This week's Bloc Feature comes to us from Voiceworks journal.
The Hair of Mary Donner
By Georgia Oman
It started after Mrs Lowell told Mary not to sit so close to the fan for the third time.
Every November, when the mercury in the novelty thermometer outside the nurse’s office began to creep towards forty, and the liquorice bitumen of the basketball court began to shimmer with heat haze, we tried to raise the windows to let some air in.
Mrs Lowell’s English classroom was on the third floor, the highest outpost in a mid-century monolith of cinderblock and cement. In summer, the heat got trapped in the thick, browning glass of the sash windows that overlayed the view of the footy oval with a cinematic, sepia-like sheen.
But they had either swelled in their frames long ago, or the school had sealed them, fearful of the three-storey drop. Either way we could never get them to open, and after Jarred McKinley dislocated his elbow we stopped trying.
The warm air seemed to expand within the closed room, trapped between the felt-covered noticeboards and the heavy carpet. Sweat beaded on the laminated faces of Shakespeare and Fitzgerald, and skin unprotected by shorts and hiked-up skirts adhered to the sherbet-orange plastic chairs; a sound like peeling Velcro followed the bell at the end of every lesson. An overhead fan whirred both loudly and lazily overhead, ineffectively circulating the air without cooling it, like stirring soup in a pot.
Nobody blamed Mary for what happened, even though she broke the small desk fan which was, at that time, the only real relief from the heat. The rotating fan squatted on the far corner of Mrs Lowell’s desk, rusted and humming like a motorboat as it oscillated in sharp, jerky movements. When Mrs Lowell read poetry it punctuated the meter like a metronome, making sure no iamb went unemphasised.
In a perverse upending of all known classroom logic, the best place to sit in Mrs Lowell’s English class was in the front row, where there was at least a slim chance of some lukewarm breeze wafting across your desk every ten seconds. While in other classes, as on the bus, the back row of seats filled up first, in summer the cavernous concrete stairwell leading up to the third floor echoed with the slap of hurried feet rushing to be the first inside.
It was an unspoken rule that the seat closest to the fan was reserved for Mary. Nobody remembered how it started. It was unlike us to be so considerate, so I suspect Mrs Lowell must have been the one to suggest she sit there, and then it just became her seat. Just as the pottery kiln belonged to Mrs Klein, the art teacher, or the sprawling Moreton Bay fig tree by the chain link fence belonged to the intermittent gardener, the front row desk second from the right in Mrs Lowell’s third floor English classroom belonged to Mary Donner. Nobody begrudged it her either because we all knew that Mary Donner, more than any of us, suffered from the heat.
Mary’s legs never peeled off her chair at the end of the lesson because her mother bought her plaid school skirts four sizes too big. She tailored the waists herself, so that the hem sat just above Mary’s ankles. Every movement was a smothered goose-step, as she kicked the heavy woollen fabric out in front of her.
But even stranger than Mary’s uniform was her hair.
Mary’s mother, it was said, had never let scissors anywhere near her daughter’s hair. To watch Mary unbind it from a bun or a braid was to watch a dam burst its banks; it cascaded down over her shoulders in a mouse-brown mass, gentle undulations the only sign of curls pulled straight by the weight of gravity, landing somewhere around the backs of her knees.
‘Do you know how much that head of hair would be worth?’
My Aunt Rhonda worked three days a week at Half-Price Hair & Beauty. Years ago, someone had fixed a dollar coin to the footpath in front of the salon with a wad of gum that, over time, had hardened into the cement. Every week Rhonda watched as Mary, on her way home from school, would stumble over the coin as though for the first time.
‘I could make a mint selling that hair online. Virgin hair, that’s what they call it. No perm, colour, bleach, not even a trim – Jesus, she’s probably never even had a blow-dry. An absolute mint, I’m telling you.’
The burden of having such a heavy curtain of hair in the boiler-room that was Mrs Lowell’s classroom became apparent as each lesson wore on. Mary’s face, round and pale, was punctured by two pink dots in her cheeks that gradually spread to cover her whole face with a rosy tint. Her neck, when she gathered her rope of hair in both hands and pulled it over one shoulder with a sailor’s heave, was slick and sticky with sweat. Nobody minded when Mary Donner sat straight in front of the fan, and even Mrs Lowell usually turned a blind eye when she inched her chair closer and closer to the spluttering blades. That day, however, even Mrs Lowell noticed that Mary’s chair was further out of line than usual.
‘Mary, dear, that’s close enough now,’ she said. ‘Now who wants to read Polonius?’
Five minutes later, Mrs Lowell interrupted Kelly Water’s monotonous recitation of Ophelia’s final speech to ask Mary to stop squeaking her chair. Silence reigned for another ten minutes, before the stealth advance of chair legs across carpet commenced once more. Mrs Lowell snapped shut her dog-eared Arden Shakespeare with a thespian’s sigh.
‘Mary Donner, if I see you move one more inch…’
She was cut off by the whine of struggling machinery, rising and falling in sputtering bursts like a waterlogged outboard motor. The ancient desk fan on Mrs Lowell’s desk had paused in its half-hearted rotation and, juddering noisily, had come to a stop facing the window. Its rust-spotted blades resembled a diseased flower that had turned towards the sun.
The reason for its breakdown was immediately clear. Mary’s long, virgin hair was spinning, knotted and tangled, in the whirring motor. With surprising speed, it had become wrapped around the blades that laboured under its choking weight. Remarkably, Mary hadn’t been wrenched out of her chair. She remained seated, tilted on her toes at a forty-five degree angle, with her forehead touching the protective casing of the fan as her hair was pulled inexorably further into the grinding heart of the rotor.
It was Mrs Lowell who made the first hacking cuts to free Mary, after leaping up to yank the extension cord from the power-socket on the wall. At first Mrs Lowell tried to manoeuver her scissors between the narrow gaps of the casing, but they were too large to reach far enough inside. After several minutes watching her struggle, Tony Porter volunteered his green left-handed scissors, which were the only pair small enough to fit through the holes. Sawing at Mary’s hair with blades blunted by dried glue, Mrs Lowell worked fast, with Marry moving her head obligingly every few minutes as her predicament allowed.
Just as the novelty of the situation began to wear off, and eyes strayed to the clock on the wall, Mrs Lowell severed the last strands connecting Mary to the fan. She sat back in her chair, her forehead marked with red grooves where the casing had been pressed against her skin. Other than that, Mary seemed disappointingly unaffected. In the end, only a few inches of mousy-brown hair had been lost. Those sacrificed locks hung loosely from the blades of the fan.
Mrs Lowell asked if she would like to go home early, seeing as her head was probably quite sore. It was only then that I realised Mary hadn’t made a sound while the whizzing motor swallowed up her hair, reeling it in like a fishing line. But Mary said yes, she would like to go home, and began to collect her books.
Mary’s hair, when she arrived at school the next morning, had been cut back to one length. In shearing off the jagged clumps with a pair of quilting scissors over the kitchen sink, her mother had taken off the bare minimum required to make it even. It no longer snaked into tendrils that had looked as though they had emerged with Mary from the womb, but the newly-blunt edge still brushed the bottom of her thigh.
Mrs Lowell had thrown out the fan, but by invoking vague threats of health and safety, our parents, led by Mary’s mother, petitioned for air-conditioning to be installed. Mary Donner still sat in her seat, even after two maintenance man came and installed the crisp new air-conditioning unit at the back of the classroom, right between alliteration and assonance on the alphabet of literary terms that skirted the ceiling.
The next incident wasn’t until a few weeks later, in the science lab. All the ‘specialist’ rooms – science, art, and music – were in what was still called the ‘new wing’ of the school, even though it too had experienced the slow decline from architectural showpiece to something resembling a bleak Soviet housing estate.
The science lab had been envisioned in blinding, clinical white from floor to ceiling, but over the years it had acquired a mottled, liver-spotted appearance from numerous spills, burns, stains, and assorted vandalism. Most of the time, Mr Williams lectured from the whiteboard while we copied down notes from the desks clustered in the centre of the room, but very occasionally we were allowed to don plastic goggles and perform ‘experiments’ at one of the four lab stations.
We were learning physics that term, and had to write a report on convection currents. Each table had a Bunsen burner, a glass box with two funnels, and a stick of blown-out incense, with which we were to confirm that heat did, indeed, rise. I wasn’t on Mary’s table, so the first thing I noticed was a noxious, sulphurous smell permeating the room. ‘It wasn’t me’, came a loud, self-satisfied voice from the back. The other boys who stood clustered around the table, lighting matches and watching them burn, sniggered.
As the smell grew stronger, several of the girls made a show of holding their noses and breathing loudly through their mouths, while others pulled their shirt collars up to their eyes like a gas mask. At first I thought somebody must have knocked over the colourful test-tube of gases that Mr Williams kept, rubber-stoppered and on display in a rack on his desk. It was only when Kelly Waters let out a yelp that we all turned and saw Mary Donner leaning blithely over the smoke box, her curtain of hair draped across the Bunsen burner.
The fire damage only took a couple more inches off, but the smell of burning hair hung around the room for days. Kelly said that Mr Williams kept one of the singed locks, but nobody saw him take it and nobody really believed anything Kelly said anyway; she was the one who insisted Mary had placed her hair inside the Bunsen burner.
Again, Mary’s mother took out her quilting scissors and lopped off the bare minimum needed to make the ends even, so that you could still see a few charred, blackened ends, as though Mary had dipped her hair in an inkwell. There was a new rule after that; in the science room any hair longer than your collar needed to be securely fastened away from the face, which meant that even a few of the boys reluctantly tied back their salt-crusted hair in short, stiff ponytails.
After this second incident, Mary and her mother had a meeting with the principal. Nobody knew exactly what was said, but Miss Roberts the receptionist hinted that Mrs Donner became very agitated when Mr Palmer suggested that a shorter length might be more manageable for Mary. The phrase nobody will tell my daughter to cut her hair filtered through the brass-plated oak door, while some deep, muffled tones were the only indication of Mr Palmer’s placating reply. There was no sound from Mary.
Some sort of compromise must have been reached, though, because from then on Mary’s hair was always tied in a thick, rope-like braid whenever she was at school. It was said Mary’s mother plaited it each morning, not trusting Mary to do it herself. It was combed back so tightly against Mary’s head, and each strand of the braid woven so securely with the others, that in the hours separating Mary’s walk to and from school, stumbling on the trick coin either way, not a single stray hair came out of place.
Even with the new air-conditioning unit in Mrs Lowell’s classroom, sweat bloomed down the spine of Mary’s shirt where the braid rested heavily on her back. Mrs Lowell would always lower the temperature by a few degrees when she knew Mary was due in her classroom. On the day of the last incident, Mrs Lowell had just finished adjusting the remote control when she noticed the empty seat in front of her desk.
An incoherent mumble bubbled up in reply. Nobody recalled seeing her under the Moreton Bay fig, where she usually sat in the shade to eat her sandwich and mandarin. Haltingly Kelly Water said she might have maybe seen her go in to the girls’ toilets, maybe, but she couldn’t remember. Mrs Lowell told us all to sit quietly and read for a few minutes as left the classroom, saying she would be right back.
The rest of this story has been pieced together from various accounts. At lunchtime, after Mary was, for the third time, picked up early, Kelly went through the rubbish bin beside the sink in the girls’ toilets on the first floor of the new wing, and found a packet of Blu-Berri Bubble Pop gum, as well as empty wrappers for all five pieces that would have been inside. Jarred McKinley, who had gradually accumulated a moonscape of dried old pieces of gum on the underside of his desk, announced with great authority that you needed to chew each stick for at least three minutes to get any kind of adhesive consistency.
For the entire fifteen-minute recess, while we had lazily bounced tennis balls against the back wall of the canteen and held whispered conversations in the locker room, Mary Donner had sat in the girls’ toilets and individually chewed an entire packet of gum until it turned to glue in her mouth. When the bell rang, echoing shrilly throughout the tiled walls of the end stall, she had a blue tongue and gobstopper-sized ball of used gum as sticky and viscous as adhesive putty. By the time the clack of Mrs Lowell’s sensible low-heeled shoes could be heard advancing down the corridor outside, Mary had already begun to calmly and methodically work it into her hair.
Voiceworks, published by Express Media, is a literary journal which focuses on providing a platform for writers and artists under the age of 25 to showcase their work. We don’t commission any pieces – everything you see in the magazine is the result of an open callout – which means we always receive an eclectic variety of both topics and styles of writing tethered together by a singular theme.
The Hair of Mary Donner is featured in our issue, 102, ‘Defiance’. What immediately struck me about this piece is that it is simultaneously relatable through Oman’s depiction of the classroom, and yet quietly sinister. Selecting a setting in which your audience is bound to be emotionally invested sets writers an additional challenge to differentiate their work from what has come before, and we felt that this piece rose to it exceptionally well.
Georgia Oman is a writer from Perth. Her work has been featured in Voiceworks, Popshot, and Avenoir Magazine.