Published in Overland Issue 246 Autumn 2022 · Prizes / Neilma Sidney Prize / Fiction Neilma Sidney Short Story Prize Winner, the labeller Saraid Taylor I am in a world of women and they are everything. That is why I carry the labeller with me, so I can allocate each woman to their rightful place. It is a secret thing, the labeller, small enough to hide in the palm of my hand or tuck into the front flap of a basketball bag. It prints little tags of invisible plastic that adhere neatly to the forehead. Sometimes, after I have slept with someone, and they already have a forehead label, I glue the new classification over their breasts while they sleep. Other times, I just stick over it. The label is soft in its rigidity. It cannot be physically felt by any of the women, only sensed. My aunt is the head of the professional league. She is very handsome. I think people are generally scared of her. She has a silken, undulating voice that is intimidating in its charisma. When I am thirteen, she gifts me the labeller. The first proper label I give out is mentor. It is to the primary selector of the junior state team, in the lead up to the national tournament. This selector is gorgeous: dark eyes, dark hair, smooth smile. She is the one who pushes me forward. She witnesses the talent I have inside me. She says: Your coach rang to tell me not to pick you. She says: She insisted it would be irresponsible of me because you’re not emotionally mature enough. Her laughter is loud as she tells us this over dinner at my aunt’s house. She splinters open the sausage with her knife and slides the insides of it into her mouth. She used to watch my aunt on the television when she was a kid. She is now a good family friend. She says: I told her to get fucked. The day they announce the teams, they take us into a small room at the back of the stadium. The room is made of the staff: four female selectors and a male team manager, for optics. The pathway program would not survive accusations of being unsafe for young girls. My mentor smiles at me as she congratulates me on my selection. She recites that I embody tenacious work ethic. I am the youngest in this under-sixteen representative team, she says conspiratorially, and maybe the most talented. A month later, we travel to a different state and I watch the older girls pretend to kiss each other in the hotel showers. I think of them vaguely as guides and print them all labels. We win all of the regular games of the campaign, and slip into the grand final early. I only play a couple of minutes, at the end of each quarter, but I flit onto the statistics sheet with the most rebounds averaged by any athlete. Some parent in the crowd calls out: You can’t let her jump on everyone’s back! They call out: You can’t have a different set of rules for one player! They call out: She travels every fucking time she gets the ball. I laugh to myself because clearly this parent is only a parent. My aunt was an athlete. She played for Australia at the most prestigious of international tournaments. She is the one who shows me how to pull down an opponent’s arms as they jump to get rebounds, or sink and curl fingers into their singlet to slow their cuts, in a way that the referees do not see. My aunt speaks to the tournament executive and the parent is asked to leave. We win the national junior championship. The third label I ever give out is again to my mentor. The label itself stays the same. I just rewrite over the letters with a black, thick pen. I value her mentorship most when her hands are inside me. She steers me quickly to my first orgasm after I ask her fingers to contort and surpass their usual shape of clapping to touch me personally. It is after the under-eighteen state tournament and I have just been offered a scholarship to the national centre for athletes. I wonder if I should do anything back but she never asks so I let myself lie there in the indulgence of her soft lips against all my skin. There is not a man in this world. Not a single man. There are only lesbians. That is what the television says. I believe it. I consider this when I let her tongue unspool in the heart of my mouth, luring my tongue into a game, even as I muse over the semantics of the next label: a sticking and sticking and re-sticking of it to the following forehead. That next label is more complicated. When I get to the national centre for athletes, I notice her first. She is almost the most talented. Teammate, would be the generic one. Roommate as obvious, but mainly just rival. Her beauty and her agility. I fuck her first so I can condense her into lover and from there she has no power over me. Later, when we leave the centre for a week to play at our last junior state tournament on different teams, I can see she gets nervous to play against me. Her eyelashes are fluttery. I give her a smile when I step onto the court so she continues to believe she has a chance, then drive hard into her chest as soon as the game starts, flailing the ball at the ring and asking the referee for a foul. The referee, with her razored hair and shrill whistle, looks at me like she wants to eat me and then makes the call. The referee does eat me. She takes me to dinner first, and I gallantly insist we split the bill. She makes a little cooing sound even as she refuses so I know she likes this gesture. After we have sex, her label does not change from referee. She is not very good. I sit on the bus back to Victoria the next morning and answer questions about the athlete centre. The girls in my state team say nothing eagerly. I doubt any will make it, so I kindly include lots of detail for them. They lean over the bus seats and listen with eyes wide. I consider tentatively changing their labels from friend to audience. I decide not to. I instead explain how local journalists pay me two hundred dollars for every forty-five minute interview. I tell them: I mainly just talk about dealing with injuries. I tell them: They always ask about resilience. Fuck, they love hearing about resilience. I tell them: They eat that shit up out of the palm of my hand. The girls all laugh. One does not. She is uglier than me, but everyone seems to like her. She is also smart but in a uselessly righteous way. She tilts her head. It would be a challenge if she was not so passive. She queries if I have ever been injured. This girl has a label formed by decay: an acquaintance so old she creaks into something like sister. We do not know each other, and I would not refer to her as a friend, but I have played against her since we were eight. She greets my grandparents by name and smiles when I sometimes ask her at training to be my partner for shooting. Her face reddens as she rebounds: she runs until she pants to get the ball back to me quickly. I like her because she does not complain when it is her turn to shoot and I let her retrieve most of her own. I have nothing to prove like she does, so this is acceptable for me to do. I also like her because I know she sees me not hit each line when we do conditioning at the end of a session but, even when I win those sprints, she is too moral to either say anything or copy me. I explain to her now: It’s just a trick you learn at the centre, knowing what someone wants to see. I feel sorry for her so I add: Like standing really close to someone in the jump ball and yanking their shirt down as the ball is thrown into the air. The referees never even notice. I coax her: Try it sometime. Guarantee it works. Back at the centre, I am excited and unsurprised to be selected in the junior national team for the world cup. We travel to Europe. On the tour, the labeller churns categorisations out almost daily. The squad consists of colleagues and companions and buddies, with distinct but sanctioned threats. There is one athlete who identifies as non-binary: their forehead becomes thick with all the strips of my plastic. They are slightly older and have been at college in America, so I have only ever heard of them. They are skilled and, to me, verbally antagonistic at the initial training camps. I consequently codify them as an opponent. It takes me two aeroplane flights to realise their taunts are flirtations so I reassign them quickly to a lover. They are experienced with their hands and their mouth and we pass nights before the international games coiled together in pumping bodies under rough sheets. Their heart is loud and they do not tolerate their reductive classification. I allow them a promotion up to partner. When I fly back to Melbourne after the team wins a silver medal, we commence a vibrant and public long-distance relationship. I graduate from the centre at nineteen and field interest from all eight of the teams in the professional league. My aunt knows the coach of one of the interstate clubs, so I decide to sign there. The team manager of this club invites me to use the bottom half of her house as my accommodation for the season so I do not have to pay rent. She is old and lonely and wears the generic job description label I gift her initially like a delicate badge. I am a little unsettled in the new team so I cross out team manager and offer her the label of maternal figure. She starts to make dinners for me each night. Her food is good, if a little bland, so I add salt and fragments of dried chilli. I throw out pasta if she cooks it, but keep the sauce and eat it with spinach leaves, or sometimes even lettuce. She likes when I praise her and I discover if I do this enough she becomes needy. Eventually, I am not sure when, I start to drop into conversation people I have slept with, or plan to sleep with. This makes her worried for me but really she is just jealous and from jealousy I turn her into a motherly chauffeur. I call her whenever I need to be picked up or taken somewhere or if I need money because the wage of a female athlete, as everyone knows, is abhorrent. One night, I call her at three in the morning to retrieve me from a nightclub. She does not even protest, and I am very drunk but I feel a bit bad about this, so when we get back to the house, I encourage her into my bed and let her kiss me. I have to change her label quickly then, to clean any clinging incestuous debris, but am not sure to what. Lover seems a little extreme—I think I would crack her wrinkled bones if I allowed her to have sex with me. I settle on friend. I barely need to threaten her about telling anybody. The team manager job for a team in the professional league is the greatest thing she has ever done. I journey to a different club the next season, and then to another the year after that. I am hunting the elusive thing I have been invited toward since I was thirteen, though I never first dreamed of it myself. It is hard ascending the slide. I slip too fast upwards. I dye my hair blonder and then blonder. They like to write articles about me, especially with my aunt who is the head of the professional league. My aunt never misses a match. She is the one who soothes all the agitation in my head. She reminds me of my ability. She suggests I do not shoot the ball in games enough. Her advice is that I should shoot it every time I touch it. Halfway through the year, I am not selected in the national team for the Olympics. I break the labeller when I read the announcement: it crushes between my fingers and its fragility makes me nauseous so I throw it against a wall. I am reassured by my aunt’s violent scoff. I suspect that scoff becomes a text message of handsome, silken disapproval to one of her old teammates who is now the national coach. It takes me a while to glue each of the labeller’s shards back together, but I do eventually. I move to another club. I am two years into my twenties by now and there are teammates my age. I appoint them all as mentees. In huddles, I urge them to have confidence. If they make mistakes I let them know it is okay. Their little foreheads sweat under their labels. The coach, a chosen confidant, appreciates me. She plays me for most of the game. When free agency opens for the following season, I ask for more money and choose to stay. This world is full of allies and leaders and traitors and whores. It is a soup of memory. I collide again with the incidental sister from my childhood that year, when she flukes a contract with a professional team. I do not smile when I see her. There is fury in my throat. It is the day after the squad has been announced for the next international qualifying tournament. I am one of the youngest athletes named and I watch those letters plastered over the internet. I kiss my new girlfriend. She takes a photograph of me to post. It is how she says congratulations. In the game against the sister, she loses the jump ball. I have many points and many rebounds. I move so fast often my feet shift before the basketball can and I travel, but none of the referees notice. They are predictably all women. They are too busy looking at the shimmer of my long golden hair and the length of my lean sweating limbs and my blue eyes and my pink wet lips that beg them to make sure the game is called safely. I tell them: It’s getting dangerous out here. I tell them: It’s getting out of hand out here. I think they listen. I know at least one wants to sleep with me. The other two are dating each other but could be persuaded. I change the label of the woman once passively accumulated as sister as soon as the game finishes. She tried to sleep with my girlfriend, or at least it is something like that and that is what I tell my audience. I do not bother even trying to seduce her—she is still ugly and superior. I just paint a label in thick greasy writing of enemy along her hipbones when she is in the visiting team’s changeroom, showering. I stick a label to my own forehead afterwards because it only seems fair but write nothing on it. Read the rest of Overland 246 If you enjoyed this piece, buy the issue Or subscribe and receive four brilliant issues for a year Saraid Taylor Saraid Taylor is a writer, poet and athlete who grew up on Wurundjeri land. She has a Bachelor of Fine Arts (Screenwriting) from the Victorian College of the Arts, the University of Melbourne. She is the winner of the 2021 Neilma Sidney Short Story Prize. You can find her at: www.saraidtaylor.com. 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