Mary regards the virgin

The drama room floor is cold and painted black. Looked upon closely, the way Mary does during the exercises Ms Kelly gets them to do lying down, the brushstrokes on it are visible—sweeping bristle lines over and across again, into one another like the whorls in palms and fingerprints, fainter and deeper by turns. Today everyone in class is on their feet, though, and from this distance the floor is perfectly smooth and matte, only the faintest glow showing from the stage lights above them.

They have ten minutes to form a skit, and Mary is in a group with Pia, Hollie and Else. Pia and Hollie have already come up with a role for Else, who is to play the corpse. This is all she will get to do: lie very still beneath a mothy blanket pulled from the prop box. She won’t get any death scene first, won’t get to show her face at all. Mary can’t decide if this is cruel or a kind of blessing.

Else’s shape is dumpy and her skin looks damp; it shines. There are lumps on her face that don’t quite break the surface; her complexion is somehow heavy, even without the white and pink-to-red heads of proper, broken-out blemishes. Mary has seen her cry at school more than once, always on her own by the bag racks or toilet block or the vacant portable buildings. Once, as far back as Year Seven, Mary had gone to Ms Kelly, who was on yard duty, to report Else’s tears. Then she had fled, not wanting to elicit Else’s recognition or gratitude, or any feeling from her at all.

Distantly across the quadrangle Mary had seen Ms Kelly with her arm around Else, having retrieved her from the garden beds by the toilets; Else’s blotchy face was dense as storm clouds but shaped around a smile, shy and soft, as they’d walked together.

Mary also remembers how, one lunchtime just last term, Pia and Hollie and some of the others had gathered Else up. They’d let her sit with them in the middle of the quad for the fifty minutes before the bell and styled her hair into low-fastened loop pigtails that looked like long drooping ears. Oooh, they’d cooed: Else, you look like a dog—meaning dog in the cute way but also not.

This was the only time Mary had seen them adopt Else—or anyone else—like that.

I’ll play the guy, Pia says now, in the drama room. Her smirk says: obviously—because she knows guys. She and Hollie keep exchanging looks, making eye contact that Mary understands she is perhaps supposed to see, but not be any part of. Her seeing, knowing these glances is part of the point, though. It’s to do with her, she gets, to do with being put into a group with her, and with Else, with whom Pia and Hollie would never really interact otherwise. Their subtext is too close to the surface—almost an overtone, a provocation.

The first time Pia ever spoke to her was in Year Seven. Mary had been crouching at the back of the room, scrabbling for something in her backpack, and in a voice so light it sounded almost gentle she’d heard Pia address her to say, Will you move your hairy leg out of my way?

(Mary had taken a new pastel razor from her mum’s packet of silky touch disposables that night and nicked the skin on one of her knees in the shower; despite her mum’s warnings that shaving would make the hairs grow back thicker, darker, she’d carved each leg carefully clean.)

It’s decided, next, that Hollie will be the cop—also a guy—and Mary is given the part of the woman. She doesn’t get, yet, how this story works, but Pia and Hollie are already coming up with lines, which they are getting Else, not yet under her blanket, to transcribe. The scene Mary will be in is inside a supermarket, and in her head she tries to make the supermarket shelves real and vivid: she imagines can after can with labels like a Warhol print—a whole long aisle of them, popping colour.

She watches Pia and Hollie shift their posture, their mimicry of men’s bodies and movements so on point, even on their willowy frames (both of them so svelte—that word like a smooth sharp stone—but Hollie with more curves, the elevation of her breasts and a waist made smaller by the camber of her hips; Pia is more angular—more long sleek muscle that mostly precludes roundness or softness).

As men they slouch and take up space at the same time. Though they are just standing, not in seats, Mary recognises their spread legs on buses and trains, outside of classrooms and offices and in waiting rooms.

Now is the test. Flirt with him (with the Hollie-cop), they tell Mary, and when she tries—softly smiling, gaze dropping, as she’s sure it’s done on TV—Hollie and Pia look at each other for a beat, then crack up.

Oh my god, they say in unison. Oh my god, sorry. Go again, can you go again?—but already it’s too late, it’s impossible: Mary’s face is hot and a space in her chest is opened out and ready to fall in. She watches them fan at their faces with their hands and rapidly blink their eyelids, the effort they make sure it takes to regain composure.

Mary has spent all year, all of Year Ten so far, telling herself that soon she will speak up and be herself. Soon she will laugh widely, loudly, infectiously—will be, in her mum’s word, a bit bolshy—and then soon enough the other girls will know who she really is. But still she is stuck in the slow weight of her quiet body. The week before, she’d overheard Pia mimicking the words of an elderly relative, her grandmother maybe: Sweet sixteen and never been kissed. Mary had let their knowing mirth sink through her: Can you imagine?

(Still, Mary makes hopeful deals with herself: once the braces come off her teeth and she can really smile; once the too-short layers of her awful haircut grow out, then she’ll fall into her true self, and the others will see and know her better…)

The name Pia would be embarrassing on anyone else. Like the noun of the verb to pee, someone who pisses. But nothing on Pia is embarrassing. Her skin shines too but like glass. Everything about her is clear and bright and sharp.

Not clear as in easy, though. But sometimes Mary hopes. She gets that her hope shows too close to the surface, that she embarrasses herself sometimes—lunging and fumbling to pick up something Pia has dropped, when Pia herself could, should pick up a paper handout floated to the bitumen or a biro dropped between desks.

Pia could wear the name Else in a way that Else herself cannot—could wear it like a threat, but also like the cold slip of silk, like sliding into calm water. Else herself wears it like something dropped and clanging, as in other, as in besides, her irrelevance jarring. (The name Pia is actually beautiful, too, Mary can concede—simple and musical at the same time.)

They run through the scene once more and this time Mary knows she’s even worse, even more awkward, but Pia and Hollie are bored with her now—the moment and its comedy lost. They tell Else to get under the blanket and she complies in a way that’s both too rushed and too slow; she’s crouching, then down on her hands and knees, then rolling over onto her back. Mary watches how her breasts flatten away under her school jumper and her chin doubles as she pulls the blanket up across her body and over her head. Once she’s covered, Hollie and Pia crouch down next to her and tuck in her edges. They are proficient, faces solemn between the curtains of their long swishing hair (Pia’s a smoky, mushroom blonde, Hollie’s darker, redder—like glossy cherries under the stage lights. They both keep hair ties on their wrists to pull their hair back into pointedly loose, careless ponytails, when told to by a teacher—but Ms Kelly isn’t one to do much telling, to worry too much about school uniform policies or dress code).

The painted floor is fresh enough to still have a new-paint smell and Mary imagines Else’s face turned to the side and pressed against it, beneath the blanket. The hot, closed-in space of a part that could be played by a heap of props, by almost anything other than a real living body. Will it bother Ms Kelly that Else only gets to be dead? Will she notice, and if so, say anything about it publicly, in front of the group or in a quiet word later? (Mary wonders, also, if Ms Kelly remembers back to Year Seven—to collecting Else with such gentle ease?)

The noise in the room is climbing and expanding—turning up like a slow simmer, water suddenly bubbling—and in the front row of the otherwise empty theatre Ms Kelly is looking from group to group and beaming. She is one of the younger teachers at school—at least, the youngest looking—and she is fat and beautiful, with glossy hair, peachy skin and perfectly round breasts under the plain white t-shirts she wears. She is preppy, cleanly effervescent as a Playschool host, but whispers have it that sometimes Ms Kelly and some of the VCE girls catch each other smoking in the chicken-shop carpark near to school—that it’s a catch-22 for Ms Kelly, who’s told the girls she won’t tell about the cigarettes if they don’t.

Certainly, Ms Kelly is one of the best-liked teachers; she is liked better by far than the English teacher said to drop pencils so he can look up girls’ skirts, or the maths-and-homeroom teacher who forbids any prayers for sport teams or animals in morning devotions. (When a girl had requested to include her sick horse in their prayer recently, Ms Pylon had been sure to state clearly that she would not be praying for the horse.)

Mary watches Ms Kelly now, follows her gaze, only hoping. Already it seems like Else has spent too much time under the blanket. She must feel awful. It should be time for the class to move on, for the performances to start—meaning their group will get this skit over with, or at least go and take seats facing the stage for now, to watch another group. She is dreading having to do the flirt with him bit again, this time in front of everyone.

Look at my knickers! Pia says now to Hollie, elevating one leg like a cat ready to lick itself clean. She moves with such quick ease and polish and Mary catches the hibiscus flash of lace against skin. A word balloons in her head, unbidden—tidy, a word for describing vaginas, Mary’s cousin smirked once to one of his Year Twelve friends, not caring that Mary was in earshot, right there with them. (In her head now Mary corrects him, corrects herself: he’d meant for vulvas, labia—though probably he didn’t know that, doesn’t know those words, let alone the anatomy they describe. Mary feels a proud thrill—the rush of it involuntary—for knowing these distinctions herself.)

Now Pia turns her glacial blue eyes onto Mary, and even though she must know Mary could also see the lift of her leg and school dress—could see what she was showing just as well as Hollie—she says coolly: I’d let you look, but you’d look for too long.

Hollie snorts and the pair of them spill about laughing until they are reclining on the black floor. Within a few seconds the laughter fades and their bodies grow softer, stiller; hair pooling, their posture languid as mermaids.

It isn’t true. Of the girls at school Mary has desired, Pia has never been one of them. She is beautiful but also frightening. What does cause a flickering shame is Mary’s knowledge that she will want to buy the next pair of fuchsia lace knickers she sees in Target, that if she can’t be liked by Pia, she can imagine that she can be like her—even quietly, covertly, under the charcoal and navy gingham of their uniforms.

But then the recognition lands, a little slower, and her shame doubles, spreads. It’s not just that they think she’s quiet and dull—and an idiot to have picked Drama for an elective when she’s so awkward, so hopelessly bad at it—they also think she’s some kind of perve.

When she looks up again, Ms Kelly is, inexplicably, gone. Worry swoops down and Mary can’t find a landing place for it. The bell will sound any minute. Still the voices in the room are growing louder, louder—and Else really has been way too long under the blanket now. Mary looks again at the shape, wondering: is that even her? Or has something changed, something happened that she’s missed?

When the lunchtime bell does sound without Ms Kelly’s return, the girls shrug and collect their pencil cases and notebooks, abandoning the stage. Outside, Mary feels as though she’s come up for air. The sky is a rich, cloudless blue, the air and sun on her face temperate. Nothing so terrible has happened, she reasons, but still she finds herself feeling for an escape route, making her way past the office with its garden of cypress pines and purple-and-yellow pansies and then the neat lawn, along the pale gravel driveway with its jewel-like bits of quartz, towards the teachers’ carpark, the perimeter of the school grounds.

Near one of the gates is a statue of Our Lady of Grace—the Blessed Mother, Madonna—she has so many guises, more than Mary can count. The statue is composed of white stone, marble or something meant to resemble marble, and apart from her hands and face, the woman’s figure is draped in fabric that seems to flow from and encircle her at the same time.

At times like these Mary tries to imagine herself as a character in a film, coolly occupying her hands and lips with a cigarette, but she has only her Drama notebook and her pencil case, her long fringe in her eyes, lips carefully covering the metal on her teeth. And it’s not like she’s anything close to a smoker anyway. Still, she tries to bide some time, tries to gather herself to go to the Year Ten block and retrieve her lunch from her locker. But she waits a bit longer, stalling further; she regards again the Virgin in her grotto—her indifferent stone face.



Jo Langdon

Jo Langdon writes fiction and poetry. She is the author of two poetry collections, Snowline (Whitmore Press, 2012) and Glass Life (Five Islands Press, 2018), and her recent fiction appears in journals including Griffith Review and Westerly. Jo lives on unceded Wadawarrung land in Geelong/Djillong.

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