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Book extract: Taking Down Evelyn Tait

Books & Poetry

Adelaide author Poppy Nwosu’s new young-adult novel is a story about family, friends and embracing who you are even if that person is kind of weird.

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Taking Down Evelyn Tait, published this week by Wakefield Press, is the second novel by Nwosu, whose debut book, Making Friends with Alice Dyson, was shortlisted for the 2018 Adelaide Festival Unpublished Manuscript Award and the 2019 Readings Young Adult Book Prize.

It centres on an impulsive 16-year-old named Lottie – “heavy-metal fan, expert tomato grower and frequent visitor to the principal’s office” – who comes up with an unlikely plan to take down her enemy, good-girl Evelyn Tait.

This edited extract, from chapter three, is an introduction to Lottie and an immersion in Port Adelaide, which is also the home of Nwosu.

—————

It’s hot. Like, skin stuck to the car seat kind of hot.

My school isn’t far from home, so it only takes about ten minutes for us to wing through the suburbs, cruising along the seafront, heat and salt heavy in the air and the ocean glimmering deep aqua blue on the horizon. Beautiful. I wiggle my toes on the dash and block my dad’s voice out.

A summer afternoon free of classes?

Not so bad.

The car slides onto a wide bridge, long and smooth, stretching over the sparkling river, a factory settled like a nightmare at the water’s edge. I stick my fingers out the window into the sun, hand moving like a sail through the rushing wind as the factory passes by, all red bricks and open gaping windows, glass shattered like wolves’ teeth in deep dark mouths.

Dad’s still talking at me but I steadfastly ignore him as he turns the car into the back streets towards home. The lanes here change to old chipped cobblestone, lined with the jagged stone walls of old warehouses. The buildings are huge and European and peeling paint.

Dad loves that stuff. Cars with no air-conditioners. Buildings with big useless spaces. Anything old and idiotic. It’s his thing.

And I guess our neighbourhood is his thing too, the Port, a little suburb built forever ago, curled around the river. He loves it even though the streets are sometimes spray-painted with swastikas, and the shadowy pubs are filled with old blokes, fleshy cracks visible over their bar stools.

Still, it’s the kind of place that creeps beneath your skin.

We turn the corner near our street, full of empty dilapidated warehouses next to newly built flash apartments, and curl along the cobblestones towards home.

I glance across at Dad. He’s still talking, hammering on and on about me and my future and my stupid choices, and all the appointments he’s missing. I breathe deep, salt and heat. I’d never admit it to him, but maybe I love this place as much as he does, because if you live here long enough you become part of the fabric of it. The big barred basements and old decaying sailing ships. The seagulls wheeling over the river and sunsets that soak the whole world in orange. You can feel the stories crackling beneath the pavement, beneath your feet as you walk over the cobblestones.

This place has history.

It’s perfect.

Or at least it was until my stepmum moved in with us.

And there she is, stomping from the stairwell of our flat in all her glory, hair frizzing and chest heaving. My smelly barely born brother is nestled tight against her chest and I’m pretty sure her blouse has more sick on it than Ms Peters’s.

Dad slides from the sticky car and smiles at them through the beating sun. ‘How’s Leo?’ He’s left the car parked on the sidewalk, which means he’s planning on heading back to work.

My stepmum squints in the bright light of the great out­doors, moving from the dark stairwell through the overgrown communal backyard, a Hills hoist creaking in the hot wind. Since Leo came she’s been stuck inside with him twenty-four seven. It almost makes me feel sorry for her.

Almost.

‘Leo’s fine,’ she answers with a tight smile, gaze flicking across to me. ‘But, Donal, what happened?’

Dad doesn’t get the chance to tell her what happened, because the shared garage door rolls up as a car drives round the corner, halting beside us. The man in the front winds his window down, scowling at me and then stiffly greeting Dad, totally ignoring my stepmum. ‘How’s it going, Donal?’

Dad smiles. ‘Good, good. You, Ed?’

Eddie Carillo glares at me again and I wither away on the sidewalk. Even more so when I peer through the glass into the backseat and notice Jude perched inside the air-conditioned car, freckly frown very pointedly not facing me.

Eddie clears his throat loudly. ‘My son got sent home from school because of your daughter.’ He says this in an extremely provoking way. ‘You need to keep that girl away from him.’

‘Now, now,’ Dad holds his hands out like he’s trying to calm a bear. All fluttery and useless. ‘I’m sure Lottie didn’t—’

‘I don’t care how often he makes moon eyes at her through the window, you hear me? You keep her away from him.’

I blink. Peering through the glass I wrinkle my nose at Jude, who is desperately poking at the back of his dad’s car seat. ‘Daaaaaad,’ he whines.

Moon eyes?

Dad’s still trying to calm the situation, saying stuff like, ‘Can’t we talk about this like adults, Ed?’ in his best counsellor voice, but Ed’s already rolled his window back up and his car is creeping onwards into the dark gaping garage. Soon the roller door has come down again, leaving us outside in the baking heat, the heavy sun on my black t-shirt about to give me a stroke.

Dad glares at me. My stepmum glares at me. Even little smelly Leo sort of glares at me. Dad ushers Celeste into the stairwell we share with the new flash apartment complex next door and fills her in on my glorious morning in the school lab. I wince as the truth is lost in translation. The teeny tiny cut on Evelyn’s hand morphs into something huge and gaping.

‘That’s not exactly how it happened,’ I mutter, but they’re both lost in their own world. I trail behind them into the flat. We’ve lived here forever, one of those warehouses that’s all open spaces and no privacy, a complex built above an Afghan restaurant that always smells of spice and tabouleh. When my parents bought it way back when, no one wanted to live in the Port at all, so it was a cheap crumbling hovel until Dad fixed it up. It’s only recently people act like my family’s rich when I tell them where we live. Like everything else in the Port, it’s complicated. Like two sides of a coin.

Kicking off my thongs at the door I follow the family into our kitchen, glaring at my dad. He’s not telling the story right. And of course my stepmum is gasping, clutching little stinky Leo closer as if I might try to gouge his hand with lab equipment too. I roll my eyes.

Dad leans over and kisses her cheek.

Puke.

He whispers something against her skin, all sweet and soft, like I’m not here, except then he turns to me, frowning. ‘And you, kiddo, you’re with me. In the study, now.’

I nod miserably, dragging my feet to the ‘study’, which is actually just a corner of our flat near the glass doors to the balcony, which has no privacy whatsoever. Stupid open plan living. Dad leans his bum on his huge dark wood desk and motions for me to sit in the stupid velvet armchair opposite. Celeste is close by, clinking away in the background doing whatever it is she does here all day. I clasp my hands in my lap and sit primly, waiting.

‘I’m going to give you some wisdom, kiddo, and you can listen or you can ignore me. It’s up to you.’ He smiles his counsellor smile, the one he uses on the teens who come through his office. Our cat winds her way around my ankles. Black soft fur and sharp claws. Very sharp.

‘Ow!’

‘Come on, Lottie, just try and pay attention for once.’

I’m wounded in more ways than one, and I glare at D’Angelo as she saunters off and then glare at Dad as he smooths his expression back into his calm counsellor face. He shifts his bum on the desk, ruffling a bunch of papers and edging a crusty old coffee cup even closer to the corner of the desk.

Poppy Nwosu with copies of her new book.

‘Lottie, what happened today, it’s got to stop.’

Counselling 101: State the bloody obvious. See how they react.

I sigh, feeling defensive. I don’t like when he tries to use his counselling powers on me. ‘I know that, Dad.’

He raises his eyebrows. ‘Do you?’

‘Yes.’

‘So, let’s go over this again. Was your experience today good or bad?’

‘Bad,’ I mutter.

‘Okay. Why was it bad?’

Counselling 101: Ask the bloody obvious.

I roll my eyes. ‘Obviously because I got suspended. Because I’m sitting here talking to you, which is just … awful. And because …’

I hesitate.

He leans closer. ‘Because …?’

Counselling 101: Cut to the very heart of the problem.

My voice is barely a whisper. ‘Maybe Grace isn’t talking to me anymore.’ The look she gave me at school before I left was pure poison, and she hasn’t answered any of my messages since.

My dad scrunches his face, sour as a lemon. ‘Well, I admit I was hoping you’d say it was because Evelyn actually got hurt this time, Lottie, but okay, let’s go with this instead. Why do you think Grace might not want to talk to you anymore? And how does that make you feel?’

Ugh.

‘It doesn’t make me feel anything. Can we just drop it?’

‘No, we can’t just drop it. Tell me how you feel.’

‘Like shit, Dad.’

‘Don’t swear.’

‘You asked me.’

‘Why do you always have to make things so difficult?’

Counselling 101: Drop the counselling approach and just become a regular angry dad again.

I don’t say anything, just clamp my mouth shut as he leans close and lowers his voice. ‘Look, there’s a line, Lottie, and you are the only person I know who consistently crosses it. Maybe you secretly enjoy being in trouble, I don’t know. Maybe it’s a cry for attention.’ He glances across our open living area towards the stepmum, who’s rolling around with Leo on a mat with a bunch of lego. He’s way too young for lego. I could’ve told her that. Babies love to swallow weird stuff. It’s their favourite thing.

Dad clears his throat and my attention flicks back to his face. ‘I know things haven’t been easy for you, Lottie. There’s been some big changes around here over the last year, I get that, but you’ve got to at least try. If you can’t stop yourself from crossing the line, at least try to be a bit more careful about it, okay?’

I blink at him. ‘Are you saying not to get caught, Dad?’

He blusters. ‘No. No, of course not.’

‘Celeste! Celeste,’ I yell over my shoulder. Both my stepmum and Leo stop rolling around, heads perked up. ‘Celeste! Dad says if I want to break the rules I shouldn’t let myself get caught. Then it’s okay. Do you agree with that philosophy?’

I turn back to Dad, who is attempting to shush me. ‘I don’t think she agrees with your view on things, Dad. Maybe you should’ve discussed your values and fundamental differences before you married her. I mean, you guys are virtually strangers.’

Dad is pissed now. I’m good at that. It’s a skill I have.

‘This isn’t about Celeste. This conversation is between you and me. I’m your father.’

‘Right. And she’s not my mum.’ I cross my arms over my chest, not making eye contact. ‘And she never will be.’ D’Angelo is sniffing at the closed fridge in the kitchen now, looking suspicious.

‘No one’s asking her to be,’ Dad hisses, leaning forward so Celeste can’t hear. I bet he’s wishing his study had a door right about now. ‘Just be civil, Lottie. That’s all I’m asking.’

‘Civil?’ I huff. ‘Like how you gave me two minutes notice that an entirely new family was moving into our house? Was that civil?’

Dad takes deep breaths, and suddenly his counselling expression, kind and understanding with a hint of fun, is plastered sickeningly across his face. ‘That’s not what we’re talking about right now, Lottie. This conversation is about you and what you did at school today. Okay?’

‘Yeah. Sure. Whatever.’

‘Did you wear that t-shirt to school?’

I glance at my band shirt. The bloody face stares right back at me. I blink. ‘Yeah. So?’

His eyes flutter closed. ‘But under your uniform, right? Where no one can see it. We’ve talked about this.’

I nod enthusiastically. ‘Yeah, of course. Under my uniform. No one saw it.’

‘Good.’

‘Except old Jerry, of course.’

‘Old … who? The principal? Mr Virk? Lottie!’

I shrug. ‘It’s not a big deal. It’s just a t-shirt. Besides, you’re the one who said I should find something I’m passionate about and pursue it. So I did.’

‘I didn’t mean this.’

I frown. He hates my music, and last week I overheard him assuring the stepmum that it’s just a phase, something I’ll grow out of. Except I don’t want to grow out of the things I like. Or the way I am.

It seems unfair that everyone expects me to.

‘What about Leo?’ Dad continues. ‘He’s growing up in this house too. There’s too much death and noise.’

I flinch, wounded. ‘Noise?’

I hate when people say that. Dad’s never said it before. He must have heard it from Celeste. ‘I suppose Evelyn would never listen to noise,’ I mutter.

He pauses, running his hands through what remains of his greying hair. Another sigh.

Counselling 101: Don’t let the patient dictate the conversation.

Dad changes tack. ‘Lottie, where do you want to be in five years?’

I shrug. ‘I’m only sixteen. I don’t know.’

‘Evelyn knows.’

I roll my eyes so hard I swear they turn back in my skull. Roll them so hard I’m looking back at the kitchen again. D’Angelo is still acting suspicious at the base of the fridge, turning in circles, big fluffy tail raised to the roof. I don’t say anything, even though I can see what’s happening.

‘Lottie. Lottie!’ Dad actually snaps his fingers at me. Like I’m a dog.

I glare at him.

‘Evelyn already knows exactly what she’s going to study at university,’ he says. ‘And you, you haven’t spared a single thought for the future.’

My blood boils and I bite my lip. Hard. ‘Evelyn’s a complete moron, Dad. No one likes her!’ Not strictly true, of course. But thinking of Grace and that goofy smile aimed directly at my mortal enemy makes me want to puke. Again. ‘She’s awful.’

He wants me to be more like Evelyn? Is he serious?

Counselling 101: Never, ever, ever compare your patient to their worst enemy.

Ever.

I get up and stalk to my room, slamming the door behind me so hard the walls shake. I throw myself onto my little single bed, not upgraded since I was ten, and the iron bedhead rattles against the windowsill, metal on wood, old paint chipping.

Be more like Evelyn.

I bet they’d all like that.

Grace.

My dad.

Celeste.

I roll over and violently kick my blankets so they fly to the floor. I’m filled with fury, my blood singing with it. Pissed. I flick my music on, a flurry of frantic guitar notes and tight staccato drum beats exploding across the room, a thick screaming voice, heavy and low. It fills me up. Fills every empty space with sound and rhythm and music. Dad pounds on the door and tells me to turn it down.

I ignore him.

She’s such a faker. She’s got everyone fooled.

My dad. Our teachers.

Even Grace.

Be more like Evelyn, Dad says.

Sure, they’d all like that.

Every single one of them.

I stop. Pause. And slowly my mouth tugs into a grin.

Except Evelyn.

—————

Taking Down Evelyn Tait, by Poppy Nwosu, is published by Wakefield Press and available now.

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