Mum says that dad says she shouldn’t worry so much about her hair and then mum snorts and says she’s not high maintenance despite what he says, and anyway, what’s so wrong about wanting to look good? I stir my cornflakes with my spoon and look at the orange light coming in through the window. Mum moves around the kitchen waving her hands and cutting sandwiches into tiny squares. Mum says that dad says she’s vain but I don’t know what vain means so I eat my cornflakes and when I’m done I take my bowl to the sink and tip the milk out and Mum looks at me and screams. When she screams her voice goes all ugly and high pitched and her eyes go super dark, even darker than normal which is hard because they’re already pretty dark, and she also scrunches her mouth up. I ask her why she’s screaming but she doesn’t answer, and then she slams the door shut, and so I pick up my backpack and walk to the bus stop alone.
It’s nice outside and I like the way the trees sway in the wind, as though they’re doing some kind of dance. I wish I could dance. Some of the other kids are really good at dancing but dad says dancing is for pussies and then he laughs and says something about how pussies are great, and I don’t know what he means, but I guess I’m not going to get dance lessons. When the bus pulls up I get on and take a seat near the front. It’s started to rain outside and the raindrops are the big fat kind and I lean into the window, until my face is vibrating against the glass, and I wonder if dad will come home tonight. Angela, the girl next to me, tugs on my t-shirt. My t-shirt has gravy stains on it but mum says no one will notice.
‘You’re weird,’ Angela says, and she laughs inside her hand. ‘Your hair looks like a toilet brush.’ I turn to look at her, and her hair is all sleek and glossy, and she looks like she’s just stepped out of a movie. I roll my lips together, until they’re all fat and sluggy, and then I spit right into her face. She looks shocked and starts to cry. The bus driver shouts something out but we can’t hear him over the roar of the engine. I’ve seen dad spit at mum though so I know it’s okay. Angela cries like a little baby and then she reaches over and pulls one of my plaits really hard. I plaited my own hair this morning and I know it doesn’t look that good but mum says she doesn’t have time for stuff like that and I really wanted plaits because I like the curls plaits put in my hair. Some of the other girls have naturally curly hair and I hate them but mum says I shouldn’t hate people. She doesn’t say why not.
‘Eww,’ Angela yells at me. ‘I hate you! You’re gross and weird and nobody likes you.’ She wipes her face with her hand and I laugh again, just the way I’ve seen dad laugh, and then I shake my head, and lean back into the window. I watch the red cars and the blue cars and the white cars and then finally we’re at school. I grab my backpack and I push past Angela and I run through the school gates, as fast as I can. I like running.
The first class I have is maths and I’m really good at maths. I’m going to be a mathematician when I grow up. Dad says girls can’t be mathematicians. He says I should think about becoming a hairdresser. One time dad bought me a Barbie doll and said I could do her hair and when I said I’d prefer a book he got mad and slammed his fist into the wall. Later he said it was only because the doll had been really expensive. He left a great big hole in the wall.
In maths class I sit right at the front and unpack my bag. I lay my pencil out in front of me and I sit up super duper straight and wait for Mr Bailey. But Mr Bailey doesn’t turn up. It’s some other guy and this new guy has yellow hair and a dimple in his cheek and when he smiles he looks like a crocodile. I’ve never seen a crocodile in real life before. Mum says you can eat crocodile burgers in Darwin and that one-day we’ll go. She says a holiday will be nice. We’ve lived in Sydney my whole life and I like Sydney because the beaches are nice and in the summer everything tastes like sunscreen and icy poles. The new maths teacher writes things on the whiteboard and he has really ugly handwriting. I shout out the answer because I always know the answer but he ignores me.
‘Hey,’ I yell. ‘It’s 144!’ He doesn’t even look at me. ‘Hey,’ I say again. ‘Helloooooooo,’ and I’m frustrated, and I beat my hands down on the desk. ‘144!’
When he finally turns around he looks furious and I wonder if his head is going to blow off. He sighs and puts his hands together, like he’s praying.
‘Hand up,’ he says.
‘What?’ I blink.
‘You need to,’ he makes a lifting motion with his arm. ‘Put your hand up.’
‘Why,’ I start to say but he turns away again, and for the rest of the class he ignores me, even when I stick my hand up. It’s not fair because I know all the answers and half of the other kids he calls on don’t even know what they’re talking about. When class is over I don’t move from my seat. I sit and chew on my pencil and I look out the window and it’s blue out there and I think about funny the weather is. Sometimes it rains and sometimes it doesn’t. The teacher coughs and looks at me but I pretend not to notice.
‘Class is over,’ he says. He looks straight at me and even from the corner of my eye, I can see that he’s really ugly. I shove my hands into my pockets. ‘Do you have a question?’ he asks, and I turn and look at him.
I have a million questions and I think about asking him why my dad sometimes hits my mum and I want to ask him why I’m not allowed to drink coffee and why the other kids don’t like me and why it gets dark at night. But I don’t ask any of that and he just looks at me and narrows his eyes, and it’s hard to know what he’s thinking. His eyes are like those pools that crabs play in at the beach, except there aren’t any crabs in his eyes, at least not any that I can see. He starts to smile but I hate it when teachers smile so I roll my lips together, until they’re all fat and sluggy, and then I spit. My spit runs down his nose and he looks so angry, like one of those boxing kangaroos I sometimes see on cartoons, and I hold in my laughter until I can’t help it and it all explodes out of my cheeks.
I get sent home and when I walk home I go really slowly, until I’ve wasted most of the morning. At home it’s very quiet and dark and when I go into mum’s room I switch the light on. She’s lying in bed, resting her head on dad’s chest, and there’s a blue mark on her face that wasn’t there this morning, but she grins and I grin back. I jump into the bed with them.
‘What the fuck,’ dad says. He looks me up and down and for a second I think he’s going to push me off the bed but he ruffles my hair instead.
‘Why are you home so early?’ Mum asks.
‘I spat at the teacher,’ I say, and then I pull the doona up over my head and mum pulls it down again.
‘What?’ she laughs and I say it again and she just looks at me and I wonder if later we can have chocolate ice cream for tea. I look at the bruise on mum’s cheek. We lie in the bed for ages, and mum holds my hand underneath the cover. Dad gets up after a bit and he goes into the kitchen and gets some smokes and then he comes back in and passes mum one.
‘Can I have one?’ I say, and I sit up in the bed and pull my hair out of its plaits.
‘Your hair’s tangled,’ mum frowns. She fingers it gently.
‘It’s curly!’ I say but she shakes her head.
‘It’s just tangled,’ she says again. Dad lights his smoke.
‘I want one,’ I tell him, and he doesn’t say anything. He pulls another one out of the packet, lights it, and passes it to me. I hold it between my fingers.
‘You shouldn’t spit at people,’ dad suddenly says. Mum looks at him and nods. I put the smoke to my lips.
‘Your dad’s right,’ mum says, watching as I try to inhale. I cough loudly.
‘Whatever,’ I say. Dad grabs the smoke out of my mouth and puts it out on the bed.
‘Don’t spit at any more people, okay?’ he says, and I stare at him, and then I look at mum and she’s smiling and nodding, and then suddenly they’re smiling and nodding at one another, and outside the sun is setting and the sky is turning all pink and slushy. I shut my eyes and then, everything is silent.