for Xiao Hong
Clara came to school sometimes, and then left altogether when we were around 15, not saying why or where she was going. The teachers seemed to know that she wasn’t coming back before we realised, and her name was never mentioned again. I remember her, and I think of her often, even now, because she was different from anyone else I had ever met. Clara. The name my parents were planning to give me, until I was born and they didn’t think it suited my face or the cut of my body. Clara, who smiled when I told her that we might have been namesakes, as if it was unimportant what we were called; that it mattered more what we did and who we were.
Clara had long dark hair that was as limp as swimming seaweed, and her skin was pale and speckled with tiny dots in patches, like little dot families. They were so small, these dots on her arms and legs and face, that they were not freckles but rather dust, and often I felt the urge to wipe them off with a face washer when I looked at her. I remember so clearly how she looked, for I was always trying to pretend I wasn’t staring at her, or that she wasn’t the most strange and almost beautiful thing I had ever seen. She walked in a different way to the rest of us too, though I think I only know that now. Back then it wasn’t clear to me that I was humping along like a seal on its tail while Clara floated, just slightly above the ground and slightly above the rest of us. Now I can see that this threatened many in my class, and Clara was bullied. She never flinched though. She never showed us anything below her pale surface.
The first time I spoke to her we were both waiting behind after school to be picked up. It was after four o’clock, and all the other kids had caught the bus or jumped into the backs of the four-wheel drives that had been waiting when we spilled out with the 3.30 bell. We sat quite far from each other on the benches near the front gate. She didn’t look at me; just sat there with her bag on her lap, covering her stomach. I could tell she wasn’t looking at me because if I focus I can feel a slight warmth in the part of my body someone is looking at. When I glanced at her she was looking ahead, and I never felt any warmth. Around 4.15 one of the school receptionists walked past us to go to her car and stopped beside Clara. She was asking Clara something and when she noticed me looking over she gestured for me to come closer. The receptionist asked me if my parents were coming soon. I didn’t know, but I said yes, they were coming very soon, they had just been held up, and looked over at Clara, who was looking at me for the first time. After the receptionist had gone, I asked Clara when her parents were coming.
‘My dad is coming but I don’t know when. He’s very busy.’
I had seen her father before; he was a big man with a stomach that told you he was not quite in control, and a beard that told you he didn’t know whether to shave or grow his facial hair. The way he looked made him seem confused. The opposite of Clara.
‘Usually I walk home. But a man stopped me yesterday on my walk and did something to me.’
She said this with her eyes fixed directly on mine, as if she knew there would be a response and wanted to watch it carefully.
I wanted to ask what happened, but more of me wanted to be gentle and soft with Clara—to show her we weren’t all bullies. I was starting to understand that there was power in gentleness, and I wanted that power.
‘Are you okay?’
‘Yes. But my stomach hurts.’
I didn’t know what that meant, but it sounded as though the man who had stopped her the afternoon before had done something to her body, to her stomach, to the insides of her. I had not the experiences or the memories to make sense of that yet and didn’t know what to say. She must have sensed this, with her skin like cat’s whiskers, like the feather ends of a bird’s wing.
‘He forced me.’
Two weeks after we had waited beside each other, Clara was absent from school for a week. I thought over and over about what she had told me, and wished I had been able to ask her more, before her father had pulled up loud in his car and yelled at her to join him. She had turned around and looked at me with such a sorry face that afternoon before she moved towards the car. It was as if she was worried for me: another young girl alive in such a world.
On the Friday, Ms Finn stopped me after the bell had gone and I was waiting to leave the classroom.
‘I wonder if you might be seeing Clara on the weekend?’
It took me a pause to understand why she was asking me this. I watched her face expectant, imagined Clara and me as a known entity, and realised: one afternoon waiting late for our parents together, and they assumed we were best friends. The teachers did not pay attention. If Ms Finn had been really watching her students, she would have known that no-one saw Clara on the weekend, that we imagined her sitting pale and still in a strange house somewhere, and she likely didn’t think of us at all.
Ms Finn gave me Clara’s address, and an envelope full of what I imagined to be work Clara had missed that she needed to complete. Her house was right where I thought it would be. Over by the second oval no-one used, where dogs that no-one owned had fights and lay long and flat when it was hot. It was exciting and strange to know that I was going to see where she lived, and she hadn’t even invited me. I remember my parents that night, Friday night fish and chips in front of us on clean white plates, and both of them attempting to make conversation with their tired eyes and unsure hands holding cutlery, as if they knew the right way to eat take-away. I could only nod and imagine the next morning, when I would knock on Clara’s door.
The house was larger than I expected, and there were more old things in the front garden than any of the other houses on the street. I didn’t know about hoarding then, or the way trauma leads to holding onto everything once you are safe, but I could see that Clara’s family lived in a mess.
That Saturday was a hot, still day with few clouds and a sky like the sky of a dream. The skin on my hands and neck and around my hairline was lightly sweating when I reached the front door, and I felt red and rude and wrong. I couldn’t see a door bell or a knocker or even something to bang on that would make much noise. The door itself was open, but there was a thick, rusty wire screen in front of it that was shut. Behind it I could hear television voices and feel the cool of a rotating fan.
I had almost decided to rap my knuckles against the screen when Clara appeared. As always, she had known that I was there before I told her, and she stood still and quiet, looking at me. She was dressed in what looked like pyjamas, even though it was midday, and she still managed to make me feel like my T-shirt and shorts were silly, that my attempt at normality had failed, and that I never should have tried in the first place. The pyjamas were a set, and there were tiny spots all over the fabric. I wanted to look at her stomach, to see if it had grown, to believe her, but my eyes were scared. She stood there looking at me, and I stared at her shoulder. The dots on her pyjamas were actually very small stars, and were rather beautiful.
Clara’s dusted arm motioned as if to ask me inside, and she turned back into the house. It was dark and cool in there and I followed, bracing myself for her father, his flesh steaming. She brought me to a large room where the fan whirred and the television was on low and bright, and I could see the outline of her father sitting on a soft chair. Clara raised a finger to her mouth as if we should shhh. I couldn’t see her father’s face, but the room was thick with sleep—the kind of sleep that happens when you don’t get ready for bed—and my body stiffened in that way it does when it is required to be quiet.
We moved through to the next room. It was the kitchen, and Clara slowly closed the door as if she was an expert at navigating stillness, as if she knew how to hide. I remember there was a smell of old sausages or unwashed dinner plates, mixed with cigarette smoke and animal. I blocked my nose and breathed through my mouth. It felt like preservation.
‘Why did you come here?’ Clara asked me, her eyes burrowing into mine with a sort of tired fury. I had the perfect excuse, but I knew she could tell how curious I was, how curious everyone was, about her life and her family, her home.
‘Ms Finn asked me to bring you the stuff we’ve been doing in class, I think. She gave me this for you.’ I handed Clara the large envelope I had been carrying, covered in the small prints of my sweating fingers.
She raised her eyebrows and placed the envelope on the table.
‘Are you okay?’
Clara smiled at this question, and shook her head just a little, as if I had no idea. There was a sound from the living room like a sleeping animal waking. A light groan, the shake of a mane. Clara’s face changed and she used her thin hands to smooth the fabric of her pyjama pants. I remember standing there how the stars looked more like stains now, as if they were not deliberate, as if she had spilled things on herself over and over. The door between the two rooms made that noise doors do when they are just about to be opened. Clara’s hands smoothed faster.
‘Who’s this?’ I heard from behind me.
Clara moved from where she stood in front of the kitchen table and I turned to see her father as he walked towards one of the chairs. He reminded me of a primate, though at the time I could only have said a sort of large, dumb monkey or a stretched-out gorilla. His arms seemed a little too long, his chest was curved and sprouting. As he moved I could smell his sweat. It was unhealthy; the smell a body makes when it has lost.
Clara had turned from me now, and was facing her father. He sat down heavily on one of the kitchen chairs and crooked his finger at her. The room felt big and I felt far away. I wasn’t even really there. I watched him push his leg out and straighten his thigh for Clara, who sat down on it lightly like she was a princess on a throne. I felt I should look away, the moment too private even for the two of them to witness. I saw a large hand covered in curled hair touch a clothed, slim leg, and then I made a small excuse and left.
I didn’t speak to Clara again until it was summer and we had PE on the oval one afternoon. It was cricket, or ‘balls and bats’ as my mother called it, and we were both fielders, standing in the freshly cut grass with our hands pretending they were ready to catch. I saw Clara near me—I always noticed where she was after the time at her house—and wandered slowly over, near enough for her to hear me speak.
‘How is your stomach?’ I asked, wanting to show her that I remembered, that I had never forgotten.
She glanced at me, and took the school dress she was wearing between both hands, pulling it back tight against her body. I could see now that her stomach had become a bump, a round mound.
‘It’s growing,’ she said, almost quietly.
I swallowed the saliva in my mouth. Then the ball came flying at us, the hard red cricket ball that could bruise deep if it hit you in a soft place. Clara let it fall beside her, so I picked it up and threw it where I supposed I should. Someone yelled out something and I yelled back. When I came back to Clara she had walked away from me and was picking at the grass below us as if she was a botanist. I left her, and walked slowly as if I was carefree, back towards the others, though my heart was beating in my throat from wanting to ask her how she was and what she would do.
She left school early that day, I remember. I saw her father’s car near the office, smoke pouring out of the exhaust like I imagined it would from his nostrils, from the pit of his belly. I saw them sitting there in the billowing car together as I walked to science. He was touching her hair with his big hands.
It was only a few short weeks after this that Clara began avoiding me. In the days that followed our conversation on the cricket field, I saw her every so often in the hallways on our separate walks to class, or at the locker bay, slowly taking out or putting in books, belongings, her lunch wrapped up in a recycled cereal bag. I didn’t want her to see me looking at her, but I took in gulps of her when she was turned slightly away, trying to see whether her stomach was bigger, whether she was half-crying or half-smiling. She never let on that she saw me looking, and her face was always plain and calm, without emotion.
I think back now and wonder why I didn’t tell anyone what she had said to me on the oval. It was serious, that a girl in my class had been raped, that she was pregnant to violence, that there was a man in our neighbourhood molesting teenage girls. She hadn’t asked me to keep it a secret, and I wasn’t really, or perhaps I was keeping a bigger secret than the one she had let out, on her behalf, without her permission. I remember now the last day I saw her, how her father met her at the gate with a push towards their old car. It was sunny that day, and I was wearing short sleeves. The hairs on my arms stood up to greet him. •
Laura Mcphee-Browne is a writer and social worker from Melbourne. She is working on two things: a novel about female friendship set in Toronto and a collection of ‘homage’ or ‘echo’ stories inspired by her favourite female writers.