Nelis Winter’s Leavers’ Party had been held on a Friday night in December. The night was stuck in Nelis’ mind forever, like a nail in the coffin of her school years. Daisy Comice, trying to make up for years of frugal indignity heaped on Nelis during their life with Snowland Winter, booked her daughter into Affinity to have her hair and makeup done, and took her to Beautiful Signets to buy a dress and shoes among the Christmas shoppers.
The party should have been in November, but the venue, Theme of Your Dreams, had had a conflict with bookings. The earliest block available was in December, and it had offered a big incentive to Diversity High to shift its dates. Since the school’s motto was something along the lines of We Welcome Alternatives, it couldn’t refuse.
“What, no home-sewn mu-mu made of home-dyed homespun?” the imp in Nelis’ brain demanded as Daisy took down racks of shimmering dresses. “No lecture on the ills of mineral makeup and the beauty of natural skin? No implication that Leavers’ Parties for seventeen-year-olds are inappropriately sexualising occasions?”
Nelis said none of this aloud. She hadn’t been glad when her dad took off to the Arctic Circle to commune with polar bears and hunt the yeti, but she hadn’t been too sorry, either. She’d half-hoped Daisy might go, too, and so leave Nelis to board with a friend for her last year at Diversity, but Daisy, most unexpectedly, had rebelled against the idea of living in an igloo, as she’d put it.
“Come home when you’ve got it out of your system,” she’d told Snow.
By the day of the Leavers’ Party, Snow had been gone for a year.
Daisy and Nelis had settled into a comfortable rut with a whole lot less tofu and vegan clothing than during Snow’s tenure. They watched cooking shows on their new TV, and Daisy got rather too well acquainted with the shopping channel.
“You look gorgeous, Nel.” Daisy lined her up between the long green recycled tie-dyed curtain and their first-ever microwave oven and photographed her from every angle.
They had a flat now. The eco-cabin had been let to two starry-eyed newlyweds who wanted to spend a year trialling self-sufficiency before they made the lifestyle irrevocable.
Nelis wondered how long they’d last, but she didn’t say so.
She eyed her reflection. A stranger looked back. Her dress was floor-length and pink, with a sequined bodice. Her dark hair was piled with a few loose curls, and her face was made up with soft pink lipstick and faintly pink shadow.
She looked feminine. She looked grown-up.
A flutter of excitement began in her chest.
Some of the parents had clubbed together to hire a minibus to carry a dozen or so leavers to the dinner and to return them afterwards. Daisy accepted an invitation for Nelis to travel in that. “Be nice for you to go with your friends.”
Nelis gave her mother a quick smile. She didn’t tell Daisy the people in question weren’t her friends. Neither were they her enemies. They were simply the dateless, the unpopular and the odd ones out.
Nelis figured she’d fit right in.
So would Xavier Partridge.
The flutter intensified.
Xavier Partridge, whom no one but teachers ever called anything but Bird Boy, was an exchange student who’d arrived at the beginning of year eleven. In his two years at Diversity High, Xavier had remained an outsider even in that eclectic company. He was geeky, gawky, cheerful and odd. He didn’t fit in any category. He wasn’t a member of any clique, team or group. He talked to anyone, anywhere, about anything. He was heart-stoppingly handsome and treated everyone with the same alert, friendly courtesy.
Nelis wished she had half his disregard for peer opinion.
After Snow defected to the Arctic Circle and her life became more mainstream, she wondered if she might invite Xavier out for pizza or to play chess. She wanted to sate her curiosity. She wanted to see what he’d do.
She never had. Now it was probably too late. School was all over but for the final barbecue, which would be held in the school grounds on New Year’s Eve. After that, she presumed Xavier would return to his place of origin, wherever that was, and she’d never see him again.
The minibus was going to leave from the end of Glebe Point Road. Daisy drove Nelis there and decanted her daughter from her eco-warrior car. “Got your phone?”
“Yes, Mum.” It was brand new. She was still learning how to use it. She was half-ashamed of having one because she’d pretended indifference during the Snow years.
“Okay. Give me a call if you need picking up.”
“I’ll be right.”
“If you decide to make a night of it at a café or a girlfriend’s place, just give me a call.”
Not a chance, unless…
Daisy took a deep breath. “Okay. Have fun.”
Nelis watched her mother drive away. Then she walked over to the minibus, which was decorated with tinsel and fake holly.
She’d been right. The odd, the undatable and unpopular were all present. So were Alyssa Curry and Ryan Besnik, who were none of these things.
Ryan had his driver’s licence and a car, so what was he doing on the Misfits’ Bus?
The question went out of her mind, for Xavier Partridge was perched in a rear seat and looking about with pleased expectation.
He’s like a bloody tourist watching animals in their natural habitat.
She wanted to sit with him. Instead, she sat down three seats in front of him, next to Alyssa Curry. That was foolish, but the bus was almost full.
“Piss off, Pear Tree, Ryan’s sitting here.”
What happened to the plan for him to drive you?
Nelis got up. Miffy’s cousin Melanie Smith settled behind Alyssa. The only other spare seat was next to Xavier Partridge.