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Chapter 14: Tight Braids and a Grudge that's Frayed
By Doug Posted in Term 3 on July 11, 2019 0 Comments 11 min read
Chapter 13: Hard Jokes Previous Chapter 15: Full Contact Sport Next

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 can bleed.”

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.

Aadan and Paul: Piss and Vinegar

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. 

Hunting the Snitch

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 narrowed eyes.

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.

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