Finalist for the 2021 QUT Allen and Unwin Writers Prize
When Lily killed herself the night before her HSC exam everyone in the Irish dancing community showered the forums with love. Mothers who would have stuck a bobby pin in her eye for a chance to have their girl win the national title vomited condolences for the family and their ‘tragic’ loss. Perpetual trophies were named in her honour and feiseanna were peppered with minute silences for the fallen angel.
My friends and I, too young to grasp the severity of the situation, used the privacy of adults’ closed eyes to make bunny ears on their heads and nick chocolate crackles from the canteen. It was the first dramatic event in the scene and Lily’s last dancing photo was milked for years after the fact. Standing on the first-place block, blue satin sash draped across her sequined dress she smiled for the photographers, and everyone lamented her wasted potential.
I thought her dress was an ugly version of mine.
When Sarah was rendered quadriplegic a few years later, the empathy had worn off.
She didn’t possess the talent or stage presence to pose real competition and her name fell out of the collective consciousness with a thud that would break a dancer’s ankle. I knew Sarah from my dance school, she transferred from another one in the hope that a different teacher could fix her straight feet and jerky body. We spent three afternoons a week in a humid studio where our sweat stank like rotting fruit and blood seeped into our socks. When we partnered for ceili, our palms slick and salty, we had to squeeze each other’s hands so tightly they turned purple. I was stronger though, and I liked to feel her knuckles crack in my grip.
On Tuesdays and Thursdays, the days we weren’t in the studio, Sarah’s mum would drive all the way from Sarah’s north side grammar school to pick me up from my state school and back to their house so we could hang out. In the scalding afternoon sun I waited, pustules of sweat bubbling on my arms until I could spot her Audi encroaching to the drop-off zone.
Sometimes I would spit on my hand and rub it on the back of my neck to cool down, but I stopped when Sarah saw and called me a ‘sweaty pig’.
Sarah got all the other girls in our dance class to call me ‘sweaty pig’ and my toes began to prickle. I would wake in the middle of the night, with a thousand spines piercing my arches and ankles, even up to the backs of my knees. Not even the pills I looted from Sandra’s cabinet helped when I needed to dance my reel, my toes cramping and calves in spasm.
One time I thought the name’s appeal had worn off, but then I was at Sarah’s house eating fudge that came from a place I couldn’t pronounce when she said, ‘don’t lick your fingers like that sweaty pig, even my dog is cleaner than you.’ She laughed and laughed, and my tailbone started stabbing.
It wasn’t until one Thursday, three weeks from being spotted when the pins stabbed all the way to my shoulders, that I pulled down my pants and pissed in Sarah’s dog-food bowl.
After that, the prickles fell silent.
The day of the end-of-year party was the first time I got to wear my new shirt. I saved all my gold-coin donations from mufti days, and kept the change from every ciggy run for Sandra until I could afford it. On my way home from school I ran into Supre and excreted my savings all over the counter to buy it. I was still two bucks short, but the assistant didn’t pay any attention, so I kept it in my fist as I walked out, squeezing the fabric so hard my knuckles left small orifices in the fibres.
I pulled-on the black, collared shirt with cute piglet faces stacked down the right side and checked myself out in the mirror. My pink and white striped hips poked out from underneath the hem and the faces bulged where my tummy protruded further than my mozzie-bite boobs. I pulled the shirt down to meet my pants and ran to beg Sandra to drive me.
When I arrived at the scout hall for the party, I waited outside the door so I could sneak my finger into my nose before I went in. The mix of crusty and viscous stuck to my nails and I wiped them on my jeans. I adjusted my new shirt and strutted towards the other under 13s.
‘Copycat alert Sarah,’ Kelsey said as she saw me. The whole circle fanned out to look at me and that’s when I spotted Sarah in the centre.
Wearing my shirt. ‘Twinsies,’ said Sarah.
I couldn’t make any words. All my ideas about how this party would go were forced out of place like Rachel’s knee last nationals.
‘You didn’t even like it when I showed you,’ I murmured.
‘I changed my mind,’ she said confidently, ‘and I got it in two different colours.’
Sarah’s mum was a dressmaker, so we all got our dresses made by her. At the classes before competitions Sarah would pass out everyone’s new dresses for us to practice in. By the end, the tarkett would be littered with rhinestones like ripe pimples.
The State championship was coming up, so Sarah stumbled into the studio with arms full of fabric, bulging like an overdue baby.
The girls swarmed towards the dresses like crows to their treasure, talons out.
I snatched mine and began to get changed. We chucked our sweaty clothes on the floor, a sprawling, breathing monster of Lorna Jane and Everlast with humid breath that smelled like salty broth.
We all got a bit ‘stare-y’, as mum would say, when we got changed because Sarah looked like she belonged in a Cosmo sealed section. Her legs were long and thin and white as the bones I gave my Rottwiler to chew, and her tummy was flat and accessorised with the perfect little outie.
Everyone made pairs to zip each other up. Sarah made a beeline for me. I pulled the two sides of her bodice together smearing my hand across the skin of her back and turned around so she could do mine.
And then she began to chant.
‘Kristen’s got ro-olls. Kristen’s got ro-olls.’
The other girls barely missed a beat before they joined in. ‘Kristen’s got ro-olls. Kristen’s got ro-olls.’
The prickles came back but this time they started in my chest. They plunged into the pit of my stomach. Sharper, faster, more of them. I couldn’t breathe. Then I realised Sarah had zipped my dress up and it was way too tight. Even sucking in my stomach didn’t help. It was glued to my whole body, all my rolls, and I couldn’t move. She probably gave her mum the wrong measurements on purpose. Miss O’Reily came in then and the chanting stopped. But so had my breathing.
‘Okay girls, hornpipes up, the whole way through,’ she said. ‘Miss,’ I gasped.
‘No excuses Kristen,’ she said, ‘you first. The red suits you.’
Sarah’s competition ritual was her mum waking her up with a hot choccy and the good marshmallows from Woolies.
Mine was blowing chunks into the toilet bowl.
I would scull orange juice from the carton to get the taste out of my mouth and only brush my teeth if Sandra told me to, which she didn’t do much.
The other girls in my section would all get ready together at the venue but I did it at home so Sandra didn’t have to wait at the feis any longer than she had to.
‘If I want’d to see a bunch of kids wearin’ next to nothin’ I’d look at ya granpa’s computer,’ she’d say.
I yanked my hair back as tight as I could and stuck my wig on, looking for lumps in between the specks of toothpaste and flecks of blood clouding the bathroom mirror. I squirted foundation over my face, smeared blush over my cheeks, and ran lipstick over my mouth.
‘Sandra, I’m ready!’ I yelled.
‘Not til you wipe that lipstick off ya teeth ya grot.’
The warm-up room was set in the foyer of the school where the hosting dance academy would put stalls of hard-shoes, shamrock keychains, bubble socks, and tape tarkett to the floor. When I got there, everyone had already gone inside to watch the results of the under 12s so I had it to myself. I wouldn’t have long, because other sections didn’t wait on stage after getting their trophies like I did; I liked to stand on the podium holding my championship cup, until they turned the stage lights off.
‘Kristen!’ Sarah shouted from the other side of the room. ‘Hi Sarah,’ I said.
‘I think we’re about to be called in so we should get in our dresses,’ she said.
It was then that I noticed what she was wearing on top of her bloomers. The shirt.
Black, collared, mine. I scrunched my eyes shut as the prickles came back like tiny bites of a Tassie devil.
We danced our hardshoe first; we were jigs this year. I grit my way through the battle with my dress, it was like a boa constrictor, with every gulp of air, every font click in front of the judges, I felt more like a mashed banana.
Reels were next, I loved reels. Everyone always complimented me on my reels. I squeezed out my best, and panting as heavily as my dress would allow, I wobbled off the stage and out to the warm-up area.
‘Sarah can you unzip me?’ I heaved. ‘Nuh, uh. I don’t want to see your rolls.’
‘Please,’ I said pushing down the prickles that appeared my throat. ‘Why are you so tired anyway? You’re dripping. Sweaty Pig.’
The prickles worked their way into my eyes, like a servo slushie brainfreeze. All I could feel were pins. All I could see were glowing dots of pain.
Then, after a while, they stopped.
‘Number 45. Please come to the backstage area if you wish to receive your medal.
We were waiting on stage for Sarah to come and get her result. But she didn’t come.
Probably having a piss. The MC didn’t wait for very long, she only got 11th, so it didn’t matter that much. Had to announce the top ten, and then the top five, we were the world qualifiers.
‘And in first place, number 44, Kristen Roma from the O’Reily School!’
I grinned and stepped up onto the first-place block. Again. My dance teacher put the sash over my head and handed me the trophies. The fiddle started playing and I pulled my cheeks back exposing my urine yellow teeth for the photos. Slowly, other girls got off the stage. Not me. Not yet. The lights were still blinding.
‘Would everyone please remain in the auditorium so the paramedics can access the warm-up area. There’s been an accident with competitor number 45, Sarah Hall.’
Sarah’s mum knew stuff that Sandra didn’t. Like what to do if your daughter is injured, or how to cook rice without a microwave. The Paramedics had barely wheeled her away when Sarah’s mum had the police there asking questions. There were two of them. Tall with mean faces. One had a boil on his chin, red and pus-y ready to pop. Sandra dragged me aside while they questioned the adults in the canteen. I kept my trophy with me like a shield.
‘When was the last time you saw Sarah?’ Sandra asked. ‘I dunno,’ I said, ‘after the reels, before sets,’
The boil cop sauntered over to us. ‘Hi sweetie, can I talk to your mum for a second?’ ‘Foster,’ I said.
‘What?’ he asked.
‘Foster mum, not my real mum.’
‘I see. Well I just need to ask her some questions about your friend.’
I shrugged. I could easily reach out and pinch his spot. Just a little bit. ‘Why don’t you pop your boil?’ I asked.
He tightened his mouth and turned as red as the inflamed mound on his chin.
Sandra whacked me on the arm, ‘Watch ya mouth,’ she said, ‘An’ you coulda hurt her yourself, yer twice her size.’
I whacked Sandra back and shifted my trophy in front of my stomach, ‘Nuh uh! Even if she was a copycat.’
Boil cop made his eyes squinty at us like the sun was in them, ‘If you don’t mind ma’am, I’d like to talk to you now.’
Sandra glared at me, ‘Don’ move, we’re leavin’ when I’m back.’
‘Fine.’ I said. And I sat down cradling my trophy like a Baby Bjorn to watch the stage lights fade.
Rebekah is a writer, and law / creative writing student at the Queensland University of Technology. Her writing is informed by her experience with intimate partner violence and focuses on power dynamics, class inequality, the body, and lesbian aesthetics. Her work was shortlisted for the Better Read Than Dead Short Story Prize and has been published in the corresponding anthology, as well as Archer, Verses, and GLASS magazine. She lives in Meanjin with her fiancé Eirin and her cat/son Robert.