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By Lili Wilkinson
Allen & UnwinCopyright © 2015 Lili Wilkinson
All rights reserved.
You want to save the world? Here's a piece of advice for you. Don't try to do it dressed as a giant lobster.
The shopping centre was packed – full of people mindlessly wheeling groaning trolleys of useless junk and processed food. Nobody had time to stop and listen to my spiel about the plight of the Margaret River Hairy Marron. They didn't even take a fact sheet or sign my petition. In fact, the only people who spoke to me were the ones who thought I was spruiking the new seafood place that had opened up next to the deli. People just didn't care. I bet they wouldn't be so concerned about the two-packets-of-Tim-Tams-for-the-price-of-one deal once the polar ice-caps melted and we all died. Then they might listen to what I had to say about the importance of biodiversity, and the conservation of endangered species.
Admittedly, my Margaret River Hairy Marron costume did look a lot like a lobster.
Okay, it was a lobster costume. The costume-hire place didn't have any marron costumes. So although the Margaret River Hairy Marron is brown with blueish-black claws, I was in a bright-red lobster suit, with a massive headdress thing with curly red antennae and one enormous red foam claw (I left the other one at home – I needed one normal hand to hold my fact sheets and clipboard). I'd also added red face-paint so the whole outfit would hang together. And also because I didn't want anyone to recognise me.
If I was a more shallow, uncaring human being, I'd be hanging out with my friends right now. They were probably at Valentine's only decent café, sipping single-origin lattes and planning their day. They'd probably go into the city later for lunch. Do a little shopping. Maybe see a movie.
Not me. I was too busy saving the world.
I shifted from one foot to the other. The shopping centre PA was piping out an endless stream of tinny pop music, and I felt like my eardrums were being rubbed against a cheese grater. Christmas decorations were already up, even though it was only October. Got to get in early for the planet's most appalling display of mindless consumerism.
An angry-looking woman sailed past, barking into a diamante-encrusted phone. She was wearing Italian designer sunglasses and carrying some kind of dead-animal-skin handbag that would have cost a fortune, and used a tonne of energy to get shipped over here. There was a bottle of French water poking out of the handbag. I didn't even bother offering her a fact sheet.
A guy pushing an enormous stack of supermarket trolleys blocked my view. He was like a glacier*, slow but implacable. The guy was cute in a scruffy, Asian way, with skinny jeans, black hoodie, earbuds and angular haircut. I was pretty sure he went to my school – one of those lame stoners who was always in detention or skulking up the back of the classroom.
I watched with dawning horror as, like a car crash in slow motion, the stack of trolleys drifted towards an old lady with a walker. The cute guy didn't notice, too busy off in his own world of whatever rubbish music he listened to. I nearly called out, until I noticed that the old lady was the one who'd pretended to be deaf when I'd tried to talk to her about the top ten endangered species list. She noticed just in time, and scurried out of the way with surprising lightness of foot. The guy didn't stop to apologise or anything, he just scowled and kept pushing.
'Excuse me?' It was a harassed-looking man with two toddlers in tow.
I turned to him with a beaming smile.
'Are you handing out samples? The boys love prawns.'
'It's not a prawn costume, it's a lob —' I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. 'A critically endangered Hairy Marron.'
The man looked confused, and dragged his kids off towards the supermarket.
* * *
I lasted another forty minutes or so, with no success. I was thirsty, hot, itchy from the lobster suit, and I needed to pee. One of the perks of being a registered volunteer is that I get to use the shopping centre's break room, so I dragged myself down the poky little corridor to the staff toilets, and struggled through a ridiculous dance in a tiny cubicle to squeeze out of the lobster costume so I could pee. The suit was damp and sweaty, and I kicked myself for not bringing along a change of clothes. It was also starting to smell pretty ripe, and I tried not to think about the fact that it had come from a hire company, and that in all likelihood, plenty of other people had sweated inside it before me. Ugh. I pulled it back on with a shudder.
Shopping Trolley Guy was in the break room, his feet up on the table, reading a comic book. He didn't look up when I shuffled in.
I fumbled with the giant foam lobster claw, and eventually pulled it off and dumped it on the table. I then dug through the dirty dishes in the sink to find a glass.
'Gross,' I muttered. Nearly everything in the sink was covered in brown coffee sludge.
'Why don't you just use the water cooler?' the guy asked. 'It has disposable cups.'
'Do you know how many resources are used to make a plastic cup?' I asked. 'Those things aren't recyclable, and take up to a thousand years to biodegrade.'
The guy blinked, and turned back to his comic. I found the least-scungy glass and rinsed it clean before filling it with tap water and downing it in one gulp. I filled my glass again and did some sneaky checking-out of Shopping Trolley Guy. He had lovely dark brown eyes and just the faintest smattering of freckles across his nose, barely visible against his olive skin. He chewed thoughtfully on his lower lip as he slowly turned the pages of his comic.
'What's with the lobster outfit?' he asked at last, still not really looking up. 'Do you work for the new fish-and-chip place on the corner?'
I groaned inwardly, and explained to him about the Margaret River Hairy Marron. He raised an eyebrow.
'Doesn't seem like the best creature for raising awareness, does it?' he said, laying the book on the table.
'I mean, it's not cuddly, or genetically interesting, or rare. The only thing most people know about marron is that it tastes awesome drizzled with lemon and dipped in tartare sauce.'
'That's the problem with conservation awareness programs,' I said. 'They only ever talk about the cute, cuddly endangered animals. The media is only interested in the ones that make good news stories. Just because the Hairy Marron isn't cute doesn't mean it's not important.'
'And that's why you chose it. Because you feel nobody is telling the Hairy Marron's story.'
'And you're dressed as a lobster to get people's attention.'
'Is it working?'
I sighed. 'No. Everyone keeps asking me for free samples.'
Shopping Trolley Guy chuckled, and turned back to his comic.
'What are you reading?' I asked.
The guy held up his comic so I could see the cover, without taking his eyes off the page.
'Blue Beetle,' I read. 'Is it good?'
'Amazing.' He put the comic down and narrowed his eyes at me. 'So why the environment?'
'What do you mean?'
'Why not starving children in Africa, or marriage equality, or equal opportunities for Indigenous Australians? Why is the environment your thing?'
Kind of a dumb question. 'Because nothing else matters if we don't have a planet,' I said. 'If we don't fix our overconsumption of fossil fuels and fresh water, we'll all die. And not just humans – every living thing on the planet will die. I don't want to be responsible for that kind of omnicide.'
'Like genocide, except it's for everything.'
Shopping Trolley Guy nodded slowly. 'Fair enough. So you've taken on saving the planet as a personal crusade.'
'It's my responsibility as a human being. It's the responsibility of every single human being. But not everyone is willing to step up.'
'Hmm.' Shopping Trolley Guy looked uncomfortable. 'I'm not sure that's fair. I mean, there are plenty of people out there who don't have the time or resources or education or skills to be able to hand out flyers at shopping centres, or buy Priuses and recycled toilet paper.'
I shrugged. 'There are plenty of people out there who could do those things. But they don't.'
'Have you considered doing the awareness-raising without the lobster costume? At least then people wouldn't think you were promoting the Hairy Marron as a delicious and healthy snack.'
'Yeah,' I said. 'Tried that. Didn't work.'
I'd spent two weekends wearing normal clothes and handing out fact sheets. The results had been dismal.
'So why do you think it's not working? Your crusade?'
My answer was only one word. 'Valentine.'
Shopping Trolley Guy rolled his eyes and nodded. 'Valentine,' he said, his mouth puckering as if he'd eaten something disgusting.
The problem with living in Valentine, was everything. Valentine was one of those in-between suburbs. It wasn't old enough to be urban and interesting and full of artsy people wanting to reinvent it. And it wasn't new enough to have had actual town planning with parks and wetlands and curvy streets lined with native trees. It was an ugly grey expanse of concrete, too far from the city to be convenient, and too far from the country to be pretty. The houses were all built in the sixties and seventies from asbestos, fibro and concrete. Most of the local shops had closed down after the big shopping mall opened – an enormous box filled with multinational brands and soul-sucking fluorescent lights.
It was awful. Living in Valentine was like living in a bleak dystopian wasteland. The most colourful thing was the signs outside fast-food restaurants. The only greenery in the entire suburb was the football oval. Everything else was grey and dry and dusty. Our local council had distinguished itself by managing to achieve nothing in ten years other than embezzling a truckload of public funds, and had recently been impeached. So despite my endless petitions and letters, we had no bike paths, no electronic waste recycling scheme, no community gardens and no sustainability awareness programs. I'd heard rumours that our new mayor was more proactive, but I wasn't holding out any hope.
'It seems like nothing I do gets through,' I said. 'I'm so tired of shouting when nobody seems to listen. People don't want to hear what I have to say, because then they'll have to acknowledge that there's all this stuff going on outside their tiny little universes.'
'I know what you mean,' Shopping Trolley Guy said, leaning forward in his chair. 'It's like the world is designed for these plastic Lego people, going about their plastic boring lives – wake up, go to work, slave at a desk all day making money for some evil corporation, come home, eat something out of a plastic package that's full of fake colours and numbers, and then turn into a zombie watching whichever dumb reality TV show is hot right now. And if you're interested in living and seeing things differently, then you don't fit anywhere. You can't exist.'
I nodded. 'Nobody ever wants to go outside anymore, or imagine different ways of being,' I said. 'Nobody wants to believe there's something more important than who wins the latest football game or singing competition.'
Shopping Trolley Guy held my gaze for a moment too long. I felt my cheeks flush. Lucky they were already covered in red face-paint, so he'd never know. There was fierceness in his eyes, and a joy at recognising a kindred soul. A soft smile spread across his face.
'It's cool that you understand,' he said. 'Nobody understands. Certainly nobody at school, anyway.'
I felt the blush drain away. School. Shopping Trolley Guy seemed nice, and was very cute in a brooding, scruffy way, but we were not in the same league at school. Not even close.
'School doesn't get people like us,' he went on. 'School is designed for the Missolinis.'
'The what now?'
'The Missolinis. You know, those alpha popular girls at school who think they're better than everyone else.'
'Like, Benito Mussolini? Italian fascist dictator? Same like those girls. They decide who's popular, and what music we're supposed to listen to, and what stupid shit we should be caring about this week.'
I didn't say anything.
'I know it's lame,' said Shopping Trolley Guy. 'And I know school doesn't really work the way it does on TV – with the jocks and the stoners and the populars all in their separate cliquey ghettos. People are more interesting and complicated than that. But school is designed for a certain kind of person. Someone who wants to be part of the system. Get good marks and get into a good university. Join clubs and societies and go on dates and pass notes and giggle all the freaking time. And there's a certain kind of teenage girl who slides into that mould. School is designed for her, not for me. You know?'
I did know, but before I could figure out how to respond, a skinny weasel-faced man wearing a supermarket uniform stuck his head around the door. 'Are you planning on joining us any time soon?' he said to Shopping Trolley Guy, who scowled and rolled his eyes at me.
'Coming,' he muttered, slipping the comic into his back pocket. He got up and hunched his shoulders, sending a resentful look in the direction of Weaselface. Then he turned back to me and his face changed, the scowl replaced with a hopeful smile. 'Maybe I'll see you here next week?'
I knew I should probably have told him that I, Astrid Katy Smythe, was a Missolini. But he was nice, and funny, and talking to him had been the high point of what had otherwise been a decidedly average day. So instead I smiled.
'Maybe,' I said.
It wasn't until he'd left that I realised I should have asked him to sign my petition.CHAPTER 2
Paige and Dev sailed into form assembly on Monday with their usual bubbly panache.
'You will not believe what happened yesterday morning,' said Dev, as Paige slid me a take-away coffee.
I stared at the shiny paper cup. 'What is this?' I said.
Paige shrugged. 'Non-fat single-origin organic soy latte?'
I tapped the plastic lid on the cup. 'Where's my keep-cup?'
Paige lived near the only decent café in Valentine, so she picked up the coffee every morning. I had bought her three ceramic keep-cups, and a little holder-tray thing so she could easily carry them to school.
'Oh,' Paige shrugged. 'Sorry. I didn't get around to washing them last night. I thought just once wouldn't matter.'
I shook my head in mock (well, mostly mock) disappointment. Of course I wasn't truly mad at her. If I was actually telling Paige off, the other students of Valentine would probably have me flayed alive.
'The cups are made from recycled paper,' said Paige, as if that made everything okay.
I couldn't help myself. 'Sure,' I said. 'But the paper is now plastic-coated, so it can't be recycled again.' As I said it, I had a flashback to the break room at the shopping centre and Shopping Trolley Guy asking why I wasn't drinking from the water cooler. The thought of those dark, intelligent eyes sent a thrill through me. Was I going crazy? Grungy emo stoner was so not my type.
'Sorry,' said Paige again, but I was too busy thinking about Shopping Trolley Guy to reply.
'Anyway,' said Dev pointedly. 'Yesterday morning.'
'Right,' I said. 'Yesterday morning. What happened?'
'I met him,' said Dev. 'The One.'
Paige let her head thump down on her desk. 'Snore,' she said. 'You meet The One at least once a week.'
Dev shook his head. 'This is different. I'm in love.'
Paige was right. Dev was obsessed with meeting The One. He'd seen way too many romantic comedies, and had totally deluded ideas about how relationships were supposed to work. The stupid thing was, he never dated anyone. I mean, our school wasn't exactly overflowing with eligible gay guys, but the handful that we did have would have done anything to be seen on Dev's arm. He had slightly curling black hair and rich dark skin and enormous brown eyes. Guys at our school had been known to come out just so they could ask him on a date. But Dev swore he'd never date anyone from Valentine, so instead he kept falling in love with random unattainable guys he met in the city. Last time it was a barista in a laneway café.
Well?' I asked. 'Who is it this time? A busker? A librarian?'
Dev bit his lip. 'It's my new music teacher,' he said in a soft voice. 'He's amazing.'
Dev was a ridiculously talented singer, and he also played the flute, guitar, piano, harpsichord and violin.
Paige lifted her head from her desk. 'Are you serious? That doesn't sound good.'
'Why not?' Dev tossed his head. 'You're dating your aikido instructor.'
'That's totally different! We didn't get together until my black belt graduation party, so he isn't technically my sensei anymore.'
'How old is this music teacher?' I asked.
Dev shrugged delicately. 'Twenty-something.'
Paige narrowed her eyes. 'Twenty-something as in twenty-one? Or twenty-something as in nearly thirty?'
'Does it matter?' Dev had a dreamy, faraway look that spelled trouble. 'His name is Sanasar and he lives in the city in this amazing warehouse apartment.'
'Um,' said Paige. 'How do you know where he lives?'
Dev chose not to answer her. 'He's Armenian and plays eleven different instruments. He has the most delicate hands. Our babies will be so beautiful.'
'You know you can't have babies with a guy, right?' said Paige. 'You're missing some requisite parts.'
Excerpted from Green Valentine by Lili Wilkinson. Copyright © 2015 Lili Wilkinson. 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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