Shoes, once polished as shiny as beetle backs, come clattering across the grimy tiled floor. Shoes, now scuffed and dusty, jostle together beneath the silver trough-like sink in the girls’ bathroom.
White faces appear in the mirror, marked with palm ash on each forehead in a smudged cross. They push their hair back in inspection. This one is so light, this one is so dark. This one just looks like Father Gatt’s thumbprint, the kind the police make you give them. Laura presses a finger to the dirty mirror surface and smears her fingerprint into a crucifix. Repent, and be-leaf in the Gospel, amen, and girlish laughter bounces off the tiled walls like thrown pennies.
The game really gains momentum at recess. Keep the holy ash in place. Keep the holy ash in place while other children take a swipe with their hands, and take care too of the track of dripping sweat that turns ash into mud, in air as damp and warm as a lingering exhale. Laura is the meanest, locking my head in her arm and knuckling off the ash, launching herself away again with a witchy cackle. I saw her wipe her own away earlier, in accordance of her own rules.
The game turns when class resumes. The ones who are still marked are not those who had bested others, but those who hadn’t been a part of the game at all.
The fat girl, Tennielle, is also the fattest girl, and keeps her ash in place all day. Laura pokes and prods. Doesn’t Tennielle see that no one’s playing anymore? Doesn’t she know how stupid she looks, with dirt on her face? No one says the things that Laura says and only Laura is allowed to say them, and Tennielle gives the shrug of someone perfectly used to looking stupid.
The Korean girl, whose name I’ve forgotten, has also forgotten the ash. She doesn’t know there’s a game at all.
She doesn’t know it’s a game at lunchtime, when faces circle her and laugh, jabbing with quick fingers to make her flinch. She refuses to make a sound. The plastic pink butterfly clip in her hair is a tempting target, and Laura takes a handful of the Korean girl’s high black ponytail. She’s pulling, going in a circle and dragging the Korean girl with her, and this is when the Korean girl finally makes a sound. Laura breaks away, running, and so does everyone else, and so do I.
Mr Spillane, do you remember how to spell it? The prince is your pal. Mr Spillane, with sweaty patches under the arms of his blue shirt, sitting among the girls, wants to know what happened, and Laura explains readily: It’s just a game we play. A chorus murmurs, it’s just a game we play. Mr Spillane, who doesn’t look like he’s ever known the roughness of young girls, or of anyone, leaves soon after.
He doesn’t see that Laura is wearing a plastic pink butterfly in her hair, or if he did, what it could mean.
The banksia tree in bloom gives a heavier smell than flowers that wilt easier, flowering furry cones of bright western red that, to most of the children who trek by it every day, powerfully reminds them of toilet brushes. Dense clusters of dry, dry needles sway without shivering. Like all bushtrees, it grows thorny and musky. Its branches are as jagged as a lightning strike, and dry as old bones. It has lived on the parish for as long as I remember.
And Matthew is there in the late afternoon, straddling the lowest branch and swinging his legs, shoes lying in the yellow grass. He flashes the pale soles of his feet, the same colour as his palms, and the rest of him dark skinned, the darkest skinned.
‘You have dirt on your face!’ Laura’s voice sings through the dry leaves.
Matthew takes the ash off with his sleeve.
‘You still have dirt on your face!’ Laura’s laughter, carrying high, up through the shards of sun. Matthew’s grin is white, but vanishes not then but after when Laura darts in, and takes his shoes, and takes off running. Banksia flowers fall around him when he drops down, those bare feet crushing yellow grass. Her laughter trails after her, something in it more like midnight and moonlight. It crackles in the humidity.
They run past the church and towards Out Of Bounds. Out Of Bounds is where the ground dips suddenly into a thorny thatch of bush plants and weeds, empty lunchtime milk cartons and empty coke cans, snakes and spiders. Laura throws the shoes out into the bramble, into Out Of Bounds. Heads only turn when her cackle turns into a shriek because Matthew, running without slowing, crashes into her full-bodied. They gasp together when Laura falls and lands in around the bush plants and weeds, dry as kindling and grasping her dark hair.
She emerges crying, a cut on her forehead. Matthew is afraid and then gone, leaving his shoes behind.
Too many rules have been broken already, and parents are coming to collect their children.
‘Do you want to know a secret?’
You’re not sure you want to know Laura’s secrets anymore. Knowing them is being one. But there’s only one answer. There’s only one answer, because her eyes are cold and her laughter is the kind that catches on things, and you never want to be something on which it finds spark. There’s only one answer, and you give it to her.
It isn’t a spoken secret.
Perhaps if it was, it’d be different, but she shows you instead.
Black smoke rising. The classroom might have tipped beneath the weight of rushing school children pressing to the window. They watch the black smoke rising. Where is it coming from? It’s so close! It’s the church! The church is burning.
Children spill out onto the roadside, pushing past the urgent attempts of teachers to corral them, but what can the teachers do? The whip-snap of their voices have lost crack, distracted and scattered.
It isn’t the church. Bright blushes of banksia flowers are burned away and replaced with thrusts of flame. Still standing, the tree is beyond dehydrated, growing fire and smoke and sparks. Fire has bitten into a heavier branch and it falls with a gust of heat, and children run, shrieking.
Black smoke rising, and the air tastes like ash.
And I didn’t say anything.
‘Did you see what happened?’ I didn’t see what happened.
But I saw when a police officer emptied Matthew’s backpack on the bitumen, looking for something, and I saw Matthew for the last time with Mr Spillane’s hand on his back, led away. Before that, I saw what would happen, when she showed me the little can of lighter fluid, tucked in next to her pink lunchbox. Is that what he found, in Matthew’s backpack?
I don’t know. I never saw it again.
And the Korean girl never came back the next day, and neither did Matthew. Tenneille remained, shrugging her way through those final, sun-burned years. The banksia tree remained, too. The teacher, herding the children out into the sunlight, showed how it had been scorched black. Its shape had changed, where that one branch had fallen away, but look, now, how it remains standing. Bush trees like this grow to withstand the bush fires that burn through the desert. In fact, it relies on fire for regrowth. There’s a lesson there.
Curious hands come away soot-streaked, and they make a game of it, getting ash on clothing, on faces. I feel too strange to join in, and come out of it clean.
I see her again years later, when tartan skirts are hemmed shorter, flagging different colours than mine. Her socks are up, white and proud, and her black-buckle shoes bear scars. I see her face, moon-bright, in a street-facing window pane, and I can’t say if she only sees the mannequins posed on display or me, as well, floating in the glass. I turn my head, and Laura dismisses me with a flick of her ponytail, tempting me, or anyone, to reach for it.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Samantha Murphy is an aspiring writer, having decamped to Wellington from the wilds of Australia. During her time at the IIML, she has cultivated an eclectic allegiance between prose, poetry, scriptwriting and academics, and hasn’t quit yet.