Road Tripping with Pearl Nash is the third romantic contemporary novel by Nwosu, following on from Making Friends with Alice Dyson (the draft of which was shortlisted for the Adelaide Festival Unpublished Manuscript Award) and last year’s Taking Down Evelyn Tait

The extract below is from the first chapter of the new novel, which is described as a story about home and family, about breaking apart and fusing together, and, of course, about love”.

Myrtle Wattle

‘You can’t leave me here, Nash!’

I certainly can. But I admit I’m wavering. It’s the puppy-dog eyes. And the rain, probably. I don’t know how I’m meant to stay defensive against all that wet skin and those shivers.

I suspect he’s playing me, though. He’s good at that kind of stuff. It’s summer, for starters. It’s not even cold.

‘It’s a petrol station,’ he breathes, eyes widening like this should mean something to me, other than, yeah. I am parked outside a petrol station. I had in fact noticed that already.

His palms press flat against the half-rolled-up front window of my Bedford van, wet fingers curled through the gap. As if he’ll slide his whole body through the second I unwind it any further.

I glare. ‘Call someone else.’

We don’t like each other. Never have. It’s our whole thing.

Who else?’ He gestures with one shivering hand behind him, looking traumatised.

Flat scrubby landscape and one rundown petrol station with a concrete toilet block. The sky is black with pulsing clouds, heavy and low against the flat stretching highway and shingled earth. Twisted, stunted trees in all directions.

Middle-of-nowhere shit.

I sigh.

‘It’s a petrol station, Nash.’ He says it again. Irritation creeps into his voice.

‘So what?’ I snap.

‘So what? So what? ’ Obi takes a really deep breath. ‘So, every single outback horror movie ever made features a murder scene at a deserted petrol station. I am a young black male, Nash. What do you think happens to the young black male character in horror movies?’

I don’t answer.

‘Do you want me to tell you?’

‘No.’

‘They die, Nash. They always die. It’s literally a death sentence if you leave me here!’

‘I feel like you’re exaggerating—’

‘I’m not exaggerating. Look at me, does this seem like the face of an exaggerator?’ He shoves his nose real close to the narrow gap at the top of my window. Brown eyes, buzz-cut. He’s got bad skin across his cheeks and water dripping from his lashes.

And he’s got puppy-dog eyes.

‘Do you want me to die, Nash?’

I bristle. ‘You won’t die. A bus will come through soon.’

‘I’ll die, Nash.’

He keeps staring through the gap, rain-slicked fingers tapping on the glass, his whole body vibrating as he makes soft, sad sounds, like that’s going to change my mind.

The puppy-dog eyes turn into kitten eyes.

Turn into baby-seal eyes.

I can’t resist baby seals.

Finally, I let out a defeated grunt.

‘Alright,’ I snap.

Obi’s mouth curls into a wide, sudden grin. Dimples appear in his cheeks. Both sides.

I scowl. Mr Charming turned on like the flick of a light switch. Dimples like that are magic. They even make everyone forget the acne scarring on his cheeks.

Obi sure knows how to work it, and that only annoys me more.

A moment of silence passes as I attempt to control my temper. He shifts from foot to foot, sneakers crunching on the wet gravel outside like nails on a chalkboard. Finally he snaps, ‘Are you going to let me in or what?’

So much for trying to charm me.

I raise my brows at him from the driver’s seat, elbow on my knee and hand across my mouth.

‘It’s not locked,’ I inform him curtly.

He tries the handle of the sliding door at the side of the Bedford. ‘Huh. So … it was always unlocked? You didn’t lock me out?’

Things were definitely not meant to go like this.

Daisy was meant to be here, sitting in the passenger seat of my rundown Bedford, engine roaring, feet on the dash, her hair flying in the wind.

Instead I’m stuck with this idiot. In the middle of nowhere.

It becomes clear I’m not planning to answer him, so Obi just shrugs, the lightbulb grin back on. Like the sun shining through rain clouds. Magic dimples and all.

I roll my eyes. That shit doesn’t work on me.

Obi shoves two heavy bags into the back, and I don’t love how they shower wet grit across the thin mattress laid out in the body of the van. Rainwater leaks from the canvas and soaks into the foam.

I scowl at him. ‘Can you clean that first or something? This is my car, Obiara.’ I stuff up the pronunciation of his full name, I know I do. Not on purpose though. ‘It isn’t some piece of junk!’

Not strictly true. The van is an utter piece of junk, inherited from my grandpa, a man obsessed with old junk.

He glares back at me. ‘Oh-byo-rah,’ he corrects, sounding it out.

I curse Daisy again beneath my breath as I curl around in the driver’s seat, on my knees now as I grab a towel from the van floor and shove it beneath his stupid bags. We almost knock heads as I get up and remove him from my vicinity with a hand to his sopping wet shoulder.

A jagged flash of lightning flickers across the sky, the heavy clouds almost purple now. In the distance, a sheet of water approaches across the desert, a visible wall of rain.

‘Um … Nash, can I like, get in now?’

‘I already said you could, didn’t I?’

Obi flashes another of his dimpled grins, almost blinding me. It appears forced though, like he’s trying to play nice for the sake of his ride. The sliding door slams shut behind him – too loud for my liking, because I love this car – and then his wet sneakers squelch and scrape across the gravel as he throws himself into the passenger seat.

Just in time.

The wall of rain envelops us, the world outside turning white and misted, water battering the metal roof as a roll of heavy thunder rumbles overhead. Sheets of it slam hard against the windshield and I chew my lip.

Do I want to drive through this on the highway?

I’ll barely be able to see.

I guess I think about it too long, because Obi clears his throat. He’s still flashing that smile, but it’s worn thin at the edges.

‘So …’ he says, and then stops.

I watch him as the pasted edges of his grin slowly falter. I can’t help but be curious. ‘They seriously just left you here? Daisy and that?’

Obi says nothing as rain sloshes against the front of the Bedford. I swear the whole van is shaking from the howling wind.

I try again. ‘They seriously just kicked you out at this shit petrol station and told you to beg me for a lift?’

The grin disappears completely, swallowed whole. ‘Yeah.’

I scowl. ‘She didn’t even text me.’

‘No reception.’

I point through the roaring rain toward the ramshackle petrol station. ‘There is literally a payphone over there!’

Obi blinks. ‘What’s that?’

‘A payphone?’ I stare at him blankly. ‘What do you mean?’

He rolls his eyes. ‘It was a joke, Nash. No one uses payphones anymore.’ He rubs an impatient hand across the misting glass of his window, squinting through the rain. ‘Look, can we just go, or what?’

This infuriates me even more. Ordering me around in my own car.

But I start the engine.

It sounds sick actually, like it’s choking. But I keep my face blank so Obi can’t tell I’m worried. Or if not exactly blank, a scowl, which is what he’s used to from me anyway. Wouldn’t want to change things up too much.

‘Yeah, we can go?’ I mutter, pulling out slowly onto the road. Considering it’s school holidays, there aren’t many cars around. I’m glad. I’d be too scared to drive this slow old thing in a traffic jam in this weather.

I roll down my window a little because the car is stifling, summer heat hanging heavy in the air, more humid than I’m used to. Rain spills through the gap. It wets the bare skin of my legs and slides down the pale, cracked leather of the seat.

I roll the window back up.

I’m pretty keen on staying silent and just concentrating on the road through the rain, but Obi has other ideas. ‘Ouch,’ he says. He fishes around beneath his bum and drags out a battered paperback: creased cover and dog-eared pages. He raises his eyebrows. ‘What’s this?’

I try to snatch it, but he pulls it from my reach. He’s grinning again, skin still damp. But the grin looks a little sharper now, so I guess he’s just as unhappy with the situation as I am. Outside, rain hisses down. Relentless, flat land seeps away behind us as I drive slow and careful up the highway.

‘Give it back!’

He doesn’t.

‘Is this seriously what you read in your spare time, Nash?’ Obi shows me the cover – two people embracing in a wild Scottish-style landscape, his billowing shirt in a low V and her dress half unbuttoned. Judging from the deep dimples appearing in his cheeks, Obi finds it all quite amusing.

A nice story to spread when we meet up with all his friends.

‘Put on your seatbelt,’ I snap. My face is hot and flushed. No wonder Daisy and Lachlan kicked him out. ‘It’s my nana’s book, okay? Not mine.’

His grin grows wider. ‘Sure it is. It’s always the country kids, isn’t it?’

I shove back my hair, which keeps falling into my eyes.

What’s always the country kids?’

I’m pretty sure I don’t want to know. But if he says what I suspect he’s going to, I’ll kill him.

He shrugs. ‘You know, the ones you least expect. For example, you dress like a boy. And your mouth is full to the brim with braces. At school you never talk unless Daisy is around to hold your hand. Except when you want to pick at me, for some reason. But the whole time, you’re reading juicy romance books about delicate fair maidens. Unbelievable.’

It isn’t exactly what I suspected. It’s a new variation. New enough that I gape at him.

My mouth is full to the brim with braces?

My cheeks flush hotter, and I run my tongue over my teeth self-consciously. Metal ridges and sharp edges. All this mocking reminds me again why it’s better to avoid Obi. And Daisy’s boyfriend, Lachlan.

And lately … Daisy herself.

Not that Daisy mocks me exactly. Or at least, I know she doesn’t mean to. She just … gets caught up in the way Lachlan is. And she doesn’t seem to protest when other people do.

I attempt to smooth my cropped hair, feeling a little winded. I can’t even find the words to cut Obi down, instead saying weakly, ‘Can you please just put the book away?’

He doesn’t listen to me.

He never listens to me.

Instead Obi kicks both his sneakers onto the dash – my dash – and begins reading Flaming Secret of the Highlander, a small crease appearing between his brows.

Daisy’s sneakers are allowed on my dash. Not Obi’s. I wish I could chuck him out of my van the same way she did.

It’s hard to imagine Daisy doing that.

Lachlan though – well, that’s easier to imagine.

I grit my braces-covered teeth. I’d imagine Obi must have done something truly horrendous to get left behind if I didn’t also secretly suspect Daisy and Lachlan were just looking for an excuse for some alone-time. Since they got together, everything’s been about alone-time with them. It’s been nearly a whole year now, and I feel like I’ve lost my best friend.

I glance over at Obi.

And gained … whatever awful thing he is.

A nemesis?

I huff. Loudly. And lean over to shove his feet off my dash with a hard stare.

‘I’m starting to realise why they left you behind,’ I grumble. A bit lame, but the only insult I can find in the spur of the moment.

Obi resettles himself in his seat, attention still on the paperback. ‘Only starting to, Nash?’ He throws a lazy grin my way.

I scowl. ‘Put your seatbelt on.’

This time he does.

I keep driving, seething in silence while Obi reads. The Bedford is like a sauna. Sweat beads on Obi’s forehead, yet he makes no move to open his window. Good. I’d only tell him to shut it again. The rain outside is hammering down.

The landscape rolls on: flat stony ground and twisted bushes. Every now and then we pass a collapsed colonial house, broken chunks of stone and caved-in rooves. Just flat land. Endless and wet.

It’s familiar yet alien, this landscape. I grew up out here, but it’s been so long since I was last here, it only half feels like home. An ache rises in my chest.

Eventually the rain eases and then stops entirely, and I roll down the window, desperate for relief. The air isn’t cool like I’d hoped, but it’s fresh. I breathe deep. It smells like rain, like the desert and hot bitumen. It smells like my childhood. Like my life until four years ago.

I always loved being out here when I was younger.

Staring at the flat, misted horizon, I think maybe I still do. Maybe I miss the big skies and wide landscape.

Maybe I miss the farm, even.

Definitely, I miss my nana. In a way that’s crept up on me. Surprised me.

I’ve just been so busy lately with other things – with exams and school and holiday plans and Daisy – so I didn’t even notice. But that’s fine, because it’s a problem that’ll be resolved incredibly soon.

Slowing the van, I pull off the highway onto a smaller, winding road, a glittering bay visible in the distance now the sky is clearing. Sunlight shimmers between the heavy, dark clouds. Dry yellow hills roll down to the hazy ocean and the road curls beside a salt plain, mangroves clinging to the edges. Obi’s been reading for ages, every now and then making an amused grunt in the back of his throat. He’s lounging like he owns my car.

Finally, I can’t take it anymore. ‘Can you stop doing that? You’re wrinkling the edges of my book.’

‘The edges of whose book?’

‘My nana’s book,’ I correct quickly.

‘That’s not what you said.’ He glances up with an evil grin but then his eyes widen. ‘Oh, the rain stopped. Cool. You can see the ocean.’

‘You only just noticed that now?’

He shrugs. ‘Your book is pretty engrossing.’ He wiggles his eyebrows at me.

‘It’s not my book. I told you. It’s my nana’s.’

Obi doesn’t answer but the smile falls from his face as he blinks suspiciously out the window. He turns in his seat, trying to see behind us. ‘Um, Nash … where are we going?’

‘To check on my nana. Her old house is down the peninsula.’

‘Excuse me?’

I stare back at him. I say it slower. ‘We are going to my nana’s house at the end of the peninsula. To make sure she isn’t dead.’

Obi gapes at me. He shakes his head. ‘Say that again? Dead?’

I roll my eyes. ‘No. Not dead.’

‘Um … and why are we doing that?’

‘Because my parents are making me go. They’re worried or whatever. But she’ll be fine. It’s not a big deal.’

Obi lifts his hands as if to wave me away. ‘No, no, Nash. I don’t care why you’re going to see your nana! Why am I going?!’

‘Because you pissed Lachlan off and he left you behind at a petrol station. And because you were on your knees in the rain begging me for a lift.’

He hisses, ‘I wasn’t on my knees!’

‘You were definitely, at least metaphorically, on your knees. And you definitely did beg me.’ It’s a little vindictive, I admit, but I’m almost enjoying myself now. Enjoying the fact that I’m dragging him somewhere he doesn’t want to go.

Definitely not enjoying the fact that it will keep us together in my van for at least another billion hours of driving time. That part is less nice.

‘But … but …’ he stutters. ‘What about Finn’s coast shack?’

I shrug. ‘I never said I was going to Finn’s coast shack.’

‘Yes, you did! When you first rolled down the window, I asked where you were going and you said, “Finn’s coast shack”.’ He puts on a high, fake voice, which I suppose is meant to be me.

I glare at him. ‘I never said I was going straight to Finn’s coast shack. You want a lift to Lachlan’s stupid party, then you come with me to check on my nana first.’

Obi gapes at me. ‘But I don’t want to come with you to check on your nana.’

‘Well, that is unfortunate. Because that’s where we’re going.’

‘And how long will this detour take exactly?’

‘I dunno. Like an extra day?’

‘A whole day! Nash, are you fucking serious?’ He slams his sneakers against the dash again, hands over his face. ‘Why are you doing this to me? This is ridiculous! I don’t want to see your weird old country nana, I want to go to Finn’s party.’

I recoil. Weird old country nana? How dare he.

‘I’m literally giving you a lift right now and you insult my family?’ My voice is rising, temper flaring. ‘Do you want me to shove you out of this car? And you don’t even know anything about my nana! She’s a lot better than stupid Finn.’

‘And I don’t want to know anything about your nana!’ Obi’s voice is getting louder too, rising to match mine. ‘Turn this car around right now!’

‘No way!’

‘I mean it. I’m going back to the servo to get a bus.’

‘I’m not turning around!’ I yell at him. We’ve been driving for ages and my nana is waiting for me. ‘This is your own fault, you’re the one who begged me for a lift! And besides, insulting my nana?’ I laugh derisively. ‘You don’t even know the name of a single plant!’

‘What?’ Obi’s eyes bulge. ‘What’s that even supposed to mean?’

I’m about to open my mouth to tell him exactly what it means, when the Bedford makes a chugging, groaning sound, the engine rumbling and choking.

Spluttering.

Steaming.

Stopping.

It cuts out. Just like that, my van dies.

————–

Road Tripping with Pearl Nash, by Poppy Nwosu, is published this month by Wakefield Press

In addition to her three young-adult novels, Nwosu is the editor of the 2021 Wakefield Press YA anthology Hometown Haunts: #LoveOzYA Horror Tales, due out later this year.

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This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.