1989, and the hottest summer on record, at least since I’d been born. Salt ‘n’ Pepa were all over the airways and in our tiny suburb, between crimping fringes and rearranging fluoro bobby socks, all of the other third-grade girls were singing let’s talk about sex. We didn’t realise the real revolution wasn’t bumping and grinding at eight and a half, but two unbroken young brown women, loud and giving the finger to the world on Video Hits. I wanted to be as far away from those two condiment shakers as I could possibly be, and if further change was on offer, then thankyou very much I’d also like to be a little less like me. I wanted to be less springy black afrocurl, wanted eyes less the colour of wet potting soil and maybe more the medium brown of ordinary mud, craved skin a little milkier than the specific shade of brown I was.
I never for one minute wanted to be Madonna, or Olivia, or Kylie. I was already a realist. Besides which I thought Brooke McNamara, the most popular girl in grade three (who looked most like I imagined Madonna, or Olivia, or Kylie would look up close), odd. Brooke’s yellow curls were two shades lighter than her sun-tanned skin. Her eyes were the exact green of the beer bottles my Dad drank from and drained just as empty. Looking like Brooke was the last thing I wanted.
All I wanted was to be a little less me, but nobody understood this, and I didn’t know quite how to articulate it so they could. Every lunch-time I read in the library instead of playing Kiss & Catch. I liked it in the library, though I knew enough to suspect that in real life the mothers of Stoneybrook would never have let Jessie, Claudia or any other ethnic anywhere near their immaculately blonde-bobbed children, even with the endorsement of the whole rest of Anne M. Martin’s Babysitter’s Club.
Life changed when Mr Donolan stood out in front of the class in his Eurythmics t-shirt, his pale hand resting on the new girl’s shiny black hair and said “Kids, this is Shu Yi”.
Shu Yi was the most beautiful creature had ever seen, and what I was supposed to be. Word around was Shu Yi was from another planet entirely, and she was so other-worldly I wasn’t inclined to disagree. She had eyes a little more almond than mine, but with caramel coloured pupils, skin a little lighter, and straight charcoal hair cut close around her sculpted cheeks. The strands of Shu Yi’s hair were thin and whispy, like the black threads which hung from the Hiawatha skirt my mother had made me for the book week parade earlier in the year.
Shu Yi was exactly what I would have been like if I were a little less me. Where I was flat white with an extra shot, Shu Yi was coloured weak soy latte. My soft, thick lips could suck McThickshake through a yellow and red-striped straw no problem, but the new girl’s features were made of fine porcelain. I stared mesmerised as her nervous wafer fingers brushed the hair from her face. Shu Yi was beautiful.
The new girl was quiet: head bowed, hair drawn over face like heavy black curtain. She sat alone during playlunch, fingertips disappearing into her round red Tupperware lunch-box and emerging tight around spicy smelling clumps of rice.
Brooke McNamara didn’t like Shu Yi. Brooke’s mother said the country was going to the dogs. Her whole family was thinking about moving out to Windsor because even Baulkham Hills was starting to look like another country.She whispered this in the library back corner during reading time: the kind of whisper you really want everybody to hear. Brooke’s mother’s word was gospel in our playground, and her daughter a willing oracle.
“What country is this place starting to look like?” asked Bradley Deaken.
Brooke smirked across the reading circle towards me. “I don’t know. Maybe Africa or something”, she pointedly turned the page of her Golden Book.
Shu Yi’s life became misery. Walking behind her out the back gate in the afternoons, misshapen spit-ball constellations stood out against her satin hair. She returned from playlunch missing frilly socks, scrunchies or sparkly hair clips, eyes puffy and downcast.
I buried my head in the library’s bumper Hans Christian Anderson and the worn grey bean bag in the Fairytale Corner. Wondrous as she seemed, Shu Yi wasn’t a problem I wanted to take on. Besides, my own life had become easier: Brooke and the others hadn’t come looking for me in months. At home, my relieved mother had finally taken the plastic bed-wetting undersheet off my bed.
Mr Donolan took me aside before assembly one day. He knew, he said pointedly, that I could be relied on to help Shu Yi to feel comfortable at her new school. Shu Yi stood several feet behind him, pleading eyes fixed on me.
That lunchtime, I could feel her following me all the way from the grade three seats up past the teacher’s staffroom. She walked several metres behind me, close to the brick wall as if it would somehow camouflage her movements. Glancing back through the automated glass door of the library I saw her stoop and place her red lunchbox on the library steps before quietly following me in.
I could taste the vomit in my mouth then. All I could think about was that round red lunchbox out there on the library steps. They would find her and when they did, I would be there as well. Probably Shu Yi knew nothing of bulls and flags, or Gretel’s breadcrumb trails – probably she thought leaving food outside was good etiquette.
I knew from the shadow falling across where Snuggle Pot and Cuddle Pie were sitting on a Eucalypt log that Shu Yi was standing before my beanbag. Her slim shadow fell directly across the Banksia Men . I clenched my knuckles around the open cover of the book, willing the girl to walk away from me.
The library door opened. Footsteps cluttered onto the foyer linoleum, then padded onto the reading area carpet. I knew without looking up what kind of company we had.
“Please, I sit here with you today.”
Usually when Shu Yi spoke she scrabbled for words, eyes rolling inwards as if searching the far reaches of her mind for a translation. This request came stilted but sure. I imagined her practising that morning in front of her bathroom mirror as she brushed the rice from between her slightly crooked teeth.
Shu Yi glanced behind her as Brooke and her mates semi-circled around us, then turned back to me pleadingly. I slammed the book shut and whispered – the kind of whisper you really want everyone in the room to hear. “Fuck off, Chinky”.
Brooke laughed, and immediately repeated my comment to the tittering group gathered around us.
Shu Yi’s eyes locked with mine. A thin trickle travelled out the bottom of her tunic and down the inside of her legs, soaking slowly into her frilly white socks.