Fine Tuning


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Chapter One



Kat thought the front gate had done a good job. It had been slammed so many times the whole fence now shuddered in sympathy. That particular afternoon was no different—the clarion smash that heralded everyone’s comings and goings. One day the whole fucking thing would just fall over—a rippling domino of white palings that would collect the patrolling dog on the way down and leave everyone exposed.

At 3.00 pm the dog started barking and Kat went outside, expecting to see Axel or Petal home from school. Instead she found her husband, Dave, struggling through the gate with a stack of boxes, three fake cactus plants on top. The dog danced in joyous circles around his heels.

She walked down the stairs, took a box off the pile and plonked it on the brittle lawn. ‘You’re home early,’ she said.

Dave kissed her and shrugged.

‘Another round of meetings . . . I couldn’t take any more. It’s the restructure. Everyone’s talking cutbacks.’

 His shirt stuck to his back and his usual ruddy complexion looked sallow. The lines of a lifetime converged around his mouth and his eyes were shadowed. ‘Let’s just stick this stuff under the house before the kids get home eh?’

‘Done,’ said Dave shoving the last one into a wobbling Jenga of boxes. Kat wondered if they’d gather dust like the rusty bicycles and domestic flotsam that came to rest in the skirted shade under the house.

‘OK. What’s going on?’ said Kat. Sweat pearled her top lip and the familiar sensation of anxiety rose in her stomach as Dave threw a tarp over the boxes.

The gate crashed again. This time it was Axel—up the front stairs two at a time, the dog barking and dancing at his heels.

Dave pounced. ‘We need to talk to you.’

Axel’s head shot up, earphones plugged under the sandy hair fanning his face.

Kat’s neck muscles tightened and she rubbed a dirty hand across her forehead. Axel was looking down from the veranda, the afternoon sun slanting across his body. His school tie was wrapped like a noose around his neck and his overstuffed bag hung from one shoulder. He pulled an earphone out and Jinja Safari bleated tinnily against his school shirt.

‘Hi Sweety,’ she said.

The steps burned under her feet as she stepped over her abandoned high heels and walked up to kiss him. He turned his head away, patting her in a way that was both recognition and distance. She didn’t have the heart to try for a, ‘How was school?’

‘Hey Mum.’

He was so tall now that she only came up to his chest and it was like hugging a plank. It also meant most hugs were in the region of his armpits and the smell of boy and the herbal scent of Lynx was so overpowering, she held her breath.

‘Got a couple of things to discuss,’ said Dave, giving Axel a hefty pat on the shoulder.

Axel said nothing. It seemed to be his new policy.

Kat picked up a manila folder from the chair where she’d left it earlier. It was stuffed to capacity, tearing at the spine and threatening to cover the front veranda in a cascade of paper. Her mobile was perched on top, vibrating on silent. She had six missed messages from Westfield, which she ignored. ‘Perhaps we could do this inside?’ she said.

The front door was wide open but she didn’t know if Petal was home from school yet. That was the problem with Queenslanders. The timber houses were decked with verandas and sleep outs and fret-worked with fanlights, doors and windows. It was like living in a beautiful box but you never knew where anyone was at any given time.

‘Just tell me OK?’ said Axel dropping his bag and sitting on the top step. The dog sidled up to him and put a paw on his leg.

‘It’s not about you,’ said Kat.

Axel’s shoulders relaxed and he buried his face in the ecstatic dog’s fur.

‘Dad’s hours have been cut,’ said Kat.

Axel looked up at them while the dog scratched at his knee. ‘Why?’

‘The company’s going through a restructure,’ said Dave.

‘How will we live? Mum doesn’t have a real job.’

‘We’ll be fine,’ said Kat, glaring at him.

‘I’ll be working from home ’til it’s settled and then . . .’ said Dave.

‘When were you going to mention that?’ said Kat.

‘Totes awesome,’ said Petal, appearing out of the shadows of the hallway in her socks.

That child is like a ninja thought Kat—a master of appearing around doorways and out of shadows. Whenever they had to talk to Axel, Petal would silently materialise.

‘You won’t have to travel,’ she said to Dave, wrapping her arms around his waist. He smiled for the first time that afternoon and kissed her silky hair.

‘Yeah it’s all good,’ Dave said, but Kat thought he was a poor liar. She tried to imagine what he’d do if he wasn’t taking endless calls in the car, in the garden and in bed.

‘Hey Axe,’ said Petal. ‘Fun day at school?’

‘What do you reckon?’

‘I reckon you’re the biggest loser in grade 12,’ she said, hand on hip. Her hair had pulled out of her ponytail and she had one sock up and one down.

‘Please don’t walk around in your socks,’ said Kat. ‘Socks are not outerwear.’

‘Chillax Mum,’ said Axel. He planted himself on the front steps while the dog gave him salty kisses.

‘That’s the only kisses you’ll be getting,’ said Petal. ‘Although some girls in the senior school asked me if I could get your autograph today.’

‘For real?’

‘Yeah, you’re the new pinup of grade eight. Those girls are so sad,’ said Petal. ‘A bunch of them stopped me at the junior school tuckshop and said, ‘Hey isn’t your big brother like in the Bin Chickens?’

‘And . . . ?’

‘I said yeah—you’d started the band with your mate, Rat, last year and how it was kinda sad that there were only two of you because that’s not really a band is it? More like a singing couple. But they said they’d seen your song, ‘Little Sun’, on YouTube and downloaded it from Triple J Unearthed.’

‘Wow, Axe you’re almost famous,’ said Kat.

‘Yeah but I told them what a total pain you are to live with and how you’re always playing guitar when it’s really late and guess what they said?’

Axel shrugged his shoulders.

‘Well?’ said Dave

‘They said you’re like a totally talented keyboardist and they adore your freckles and said you’re a hot ranga.’

‘They were talking about Rat?’ said Dave. He started laughing, a deep chuckle that bubbled up from his stomach and lit his eyes. Petal smirked and Kat covered her mouth with her hand trying—and failing—not to laugh.

‘You’re gorgeous too, Axe,’ she said.

Axel scowled at his sister.

‘Look on the bright side, Axe,’ said Dave. ‘I can take you and Rat to the studio in the afternoons so you can practise. Mum’s got so much work on at the moment. I’ll do more of the drop-offs and stuff and I’ll have more time to focus on you and Petal.’

Axel groaned. ‘But you’ll go back to work when it’s sorted, won’t you? Mum’s always hanging around.’

‘I work here,’ said Kat. Her phone buzzed again. BARRY WESTFIELD flicked up on the screen.

‘Shit . . . hang on, got to take this.’

‘Swear jar, Mum,’ said Petal.

Kat walked a little way up the veranda and sat down in one of the cane chairs. It creaked under her weight. She put her feet up on a potted palm and opened the folder.

‘Hi Barry. I thought we’d sorted it out this morning. I put notes on the drawings and emailed both of you. Why did he change it? But that’s a whole new set of working drawings. You know that. OK. I’ll call him. Bye.’

‘The architect has changed the details again,’ said Kat. ‘How am I going to get all the drawings done?’

‘Is Jess coming in tomorrow to finish the drafting?’ asked Dave. Jess was Kat’s draftswoman and a talented designer in her third year of college.

‘I dunno,’ said Kat, ‘she’s sick.’ She slammed the folder shut and sighed.

Her drawing board was a maelstrom of tracing paper. She’d never mastered computer drawing and Jess said her office was like a design museum. Coloured pencils, French curves and scale rulers decorated every surface.

‘I’ll have to work all weekend now.’

‘Tell me about it,’ said Axel.

‘Well that’s it,’ said Dave. ‘Any questions?’

Axel stared at them. ‘Nuh.’


When Axel got home from school the next day, his parents were sitting in the cool of the veranda with drinks and snacks. Petal was sliding up and down the polished timber hallway in her socks.

‘All right?’ asked Axel, dumping his bag. He grabbed a handful of corn chips and crammed them into his mouth. He could have had Not getting involved in parental drama written on his forehead.

‘Have you got much homework?’ asked Kat.

‘Calm your farm, Mum,’ said Axel. He planted himself on the front steps while the dog crawled onto his lap and licked his chin. ‘The boys will be over any minute.’ On cue, the gate clicked and crashed.

‘The Bin Chickens are in the house,’ said Kat.

They watched as Rat collected his keyboard from the side garden where his mum dropped it every Friday morning on her way to work. He gave them a shy half salute and headed down the side of the house to Axel’s bedroom, the Band Room.

‘Do you think Rat will ever make it to the front door?’ said Dave.

‘I doubt it,’ said Siggy, coming up the steps three at a time, wiping sweat from his face. ‘Greetings Mrs G.’

Siggy was the tallest of Axel’s friends and the sweetest. He looked like a well-groomed Mexican drug lord but it was probably just the blue-black hair and his brown eyes.

‘Hi Sig. How’s school going?’ asked Dave, passing the bowl.

‘Mum and Dad still want me to get into law,’ said Siggy, selecting a series of chips and laying them on the flat of his palm. ‘My head of year says I’ve got as much chance as a snowflake in hell and I’ve got four assignments due even though it’s only the first week.’

‘Could Axel join you in a study group?’ said Kat.

‘Top idea,’ said Dave.

Siggy ate each chip slowly. ‘That could work, although going on last year it may be a bit late for Axel.’

Axel groaned. ‘Thanks, mate.’

‘I heard a rumour,’ said Siggy. ‘Mum says you’re going part time Mr G.’

‘Good news travels fast,’ said Dave. ‘Axel here is thrilled at the turn of events.’

‘Ha ha.’

‘It’ll be good.’ He smiled at Axel. ‘I reckon you should ask Siggy to join the band. You play drums don’t you?’

‘Yeah, and the trumpet,’ said Siggy.

‘Sorted,’ said Dave.

‘Hang on Dad, we’ll have to ask Rat.’

‘He’ll love it,’ said Dave. ‘You can’t keep using a drum machine; it’s such a poor substitute. Not very rock and roll. Also, I’ve been thinking I could manage the band.’

Axel choked on his corn chips.

‘Don’t look like that,’ said Kat. ‘No one’s died.’

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About the Story

This is an extract from a novel in progress, which was developed during the Faber Writing Academy Writing A Novel course 2017.


Kat Green’s juggling a design business, the loss of her husband’s job and her son Axel’s senior year. Kat sees her son’s future at university, Axel sees it at the School of Rock. As Axel’s bands gains airplay, his grades plummet. Kat’s failing business brings the family to the brink of financial ruin.

In Kat’s own senior year, 1980, her family is bankrupted and she starts at a new school. She finds salvation and lifelong friendship when she bonds with her best friend over punk music.

Two creative people, mother and son, living parallel lives. Can music reunite them?

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The Author

Tracey has studied design, illustration, writing and TESOL. She’s worked as a retail designer and a communications officer. Her poems and articles have been published in magazines and newspapers. Her four books for middle school children have been published by Pearson and Cengage. She currently works as a specialist tutor for grades P-12 through SPELD Qld. 



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