The day started just like any other day.
On a humid morning, the unrelenting sun burns down on the back porch and filters through the window, everything is still in the sweltering heat, the lights dance throughout the bedroom, casting shadows on the teenage girl getting ready for school. Her bus would be here shortly and missing it was not an option, whether she was ready or not she would have to catch the bus. It was too far for her to walk to school.
Outside she walks with pace down the never-ending drive, her long legs move with strained exertion, her breath fast and laboured. She is surrounded by kilometres of endless sweeping dirt plains and barren land breathtaking to the inexperienced eye however lost on the young girl with dreams of white sand beaches, aqua seas lapping at her feet, and cool crisp air gently touching her face.
She thinks of her name ‘Henry Gordon’, a strong name her father told her early one morning as they rode side by side in the winter sun, the horse’s shoes click-clacking on the dust terrain. She had thought then just as she thinks now how the name inhibits her making her sound like a boy and it doesn’t help she somewhat resembles a boy with a wide nose, large ears, imposing brown eyes and wild fuzz of black curls.
The bus noisily churns into the school parking lot, her peers make a dash for the exit, the bus driver a middle aged man with a long nose and weary eyes reminds them irritably not shove, they ignore his instruction and push and prod to get out the stinking hot bus with no air conditioner. Henry peers out the window, unmoving, watching the weatherboard sheds loom ominously guaranteeing to provide a day of heated dread for apprehensive students.
The first glimpse is freckles, light yet vast dotting the face of the fair-haired girl, her skirt riding up and revealing. She laughs with the ‘cool kids’ and their eyes do not break from her, not even when Henry walks past. No one turns to looks, no one teases today.
The morning is spent in the school church singing catholic hymns, followed by a lengthy Religion lesson given by an elderly Mrs Robinson on the sanctuary of marriage between man and wife. Mrs Robinson married for forty years to a man who spends his days at the local pub.
It’s not until lunch time when they remember Henry.
Miss O’Brien the playground teacher is missing from action, as is so often the case. All the students know where she is, in Mr Jenkins office, testing his faith with alluring sexuality and provoking him to leave his wife. Miss O’Brien arrived from Sydney and speculation was rife about why a pretty young woman would move to their outback community alone. Henry is almost certain the cause is a broken heart, a love affair with a married man, or a passionate fling with an uncommitted lover who left her vulnerable and exposed.
They crowd around her and they mock her unruly hair, and her skinny little chicken legs.
“You really need to get a brush Henry.” Sally initiates, grabbing Henry’s hair vehemently. Henry lets out a yelp.
“Most likely she has nits in that mess of hair.” A perfectly groomed Cassandra taunts.
“Let’s cut it off.” Maria provokes, reaching for her bag she pulls out a pair of scissors from her pencil case.
“Hold her down.” Maria bosses as the girl’s crowd around and force Henry to the ground.
Henry feels her hair torn from her head as the scissors clip-clip-clip into her scalp.
When it is over she lies motionless in the dust bowl watching the sky, hoping it would open up and swallow her whole. When it doesn’t she dashes to the bathroom where she finds the reflection excruciating. The person looking back at her looks like Henry the boy, not Henry the girl. Her black hair is cut short, choppy and blood soaked, she scrubs the blood out in the sink. Taking a hair-tie out of her bag she manages to tie some of it up.
Nobody even notices her boy cut when she sits in class that afternoon, except from the sneers of the culprits behind her. Of course Miss O’Brien would be oblivious to Henry’s new haircut she has never made eye contact. The new girl sits at the desk beside her and she finds she is drawn to her for most of the lesson.
Henry learns the girls name from the whispers of her contemporaries, Lila March she is from the city, which explains her designer skirt, Tiffany earrings and perfectly styled hair. Her father is the new town doctor and her mother is rumoured to be an exquisite model from Paris.
Miss O’Brien swivels her chair to face the blackboard blocking the students from sight, so she can read her Joan Collins novel in peace.
“Why do you have a boy’s haircut?” Lila spoke to her for the first time.
“I…I well I like it actually.” Henry stuttered.
Lila looks on thoughtfully. “Me too, I think it’s very metro.”
The bullies eavesdropping from behind gasp.
In school Lila remains the popular kid, but outside of school she becomes Henry’s friend and one day she is invited home to Lila’s place. Henry’s mouth drops open when she enters meekly into the large two storey brick home. To Henry the house is a mansion. The walls are white, the floors are white, the roof is white, and the furniture is white. Henry remains silent when Lila’s mum emerges around the corridor gracefully, with her head held high. Wearing a long white see-through dress she shimmers under the chandeliers. She kisses her daughter on the cheek. Henry wishes she would kiss her cheek.
“Who is your friend darling?” Lila’s mother asks, with a slight French accent.
“Henry.” Lila answers loosely attempting to move on.
“Oh hello daaaarrrling.” She draws out, gazing at her daughter’s peculiar afro haired friend.
“Come on Henry. Let’s go up to my room.” Lila grasps Henry’s hand and ushers her up the white stairs.
“Your Mum is beautiful.” Henry whispers as they climb the steps.
Lila shrugs. “I suppose.”
Lila’s bedroom is baby blue, with a soft yellow doona and black bean bags lounge in front of a plasma television. Big French bay windows open up onto a balcony the size of Henry’s house.
“What’s your mum look like?” Lila asks as she strips off her uniform in full view of her newly acquired friend.
“She doesn’t look like your mum.” Henry can’t help but stare at Lila in merely her underwear. Lila throws on a summer dress.
Henry thinks about her mum, a large woman in her mid forties, with an ample bosom and soft brown hair, no wrinkles and a happy smooth face.
“Do you like anyone at school?” Henry asks as she paints Lila’s fingernails bright pink.
“No, I don’t like any of the boys.”Lila answers brazenly.
“Do you like the girls?” Henry jokes.
“Perhaps.” Lila smiles audaciously.
Henry doesn’t know how to respond, so she sits dumbfounded on the chair beside her friend, holding onto her little white hand they stare intently at one another.
“I better go before it gets dark.” Henry exclaims leaping from the chair and races home to her humble home. Like a country oil painting, a small wooden house, encircled by many shades of green, a rickety fence and a grille in the drive which makes it impossible to drive a car in unnoticed. The paint peels from the exterior and extensive cracks etch harshly into the weatherboard from years of the beating sun and damaging winds and rain.
The next day at school Henry spots her secret friend, a friendship which is only acknowledged off school grounds for fear on Lila’s behalf. Lila is talking to Patrick Martin, one of the most popular boys in school. He touches her shoulder. Henry cringes with jealously. When they start kissing she storms off to the bathroom where she sobs.
Henry won’t look at her friend all day, and when the bell rings, she walks straight past Lila and jumps onto her bus taking her out further west, and further away from her heartbreaker.
By the end of the week Lila has had enough of being ignored and she bails Henry up in the bathroom, she pushes her into the toilet cubicle, slamming the door shut behind them.
“What’s your problem?” she demands.
The space is confined and their bodies touch. Lila’s face is too close to Henry’s. She can feel the heavy breathing of her friend.
Henry tries to move away but there is nowhere to go.
“Patrick Martin, really?” Henry cries.
“Oh that was just a bit of fun, that’s all.”
“Fun…The day before you told me you didn’t like anyone at school.”
“I didn’t say I didn’t like anyone, I said I didn’t like any boys.” Lila smirks.
“Then why were you kissing one?”
Lila ignores the questions. “There is someone I like.” Lila reaches in and kisses friend on the lips. Henry marvels at the soft touch of Lila’s lips, the sweetness of her scent, her hands linger about her body, fingers, hands, lips search, and stroke and savour the moment. Twisting, spiralling out of control, uniforms unzip and buttons pop open revealing warmth, excitement and lust.
Together they embark on a secret startling journey of self discovery, feelings of love, lust, passion and secrecy intermingle.
“Why should we have to conform to society and what the majority believe is normal?” Henry asks Lila as they lay entwined on her king size bed.
“Because we are teenagers and it’s not cool to be different.” Lila sighs.
“I’m sick of hiding who I am. I love you and I want the whole world to know.” Henry declares passionately.
“I love you too, but imagine how they would treat us if they knew.” Lila reasons.
“I don’t think it’s possible for them to treat me any worse than they already do. You care because you have a certain image to uphold.”
Henry breaks free now, because her own truth is upsetting her.
“You know how they would treat me if they found out darling.” Lila pleads.
“Yeah they would treat you like they treat me, a nobody, an outsider, a freak.”
A shadow looms behind Henry, and the sound of the bathroom door closes.
Henry turns to see five girls, with arms crossed behind her. Lila is one of these girls, and she looks terrified, her eyes dart from one girl to the other and back to Henry.
One girl launches towards her, seizing her arms and wrenching them behind her back whilst the others start to punch her in the stomach, blow by blow. Henry feels the wind knocked out of her and the pain made more excruciating when she sees the face of her lover amidst the hands of her bullies lingering helpless in the background. When the pain and humiliation comes to an end, Henry weeps on the ground, finding some relief from the coldness of the tiles.
She hobbles to the bus, holding her bruised stomach. The bus driver eyes her suspiciously, “Is everything alright love?” All Henry can manage is to shake her head up and down. She does the same as she enters her home, and heads straight to the bedroom, and undresses. Her belly is covered in a mixture of purple and black contusion, stretching from her rib cage to her pelvic region. She quickly throws on a long t-shirt and climbs into bed pulling the covers over her head.
Her mum opens the door without knocking and asks if she’s okay. Henry tells her she is feeling sick in the stomach.
“You’re not pregnant are you?” her mother queries.
Henry grumbles irritably under the covers, all she wants is to be left alone with her thoughts and her broken heart.
“Pregnant?” a male voice repeats. “You better not be girl. You have to get married first.” Her father appears at her door.
“Oh dear you’re pregnant and unmarried, what will we do?” her mother waves her hands frantically.
“I’ll tell you what we will do dear we will make them get married.”
“I’m not pregnant.” Henry screeches from her bed. “I’m just feeling a little sick.”
Their faces downcast they walk out of her bedroom, Henry can’t help but feel their disappointment.
A gentle wrap on the window pane wakes her, she spots the silhouette of a woman she slowly opens the creaking window, and stares coldly, blankly at the dark shadow. The shadow begins to cry, deep mournful sobs. Henry ushers her lover into her bedroom, but continues to gaze distantly at the one she thought was her true love.
The words ‘I’m sorry’ is all that are spoken from her lover’s sweet mouth. They lie together mutely, and Lila runs her fingers across the bruises she was powerless to stop only hours before.
Henry sits alone on the wooden table in the eatery, watching as the world goes by without her. The air is stifling, as it is always out west and beads of sweat form on Henry’s forehead. She is riddled with shame in a dozen different ways. Altogether unrelated to this oppressive day, the drama lingers vehemently in the air. A light rain spits down and students move for cover. Henry remains still at the table, beyond the raindrops she sees wide open spaces, and dry dirt turning slowly into thick mud. Henry’s mind is taken back to the brilliant spectacle of Western Australia’s wildflowers, a vista of daisies and a burst of colour across the interior of desolate earth. They walk hand in hand across the soil, through the blooms. The sweet smelling perfume teases the air and wraps them in a soft embrace. A moment of peace and beauty shared between the two unlikely friends.
A red umbrella shields the rain from falling on Henrys already soaked head, her hair reminiscent to a rung-out mop. Lila stands over her unbothered by the rain now pelting down. She takes hold of Henry’s hand and kisses it tenderly. There may be people watching but neither of them cares.