Authors: Alice Pung
Published by Black Inc.,
an imprint of Schwartz Publishing Pty Ltd
37–39 Langridge Street
Collingwood VIC 3066 Australia
Copyright © Alice Pung 2014
Alice Pung asserts her right to be known as the author of this work.
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form by any means electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise without the prior consent of the publishers.
National Library of Australia Cataloguing-in-Publication entry:
Pung, Alice, author.
Laurinda / Alice Pung.
For young adults.
Girls’ schools—Fiction. Peer pressure in adolescence—Fiction. Young adult fiction.
Cover and text design by Peter Long
Illustration on page 338 by Bill Wood
For KBH and the Lamb
“Life is nothing but high school.”
Remember how we used to catch the 406 bus after school, past the Victory Carpet Factory and the main hub of Sunray, through to Stanley? What an adventure, we used to think then. What a waste of time, looking back now. It was a waste of time because the bus would always worm its way back to Stanley, following exactly the same route, stopping at the same places and collecting the same people, who did the same things every same day.
Remember that girl from St Claire’s who put her bag on the seat next to her so that no one else could sit down? And how we thought, typical of girls like that. When she got the vibe that we were talking about her behind her back, she turned around and told us to get stuffed. But that wasn’t the most shocking thing about her. The most shocking thing was that where we had expected to see white teeth all even like a picket fence, they were herded behind that ugly gate in her mouth. Looking into that paddock of crumbly yellow rocks straining to break free from barbed wire, I thought, no wonder you’re going back to Stanley.
I don’t remember what you saw on those bus trips, but this is how I see it now. An old strip of seven shops, each with an identical metallic snake of a roller shutter coiled at the top. At night, with those iron blinds lowered, the street looked like a long, continuous dirty warehouse, all graffiti and concrete.
There was the local fish and chip shop, the Happy Oyster, which had never seen an oyster, joyous or otherwise, from the first day of its existence. A shop selling smokes, with incredibly expensive and lewd painted plaster figurines in its window – women with serpents and black leather straps instead of clothes. And a hairdresser that still called itself a barber, with a red, white and blue pole at the front and posters in the window of great haircuts from 1983.
The largest shop was the milk bar that tried to pass itself off as a mini-mart, with faded packets of instant noodles and tins of soup not seen in a proper supermarket for years. The most popular items were the Samboy chips, the Redskins and the 7 Ups that kids would buy on their way home from school. The whole strip could probably only rustle up two or three trays of vegetables. The place that got the most business was Stanley Spirits on the corner. People mostly went there to get beer – half a dozen cans of VB at a stretch, VB standing for Victoria Bitter, which could also express the sentiments of the male residents of Stanley aged between seventeen and seventy. My mum never bought anything from this strip. Instead, she caught the bus to neighbouring Sunray and its market, where she could get tomatoes for a dollar a kilo if she went near closing time.
Ours was the only blue house in Stanley, and I don’t mean a pale blue washed out with a lot of white. I mean blue the colour of that bubblegum-flavoured ice-cream all kids love until they get older and find out how many chemicals are in every scoop. Now I feel the same way about our home. But when I was younger, I loved how it stood out; it was the kind of house a kid would draw, a rectangle in blue and a triangle in red.
To our left were the Donaldsons, a lovely older couple who owned a Dalmatian that barked at all hours of the day. They’d come over once a year, two days after Christmas, to give us cake and handfuls of chocolates that tasted like brown crayons. A few months later, at Chinese New Year, Mum would ask me to walk over with coconut sweets or spring rolls, and sometimes I’d bring mooncakes from the Lunar Festival. “Aren’t you a sweetie,” they’d say.
The Donaldsons’ house was white, and its cement-rendered front was not pimpled with mould. They had a carefully maintained garden of bougainvilleas, cacti and fuchsias, and an upright letterbox – no small feat in a place like Stanley, where teenage hoons would drive by with cricket bats, in cars that they’d buy for $200 and spend $2000 kitting out. Most of the letterboxes in Stanley leaned to one side, as if wincing from their blows.
The most enchanting thing about the Donaldsons’ house was this: around their front yard were seven little gnomes and a toadstool, each partly hiding behind a flowerpot or shrub. The hoons who loved to smash everything that was standing never touched the Donaldsons’ peekaboo gnomes.
That’s what I see, Linh, but I also remember that our closeness to the Donaldsons didn’t stop the hoons from knocking over our letterbox. Once they even chucked a rock through our front window. I suggested to my father that it was because our blue house was such an irresistible target, but no way was he going to repaint it. When we first moved in, my father took great care to water the plum tree at the front and the apricot tree at the back. Eventually he got too busy and said it was a waste of water. “Let the rain take care of it,” he said, but the rain was as half-arsed in its dripping as everything else around here, and eventually the apricot tree dried up. The plum tree survived but bore sour pellets.
Mum spent most of her days indoors, only going out to shop and collect the mail from our letterbox, or to attend church. She’d always wanted me to go to a Catholic school, which was how I ended up at Christ Our Saviour College. My father, who didn’t really believe in God – not since most of his family went missing, presumed dead, in Vietnam – wanted me to win a scholarship to somewhere else.
He also wanted me to stop wasting time doing things for the neighbours and to start hunkering down. “Why do you always interfere with her homework?” he asked my mother. “Where were you when your god was handing out the brains? Holding the door for everyone?”
He wanted me to get out of Stanley. He wanted me out of there for my own good. Where we lived was not a place where good stories began, but a place where bad stories retreated, like small mongrel dogs bitten by much larger, thoroughbred ones.
Reading back through this first letter to you, I can see I knew even then that where I was going, you were not coming along, and that I would have to leave you and all of this behind. But I did not understand then, as I do now, how difficult it would be to create a thoroughbred from mongrel stock.
hen my dad dropped us off at the front gate, the first things I saw were the rose garden spreading out on either side of the main driveway and the enormous sign in iron cursive letters spelling out LAURINDA. No “Ladies College” after it, of course; the name was meant to speak for itself. Then there was the main building: four sections of sandstone brick and the giant cream tower in the centre.
This place is giving us the finger!
you squawked when you first saw it, Linh.
I thought to myself that in a black and white photograph, it could be mistaken for the main house of a plantation in the deep south of America. I could imagine young ladies in white gloves with lace slingshots, lying in wait to kill a mockingbird or two. It was beautiful, but as it was guarded by a gate and set against the enormous lawn, the beauty snuck up on you, like a femme fatale with a rock.
We could make fun of it because we knew we’d never enter the school itself, only the gym, a massive windowless box that looked like a giant’s shipping container. There was an A4 sign stuck to the door: YEAR TEN SCHOLARSHIP EXAMS THIS WAY. Rows of plastic chairs and tables had been set up, with numbers sticky-taped down the side. It was morgue-cold in there, as though we were going to be strapped into those seats and have our minds dissected in some awful autopsy.
There were over three hundred students in the room but only two of us would make it through this elimination round: a boy for Auburn Academy and a girl for Laurinda. This was the first time Laurinda and Auburn had offered “Equal Access” scholarships, which were supposed to go to kids with parents the school considered povvo.
That morning, all the parents were begging the deities, white-knuckled with want, for their kid to be the one who made it through. There were two types, I noticed: the ear-pullers, who drove off immediately after giving their kids a serious stare and a punishing pointed finger, and the bum-wipers, who stayed as long as they could, until they were kicked out because the exam was about to begin.
It was good to see some familiar faces from Christ Our Saviour. Tully was there, and Yvonne and Ivy. They were trying out because they hadn’t made it into Hoadley Girls State Selective School and their parents were giving them a rough time at home. And you, of course, Linh.
I felt sorry for Tully. The way her mother was dragging her to the gym by the elbow, it was as if she was heading for the firing squad. “Your cousin Stephanie got into Hoadley seven years ago,” we overheard Mrs Cho muttering, “and there is no way that you could be dumber than Stephanie.”
Now Stephanie was an accountant who sat on her bum churning through numbers all day instead of standing in a factory pulling out chicken gizzards. My parents had taken me to visit her when I was seven. I stared and stared at the badges on her red woollen jacket and her chequered skirt with a big metal pin through it. “She had to take a test to get into the school,” my father told me as he drove us home that evening. “She has a good future ahead of her.”
As a kid, I wasn’t forced to think about The Future much, but I knew I wanted to be dressed like Stephanie in a royal outfit that magically seemed to make adults take you seriously and ask you quiet and sincere questions and listen to your answers. None of that “Wah, what a pretty girl you are!” which seemed to be the only way adult strangers behaved towards me back then.
As I walked to my place in the gym, I saw Tully hunched over the desk ahead of me, her back a hard cashew curve and her fingers at her temples. I thought of all those afternoons when she couldn’t hang out or even do homework with us because she was being whisked away to some tutoring program or other.
When the exam began, the gym fell so quiet that I could hear myself blink. It must have been like this all the time for Tully, I mused, her whole life one exam after another in white-walled tutoring centres run by dour former maths teachers or engineers whose qualifications were not recognised here. She would be used to this silence.
When it was over, we walked with Tully, Ivy and Yvonne to catch the bus home. Ivy and Yvonne had been such close friends since Year Seven that they had identical haircuts. They commiserated with each other when their parents made them find after-school work at the local Kumon tutoring centre and Kmart, and they planned to run away together when they turned twenty, before their parents could send them back to Vietnam/Malta to get cheap eyelid surgery/nose jobs and/or husbands.
As we walked, we wah’ed over houses with roofs like red bonnets on top of white faces with unblinking bay-window eyes, fanned by decades-old London plane trees. Ivy and Yvonne skipped down the sidewalk, playing the old game of avoiding the cracks in case we broke our mothers’ backs. Tully had her fingertips in her jeans pockets; occasionally she would pull out a soggy tissue and wipe her nose. The girl was practically viral.
I could hear Ivy bellowing down the quiet street that Yvonne had stepped on a crack.
“I did not, bitch!” Yvonne screeched back. I noticed the airy curtains of a house ripple.
“Be quiet, youse!” you said. “People are watching us.”
“Let them watch!” yelled Ivy in glee.
“We probably interrupted their eleven o’clock croissant.”
We caught up with Yvonne and Ivy.
“What did you write about for the final essay?” It was the first time Tully had opened her mouth since the exam. For fifteen minutes, it had been set in a straight line, with a small hook on each end, as if latched to her chin and dragging her head down.
In the last part of the exam, we had to write an essay based on a badly photocopied picture of a person sitting behind a desk in the dark, a candle burning. It was done in the style of the drawings in the
Good News Bible
– with swirly lines and no features, so you couldn’t see the facial expression.