It’s half way through the last full term of
Year 12, and Michelle is waiting outside the nurses office. She looks more
hangdog than usual. Are you okay, I ask. Her eyes dart left and right. “I’m
pregnant sir,” she says, mournfully. I reel. The implications! Michelle lets me
marinate for a while before cracking a smile. “OK maybe not. But I don’t feel
good.” She admits it might be more mental than physical. Kadeer has done
something wicked and complicatedly female, something she can’t bring herself to
talk about. “They’re my friends. Why would they do that?”
And I think – yes, but yes but yes – because I
remember a prank she helped play on Kadeer, where the whole group pretended
Fatima was drinking booze with Aadan, hinting that Something Was Happening
there, and the ploy worked and Kadeer went and drank vodka again, just to keep
up, and arrived at KFC where the others were, falling-down-drunk, to show that
she, too, was cool.
There have been hints that Maria has been
moving back into African circles, that the
Great Grudge might be easing. She’s befriended Amelia. Now they do
one-buck chip runs to KFC. This lunchtime, Maria is bouncing around the common
room in short sleeves and tie, soaking up spotty sun through the windows. She’s
had her hair braided, making her look more girlish than usual. Who did your
braids, I ask. “Michelle,” she says. “She came up behind me when I was kneeling
at the whiteboard, and just started doing it.” Michelle comes over. “Oh, this
girl screamed so hard. But it was nothing – when my mum does my hair tight, it
And here – seven months after The Incident,
when Michelle was cast out for the too-drunk-at-the-18th faux pas –
the first relenting of the European Grudge. Maria pats her new braids.
“Everyone needs an African friend,” she says, smiling. And I think – what an
apt choice, to choose braiding. Pain and togetherness, tightly bound, and maybe
– maybe – a small act of revenge for the social shame Michelle went through as
the once-ler friend.
I get a glass of water and turn to see
Michelle enduring a shoulder massage by never-to-be-outdone Kadeer. “Relax,”
says Kadeer, but it’s clear Michelle can’t. The flux of female friendship – I
can’t keep up. Later, I ask her what that was about. “I need to be civil,” she
says. “I don’t want it awkward for the end of the year.”
Now Maria is clucking her tongue over an
assignment she just got back. “Didn’t get the mark I wanted,” she says. She’s dyslexic
and has had to fight, hard, to get where she is, to pin the letters to the page
long enough to absorb them. In primary school and early high school, she asked her
English teacher for extra homework every night. More, more, more, to make sure
her wayward mind would keep the knowledge rather than let it drift away. Still,
it takes time. “Verbally, I’m great,
reading I’m slow,” she says. “But once I break it into chunks and get it, it’s
mine for life.”
One of my good friends did exactly the same. He started high school unable to spell his surname. Helped by a good teacher, his drive kicked in and he made list after list of English words, repeating them a hundred times, testing out each combination of letters to make sure they did not waver under his gaze. They share the same dogged determination, too. It’s taken him far – and will for Maria, too. That same ability to set your mind to something, to firm it against the challenge – that ability lets you also set your mind against someone.
In the common room, there’s a mixing of usual
groups. Kevin is talking to the Ethiopian girls, and Paul and his Italian
friend are sitting at the Vietnamese table. And sitting atop the table is a
pair of rather expensive looking sneakers. “They look pricy,” I say. Paul
shrugs. “They belong to a friend, a Year 11 Viet guy. But I wouldn’t wear
them,” he says. Fashion matters to him, a great deal. He shows me his Instagram
feed, a picture of his sister in $3000 boots, her boyfriend in popped sneakers,
flowing pants, captured mid-stride over a gutter – a good social media
influencer, posed-without-looking-posed, the type of social media pic that
makes you suspect if an actual photographer was involved.
Aadan fronts up, particularly full of piss and
vinegar. Omar calls out: “What’s up your arse today cuz?” Aadan’s eyes narrow
and he charges his mate. They playfight, thrashing about, both so tall and lean
that to bring the other down low requires a rapid pull – and then a hand to
catch before the drop causes real damage. Then Aadan sees the shoes. You can
almost see his hackles rise. When he finds out the price, it’s on. “$800! For
these? Do they make you fly?” Paul, taken aback, laughs it off. “My brand is
better. Heard of Kmart, bitch?” Aadan says, thumbing his worn school shoes.
Kevin is watching Rick and Morty on Netflix on his laptop. Aadan glances at him.
“Good show,” he says. Kevin seems mildly surprised. “You got Netflix?” Aadan
snorts. “Course bro. What, you think I’m black and can’t afford it?” And that’s
precisely what’s been played out here. No malice, just a gulf. The existence of
these shoes, the casual display of wealth. How can they cost that much?
Netflix is a decoy. Aadan pounces on the
shoes, carries them outside. He pulls them on, poses for pictures. Then he
calls out his ransom demand. “1K by 4pm.” At first, Paul tries to ignore it.
But then he starts to worry. They’re not his shoes. He was left in charge of them.
And when the anxious owner arrives, summoned by a text, then there’s pushing
and running and tension and laughter, before Paul finally finds the shoes he
was left to tend, carefully tucked in a cupboard without a scratch on them.
Play, but hard play – to push class boundaries, to mock what the rich spend
their money on and what they care about, to play at theft – income
redistribution by other means.
After it’s over, Paul, flustered, slumps into a seat. That’s the thing about caring about high fashion – you have to worry about objects. But it’s worth it, he declares. His father wears Prada suits, his mother is into designer fashion. “She judges people by how they dress. Not looking down on them, exactly, but assessing their personality.” 30 seconds later, he contradicts himself. “Mind you if I bring a friend home who dresses oddly, she’ll talk to me later about that – why are you friends with that guy?” I glance down at my own daggy get-up and say nothing. I watch Paul as he moves off. He’s done his best to steer clear of messy entanglements, to weave around the gulf of wealth between him and his friends. Now and then, though, the watcher must break cover.
The startling canary-yellow orbs of
Cootamundra wattle are drying to brown, smaller thorny wattles lighting up,
branch by branch. Winter’s true end. Plum trees in full bloom in late August,
the whistle of high winds in the upper reaches of the sky. Amelia parades
around with her wide black scarf wrapped around her head. The effect is
striking – like a flowing hijab crossed with a Tuareg nomad. Zahi sees it and
gasps. “A terrorist among us!” he says, and Amelia, a Christian, giggles.
“You’re racist! Actually, Islam is a religion. What’s the word?” Hodan has
appeared in her hijab. “Islamophobic,” she suggests. All three are laughing.
“What goes in hard, comes out soft? And you
blow me to make it happen?” A riddle session is in full swing in the common
room. Fatima is disgusted at this one, Dalmar delighted. But the answer –
chewing gum – gets a good laugh. And Maria is there too, her grudge now fully
blown away by time. Dalmar reads another riddle. “A cowboy rode into town on
Friday and left three days later on Friday. How?” Maria’s got this one. “Friday
is his horse’s name.”
But the joy of renewal has soured when I come
back half an hour later. Now it’s hunt the snitch, the one betraying the group.
There are accusations of plagiarism. Too many similar assignments have been
handed in, and they must all resubmit. But there’s a rumour Paul has avoided
the same punishment, despite originally being on the hook. The Horn group knows
Paul went to see the teacher by himself. They know he told her his parents
would be really upset if he failed. And now he’s headed home at speed.
Something doesn’t add up. Seven of them storm off to see the teacher and return
in a worse mood. Nothing has been clarified. “He’s a manipulator,” Fatima says,
in a rage. “A snake!” snarls Michelle. They suspect he’s sold them out and got
off scot-free. I haven’t seen Fatima so angry – her reed-like arms, precise
hand gestures, like an angry clockwork scarecrow. “I’m tripping outtttt,” she
calls out. Aadan heads outside to call Paul. “Paul, cuz, did you sell us out?”
he says, loud enough for all to hear. But Paul denies everything, says he’d
never snitch, ever.
After the anger dies away, Fatima admits that
she and Paul co-wrote the assignment, that the others were meant to modify it
much more than they did. She makes tea,
her hands shaking, muttering to herself. “I did half, he did half,” she says.
Zahi sings a smug little ditty to himself, feet on the table. “That’s why I do
my own work,” he says to the world. The world receives his statement with
Dalmar is still furious. He takes a savage
selfie from below, aiming for a true double-chin. His moment of self-loathing,
world-loathing. Zala keeps one eye on him. “He gets angry at the smallest
things,” she says. Sounds like it’s easy to push his buttons, I say. She
laughs. “He’s made of button.”
An hour later, another turn in the mercurial
group. “We won the case,” crows Fatima, jubilant, walking at the head of her
pack. The same treatment for all. Resubmit a brand new assignment and avoid a
fail. Turns out Paul wasn’t a snake, after all. Time to reset.
After lunch, there’s a stir in the corridors.
I see the principal, uncharacteristically stern, going door to door. “Impromptu
assembly at 2pm,” he says. “There has been an incident.” I tag along to the
basketball court, wall insulation battered by year after year of student throws
and kicks, which doubles as the assembly hall.
“There was a serious incident today,” he tells the school. Kids shift uneasily. Who was it? What happened? “Parents say to me they want a safe and secure place for their kids. There will be consequences. It is not acceptable.”
Afterwards, Zahra motions me over to tell me the details. Helena and her Sudanese friend had been smoking behind school that morning. A camera captured the Sudanese girl and she was hauled in for a dressing down. Helena had been more careful, avoiding the camera. Or so she thought. Soon, it was her turn. But how did Helena get in trouble? Her friend must have snitched. And snitches get stitches. A punch on, crowds, screaming.
After the assembly, I glimpse the Sudanese girl – sullen, shaken, blood from one nostril, a female teacher treating her gently. She sits in the staffroom, awaiting her fate. I look for Helena but she’s already gone, as if she were never here.
I feel faintly saddened by this. The rage that bubbles within Helena, the sheer bloody anger, the sense of betrayal – it has to come out, to lance the boil. But how it comes out – how, how, how.