly didn’t want him to be. She wanted him to do it again. ‘Don’t apologise,’ she said. ‘I liked it.’

  He laughed and dragged her up to the beach where they sat side by side on his towel. They sat close, thighs touching, while they dried off in the hot sun. When Seb suggested they walk up to the cafe and get some food, Cooper said that he and Claire would stay back and mind their stuff.

  It was obvious to Claire (and to everyone else but Cooper, for that matter) that Seb wasn’t happy about it. He got up, brushed the sand from his legs, and glared down at them. Cooper smiled, dug some money from his pocket and held it up.

  ‘I’ll have whatever looks good,’ he said. ‘Whatever you get.’

  Seb snatched the money and turned on his heel, the others following close behind.

  ‘He’s pissed off,’ Claire said.

  ‘What? Why?’

  ‘Because we stayed here,’ she said, leaning forward to kiss him on the lips. ‘Because of this.’

  Cooper smiled at the kiss and then stared at her for a minute, thinking, before shaking his head. ‘Nah,’ he said. ‘Why would Seb care?’

  That was the thing about Cooper. He was kind, straight, honest, all that good stuff, but sometimes he could be totally oblivious.

  Claire’s phone vibrated and she checked the screen, found a text from Bree.

  Hey babes. I’m already at work! Rod asked me to come in early and help set up. Was about to come home and get you. Total bummer that you’re sick. Big party booked in for tonight – a 21st – don’t know if I
can come home early but will try. Hope you’re okay?? xox

  No. She wasn’t okay. Her distress might not have been visible from the outside – she always managed to act as if she was reasonably cheerful and together – but inside, where it mattered, she felt all wrong. Chewed up and messy. For weeks now she’d been tormented by an increasing sense of panic. Uni was a drag and she was destined to fail. She had no idea what the hell she was doing with her life. But worst of all – and this is what most haunted her – she’d stuffed up the one relationship she’d always been certain of. The one person she’d always known was a good sure bet. Cooper.

  And now, it seemed, she’d lost her chance to fix things between them.

  He liked someone else.

  She got up and went to the kitchen. Poured herself another large drink.



  I called Cooper on Friday and asked him if he wanted to go for a walk that weekend. I agonised for hours before I called, wondering whether he’d be glad to hear from me and what I should say. Surfing was fun, but it didn’t leave much chance for talking or getting to know one another. I considered suggesting dinner or a movie, but somehow both seemed far too serious, the kind of things established couples did. A walk seemed neutral, safe. Something friends might do.

  The phone conversation was surprisingly easy. Cooper sounded happy to hear from me and asking him out was nowhere near as agonising as I’d imagined. We agreed to meet on Saturday afternoon after I’d finished at the newsagency.

  ‘We can hike up Mount Timbi,’ I suggested. ‘To the lookout at Bradley’s Edge?’

  ‘What about that other walk? The one out near Southbeach? I’ve never been up there.’

  ‘Neither have I. But it’s a seven-hour walk to the top and back, apparently. And that’s if you’re fit.’

  ‘Sounds a bit hardcore.’

  ‘What’s wrong with Mount Timbi?’

  He hesitated. Laughed. ‘Nothing,’ he said. ‘It’s fine. It’s good. I’ll see you then.’

  Saturday was sunny but mild, a perfect day for walking. I filled a backpack with some snacks – chocolate and mandarins and water – and waited outside. I told Mum I was going for a walk, but didn’t say who I was going with. She didn’t even ask. It was one of the times I was glad her law studies kept her so preoccupied.

  Bradley’s Edge was the highest point in Walloma. It was an hour’s brisk walk to the top from my house. It was fairly strenuous, uphill all the way, and we didn’t talk all that much. In fact, Cooper was so quiet and withdrawn that I started to wonder if he really wanted to be there, if he’d just said yes to be polite.

  At the top there was a clearing where people had picnics. To the east you could look out over the Pacific; to the south was a view of Walloma. It was spectacular. We found a smooth patch of grass and sat down. We drank some water and I pulled out the mandarins and chocolate from my backpack and put them on the grass. Cooper took a mandarin and peeled it. He sat there meticulously pulling the pith off each piece before he put it in his mouth. He didn’t talk, didn’t look at me.

  ‘You okay?’ I asked him.

  ‘Yeah,’ he said. ‘Sorry. I’ve just been thinking about my dad . . .’ He stopped, stared out at the view.

  I knew that Cooper’s father had died. I knew it the same way I knew that Cooper lived in West Walloma and that his mum worked at a nursing home. It was common knowledge. Facts about people like Cooper spread through town by some kind of osmosis.

  ‘When did he die?’ I asked.

  ‘Before I was born.’

  ‘That’s awful, Cooper. I’m so sorry. You didn’t even get to meet him.’

  ‘It was a long time ago.’ He was abrupt and I got the distinct impression his father’s death wasn’t something he wanted to talk about. ‘What about your parents?’ he asked. ‘What do they do for a living?’

  ‘My mum’s a social worker,’ I said. ‘But my dad . . . he died when I was seven.’

  He stared at me.

  ‘Seriously? Your dad died?’


  ‘I had no idea,’ he said. ‘Sorry. I probably should have known.’

  ‘Doesn’t matter,’ I said. ‘Don’t apologise.’

  ‘I can’t believe it,’ he said. ‘You grew up without a father?’

  ‘Yep. Why? It’s not that amazing.’

  ‘I just thought . . . I assumed you had this perfect life. You know. Perfect family. Mum, dad, two kids. Music lessons. Trips overseas. All that.’

  ‘No. It’s just me and Mum. And why? I mean, all that other stuff, why would you even assume anything?’

  ‘You just seem like one of those people.’

  ‘What people?’

  He shrugged. ‘Lucky.’

  ‘What do you mean?’

  ‘Sorry. It’s dumb. A hang-up from when I was a kid.’

  I watched his face, waited for him to elaborate.

  ‘I had this idea that some people are born with a lot of luck.’

  ‘What kind of luck?’

  ‘Everything, really. Money. Family. All the stuff that money gets. I divided people into two groups. Lucky people and people like me. People who have to make their own luck.’ He smiled sheepishly. ‘Overcome obstacles.’

  ‘But most people have a bit of a mix, don’t they? Good and bad luck.’

  ‘Of course they do,’ he said. ‘I know that now. But I was just a kid. I felt sorry for myself. My old man was dead. My mum had to work. I felt ripped off.’ He shrugged. ‘It probably didn’t help having a best friend like Seb.’

  ‘So Seb was lucky? According to your theory?’ I asked. The idea that someone like Cooper felt jealous or inadequate was fascinating.

  ‘Nah. I mean, for a while I thought he was. But he’s the main reason I realised my theory didn’t work. He had the money and the mum and the dad and the big house and all the stuff. But his family was and still is completely screwed up. I’d rather have half a family than an unhappy one. I’d rather be poor. I worked out that I was lucky too. In different ways to him.’

  ‘But you still assumed I was lucky? Without knowing anything about me?’

  ‘Yeah. Sorry.’ He smiled. ‘Sometimes all my incredible wisdom abandons me and I’m ten years old again.’

  ‘So your mum didn’t get any life insurance when your father died?’ I asked without thinking. I felt bad as soon as the words were out of my mouth. ‘Sorry. God. That’s such a personal question. Don’t answer if you don’t want. Tell me to shut up.’

  ‘It’s okay. But, nah. No insurance money.’

  ‘I only asked because I know that my mum got a whole heap of money when Dad died. And that’s basically why we were okay. I mean, things would have been a lot harder without it.’

  ‘It was okay. Mum managed.’

  ‘She’s a nurse, isn’t she?’

  ‘Assistant nurse.’

  ‘It must have been hard,’ I said. ‘I can see why you felt a bit ripped off.’

  He shook his head. ‘I wouldn’t even use the word hard. We didn’t have much material stuff, but Mum’s pretty awesome. She’s energetic and healthy and she’s always, always had my back. And our house is comfortable and she always made sure we had good food and stuff. I never missed out on anything important.’

  I nodded, but he continued as if he thought I doubted him, as if he thought I needed convincing.

  ‘Being poor isn’t that bad. At least I learned the value of money. Seb has no clue. He’d lose a couple of hundred dollars and not even notice it. I wouldn’t want to be like that.’ He frowned. ‘But then I don’t want to have to worry about every fifty cents either, you know? I just . . . I dunno.’ Then he laughed. ‘I think I’m actually just talking a whole lot of shit.’

  ‘It’s not shit at all,’ I said. ‘It’s important. Interesting. And I know what you mean. I get that you can feel envious or jealous or whatever it is without it meaning your life was bad. I think we’re all a bit like that.’

took another mandarin, peeled and ate the whole thing before he spoke again.

  ‘What about you?’ he asked. ‘Tell me about your dad.’

  ‘Well. He died of a heart attack when I was little, so I don’t know all that much,’ I said.

  ‘How old was he?’


  ‘Young for a heart attack.’

  ‘It came out of the blue. He was at work one day, and he just slumped over his desk and died.’

  ‘What was he like? What do you remember?’

  ‘Bit of a nerd, I think. At least, he certainly looks like a nerd in the photos. He wore glasses and had this thick, dorky hair. He was a lawyer and he was really quiet. Shy even. But he had this wicked sense of humour which surprised people.’ I smiled. ‘I don’t actually remember all that much. But Mum always says he was super funny.’

  ‘Do you remember hanging out with him?’

  ‘Not that much. But I do have this one really clear memory of him spraying me with a hose in the backyard. We had this plastic sandpit thing I loved. I remember playing by myself, making tunnels and castles in the sand, and then suddenly Dad was there. He must have just come home from work or something, and I remember being so excited to see him. He sprayed me with the hose and I ran around the backyard screaming. Completely and utterly delirious. I only have one or two other clear memories like that, but they all have this surreal quality.’

  He smiled but I thought I could see a certain wistfulness in his eyes. He didn’t have any memories of his father and I wondered if I was being insensitive describing mine.

  ‘What about your dad?’ I gushed. ‘Do you know much about him?’ I would have liked to ask how he died, but I had the feeling it was a touchy subject. He’d tell me what happened if he wanted to.

  ‘He played the guitar. Rode a motorbike. He was a hard drinker. Hard worker. So Mum says, anyway. I’ve got these photos of him in his leather jacket and his crash helmet, and I’d sit and stare at them for hours when I was a kid. I thought he was just so bloody cool. In my mind he was like this superhero.’

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