"A winsome read, especially for readers who are open to the plot intricacies of time travel." —Booklist on Cicada Summer
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- Age Range:
- 12 Years
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Winter of Grace
By Kate Constable
Allen & UnwinCopyright © 2009 Kate Constable
All rights reserved.
THE BUS WAS packed, but more and more people kept piling on: mothers with strollers, old people in cardigans, dads with babies strapped to their chests, women in suits, boys in caps. The atmosphere was buzzing.
'It must have been like this in World War II.' I had to twist sideways to yell into Stella's ear. 'When the pilots went off on their bombing raids. All in it together, with a mission, with a purpose.'
Stella rolled her eyes. 'Yeah, Bridie, except this is a peace rally. We're trying to stop soldiers going on bombing raids? That's the whole point?'
'Oh, yeah. Bad example.' I flushed; no one could make me feel like an idiot quicker than Stella. But then she grinned and squeezed my arm, and I remembered that no one else could cheer me up as fast, either.
'This is going to be so good!' She shook her silvery hair off her face, and her pale blue eyes shone with excitement. It nearly made me choke up, I missed her so much.
Stella and I have been best friends since Year 7, but at the end of last year her parents decided to send her to St Margaret's for Year 11 and 12. St Margaret's is a private Catholic school.
Stella's family are kind of Catholic; at least, Nana Kincaid is. Stella's dad, Paul, stopped going to church years ago but he must still be slightly Catholic deep down, because he does loads of volunteer work for church charities and, according to Stella, he thought St Margaret's would 'expose her to some moral structure'. Mish, Stella's mum, was never Catholic. She isn't anything, like me and Mum. But she said St Marg's was a good school and it wouldn't do Stella any harm – not in two years, anyway.
Stella didn't agree. She'd decided to hate it.
'Is anyone from your school coming?' I asked her.
Stella rolled her eyes again. 'Are you kidding? They never do anything political. I had to tell them who the Dalai Lama was. Do you know what they've started calling me? PMK. Prime Minister Kincaid. Seriously.' Stella snorted, but I could see she was proud of it.
I twisted back and gazed out of the bus window at the bright winter day, at the cars and shops and hurrying crowds. It wasn't surprising that Stella had already established herself at her new school after only a term and a half. Mish always says she is a forceful personality. And I was glad – for her – that she'd settled in so fast. But all year I'd been wandering round our old school, feeling as if I'd had a limb amputated. We still saw each other, because she lived just down the road, but it wasn't the same.
Stella must have guessed what I was thinking, because she nudged me with her elbow and said, 'St Marg's is full of giggling morons. All they ever talk about is clothes and lipstick; they don't care about anything important. There's no one there like you.'
That was the great thing about Stella; she always knew how to make me feel special, singled out in the spotlight of her attention. Without her, I felt as if no one noticed me. Even Mum was always too busy with work now to have much time for me.
But then Stella added, 'Plus they're all girls, obviously.' Another eye roll. 'Bor-ing.'
I suspected that one reason Paul and Mish wanted Stella to switch schools was so that she wouldn't be distracted by boys. As if that was going to work. 'So who do you hang out with?'
'Oh, no one much,' said Stella vaguely, as the bus lurched forward. 'This girl Clare – Maria Tommaso – no one, really.'
She said no one, but I knew Stella would never be without friends. I imagined her at lunchtime, lecturing the giggling morons on global politics, shaking her hair back and rolling her eyes at them. Not that I was completely friendless myself – I mean, I wasn't a total loser or anything. But Stella and I had done everything together, and now she was gone. Everyone else was still in their same groups, and I drifted around from one gang to another. I always had someone to sit with, someone to talk to. But it wasn't the same.
By now the bus was so crammed we could hardly breathe, and it crawled through the city at a snail's pace. When the driver opened the doors, we all spilled out onto the road, surging onto the footpath, swept up into the massive crowd that was flooding into the centre of the city. Almost at once I lost Stella in the push and shove of bodies, and I panicked until she reappeared beside me, breathless and beaming. 'Wow!' she yelled. 'This is amazing!'
The streets were choked with people, a river of marchers flowing into the sea of people gathered in the park. It was a swelling ocean of peaceful protesters, the biggest crowd I'd ever seen. A guy beside us with swinging dreadlocks yelled into his phone, 'Two hundred thousand! I said, two hundred thousand!'
Stella and I grinned at each other. That was two full MCGs, a double Grand Final, and we were part of it! We linked arms and plunged into the throng, chanting at the tops of our voices.
One two three four, we don't want another war! Five six seven eight, stop the killing, stop the hate!
A group behind us tried to start a chorus of 'All we are saying, is give peace a chance,' but they couldn't compete with our mighty one-two-three-four. We stamped and chanted and whooped and cheered – a surging tide of people. Banners waved and placards bobbed all around us, all kinds of groups and clubs and communities, some I'd never even heard of: Rotarians and socialists, greenies and church groups, Asian students and Italian soccer clubs, Muslims for Peace, West Hill Buddhists, Jews Against War, Uniting Church Says No More Missiles, Quaker Prayer for Peace Vigil. People from every suburb and all over the state were jumbled together to make a massive peace-beast that roared and swelled along the city streets.
We were mightier than politicians and dictators, mightier than an army, and Stella and I were part of it, lifted up and buoyed along, joyous and powerful, all of us united. We'd taken over the streets, forced out the traffic. For the next few hours, we owned the road. It felt like we owned the whole world.
And people looked at each other, really looked each other in the eye and smiled. I'd never realised how rare that is. Usually in crowds, I kept my head down; I didn't look at people properly. They were just anonymous bodies blocking my path, and I guess I was the same to them.
But today was different. We were all shouting together, all swept up in the same huge emotion, the same huge purpose. Stella and I chanted till our throats were raw, but our voices were lost, drowned in the communal roar. It was awesome.
That was the best part. After we reached the park, the marching and the chanting ground to a halt, and we all stood round and fidgeted, waiting for something else to happen. The speeches began, but we couldn't hear. There was a muffled sound of passionate voices, and whines from the microphones, and then wild cheers – obviously some people could hear all right – but Stella and I couldn't.
'This is pointless,' said Stella. 'Let's go.'
'We can't go!'
'Sure we can. There're two hundred thousand people here, think anyone's going to notice if we leave?'
I hesitated. Even if no one was watching, it still felt wrong to sneak away. But Stella was restless, so we squeezed through the crowd, sorry, excuse me, for what seemed like hours, until at last we popped out at the edge of the rally, right up at the top of the hill.
'Wow,' said Stella again, gazing down at the clogged park and the streets with as much satisfaction as if she'd conjured up the whole teeming crowd herself. 'There's no way they can ignore this —' 'Ssh! Is that Zita Mariposa?'
The acoustics were heaps better now we were out of the crush, and Zita Mariposa's ethereal voice, fine and strong as a silver wire, soared up from the park.
'I love this song,' breathed Stella, and I blinked away tears. There was a heavy, wonderful ache in my heart. Suddenly everything seemed so pure and so clear: the beauty of the music, the power of ordinary people who cared about the world. Nothing was impossible, there didn't have to be wars, or hatred, or destruction; the world could be saved. It was so simple, so clear; all the answers were right here, within our grasp.
Stella grabbed my arm. 'What's going on there?'
There was a shout, footsteps pounded. I swung round and saw a blur of movement on the other side of the road. Three guys were racing along the footpath. One of them yelled, 'Get him!'
Further down the street a young guy with his arms up round his head was stumbling along like a wounded animal. They were gaining on him. One of the pursuers grabbed for his jacket, he tore himself free for a second – then he was down. In an instant they were on him, baying like a pack of wolves. He disappeared into a flurry of punching piston elbows and kicking boots.
Stella screamed, 'Stop that, you pigs!' and before I knew what was happening, she was sprinting across the road. She'd wrenched her phone from her pocket and she brandished it like a weapon. 'I'm filming you!' she shouted. 'You're going on YouTube!'
Feeling sick, I took off after her. A minute ago there had been police everywhere, now there wasn't a single uniform in sight. I shouted, 'Help! Help!', shrugged off my backpack and swung it by its straps in what I hoped was a threatening manner. It was just instinct. For all we knew, the young guy could have been a mugger and we were barging in on a citizens' arrest. And if he wasn't – they were three big burly thugs. We were two sixteen-year-old girls. What were we going to do, poke them in the stomach with Stella's mobile phone?
All this flashed through my head in the half-second it took to cross the road. One of the guys looked round when he heard Stella screaming, and luckily for us, he grabbed his mates and they all took off down a laneway as if tigers were after them.
Which left me and Stella. And a half-dead guy lying on the footpath.
* * *
THE ATTACKERS HAD already vanished round a corner, but Stella shrieked after them, 'I've got you on video, suckers!' She took a deeper breath. 'My dad's a policeman!'
'Stella!' Paul isn't a policeman; he works for an insurance company.
The poor boy was curled on the ground like a dead slater. I dropped down beside him and said stupidly, 'Are you okay?'
Clearly he was a long way from okay; but he moaned and stirred and unscrunched himself. I put my arm under him and helped him sit up.
'Oh my God,' I said. They must have kicked him in the eye, because blood was pouring down his face and his eye was completely swollen.
Stella knelt beside us. 'There must be St John's Ambulance people somewhere; they're always at big events.'
I stared around frantically but I couldn't see anyone useful, no first aid people and still no police. A couple of people stared at us as they walked past, but no one stopped to help, and most people pretended they couldn't see us. So much for all that global love and understanding.
'I'm fine,' said the boy faintly.
'No, you're not,' said Stella. She looked at me. 'Have you got anything to put on his eye?'
'Um ...' I fished around helplessly in my backpack and then I remembered I had a couple of emergency sanitary pads. Could anything be more embarrassing? But this was definitely an emergency. Besides, what was worse, bleeding to death or holding a pad to your face?
'Here ...' I hoped that in his dazed state he wouldn't notice what I'd handed him, and he didn't seem to. He pressed the pad to his eye and winced. But Stella noticed.
'Is that all you've got?' she hissed.
I grimaced at her. 'It's sterile and it soaks up blood. It's perfect.' In fact I could dimly remember a first-aid class at school where they'd told us exactly this; of course everyone had groaned eew, but who knew it would actually be useful in real life?
'We'll have to take him to hospital,' said Stella. 'It's only a few blocks. Can you walk?' she asked the boy. He was about our age, with a mop of thick tawny hair, and a dusting of freckles. The non-swollen eye seemed to be green-gold, presumably they both were. It was hard to tell, what with all the blood and scrapes and swelling bruises, but I thought he might be quite good-looking.
'I think I can,' he said, like the little engine, and obediently unfolded himself from the footpath, revealing himself to be about seven feet tall – well, pretty tall, anyway, in that gangly teenage boy way. Stella and I rushed to wedge ourselves under his armpits to stop him toppling over again.
'It's not far,' said Stella encouragingly.
'Okay,' the boy said faintly, and we began to half-lead, half-carry him along the street toward the hospital. He was heavy.
'What's your name?' panted Stella.
He had to think about it. 'Jay – Jay Ridley.' His voice was wobbly.
'I'm Stella Kincaid and this is Bridie Vandenberg.'
'Hi.' After a minute he added, 'Thanks.'
I said, 'Is there anyone you want to call?'
There was a long pause, then he said, 'My brother, Elliot ... He's at uni.'
'Wait ... till we get ... to the hospital,' panted Stella.
We didn't talk any more after that. Jay pressed the pad to his face but the blood still seeped out between his fingers, and every time his foot struck the footpath he let out a faint involuntary groan.
'We should have called an ambulance,' I said across Jay's back to Stella. 'We shouldn't have moved him. What if he's got internal injuries?'
'Who are you, Nurse Nancy?' growled Stella, so I knew she was worried too.
"S okay,' panted Jay valiantly. 'Nearly there.'
We managed to stagger along the last few hundred metres and as soon as we got inside the emergency department I'm ashamed to say we pretty much dropped him on the floor, he was just so heavy. Any further and I reckon one of us would have had a heart attack, not to mention a broken back.
Stella took charge, as usual. She was fabulous. As soon as she'd caught her breath, she left me to guide Jay to a seat while she marched up and demanded immediate attention. The nurse on duty was a bit dismissive at first; they must get guys in there all the time, hurt in fights. But Stella insisted that he was an innocent bashing victim who needed urgent help, and surprisingly quickly they whisked him away and left us in the waiting room, unsure what to do next.
'We didn't call his brother,' said Stella.
'They'll probably do that, and we don't know his number,' I said. 'Maybe we should go.'
'We can't just go.' Stella echoed my words from half an hour before. 'Jay might want to say thanks. Anyway,' she thought of a much better reason, 'we're witnesses. The police will want to talk to us.'
'Oh, yeah, you're right.' We sat down in the waiting room, pleased to have a legitimate reason to hang around. I didn't get caught up in a real-life drama like this one every day, and I did genuinely want to see if Jay was all right. Stella – Stella just wanted Jay. I'd known her long enough to recognise the signs, and though she'd only just met him, it was clear she'd already developed a major crush. Who knows, if Stella hadn't got in first, I might have felt the same. It's pretty romantic to actually save a guy's life.
'Jay might feel weird about all this,' I warned Stella before she got too dreamy-eyed. 'Men have a lot of pride, you know. He might be embarrassed about being rescued by a girl.'
'Two girls,' said Stella.
'I didn't do anything. You're the one who scared them off.'
'You stuck his eyeball back in with a pad,' said Stella seriously, and this sent us both into a fit of giggles.
A nurse bustled out and gave us a disapproving look, which made us giggle even harder. 'You can see your friend now,' she said, and led us through the double doors and into a ward lined with beds with curtains round them. There was a strong smell of disinfectant.
Jay was sitting up in one of the beds with a huge bandage over his eye and round half his head, like an exaggerated cartoon victim. The sight of him did nothing to quench our giggles. But when he saw us, a happy, relieved smile spread over his face, and he reached out his hand. And funnily enough, that was what sobered us up; he was so glad we were there, it almost made me cry.
Excerpted from Winter of Grace by Kate Constable. Copyright © 2009 Kate Constable. Excerpted by permission of Allen & Unwin.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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