Most people at school can be defined with one word, but not Annie. It’s like the rest of us read a handbook on finding a social niche, and Annie never looked past the cover. Or if she did, it was only to point out that the text was ludicrous before she threw it away.
Annie is fearless. Everyone thought she was shy, before we saw her in Drama. That’s when I figured out that quiet and shy are not the same thing, and that girl will do anything. The teacher asked us to be chickens, and while James rolled his eyes, and Karen giggled, and the rest of us pretended not to exist, Annie stood up and started pecking the ground. She must have heard Nina ripping on her, but she didn’t care.
Annie killed Peter Pan. She got the lead in Year 11, and I thought that Mr Hart had decided to break all the rules and let her cross-dress because she’d out-performed all the guys. But then I found out that Peter Pan’s always played by a girl. Anyway, she was the only person I saw on stage. Even when it was someone else’s scene, and Annie was lurking in the wings, I was watching her. Her steps were so light, her laugh so carefree, I almost believed she could fly. No way would I audition for a play and make an idiot of myself…but watching her made me jealous of Tinkerbell. And here’s the weird thing: I wasn’t even jealous of Jayden, the guy pointing the ‘fairy’ light on stage, who got to hang out with Annie at the rehearsals – I was jealous of the ball of light itself. The light dancing at her shoulder, hovering near her.
I saw the show once (with my little sister) in the school assembly hall, and then I made an excuse to go again. The second night was different. I thought maybe Jayden was hungover, because the white-yellow light kept sliding all over the place. Instead perching above her shoulder, the light kept slipping onto her face or chest…like a hyper-active firefly.
Fidgeting in my seat, I heard Tommy Dell and Aaron Mace chuckling behind me. I looked back at her, and the light blossoming on her chest, and choked.
The light made her tight green shirt see-through.
Heat rushed to my face. It was one hundred per cent not-funny. I dragged my eyes away, and looked at my Converse shoes. I remembered tracing the pattern of my laces in most Drama lessons, staring at my feet instead of pretending to be an irritable shopkeeper, or a chicken, or a convict on the run, or whatever else Mr Hart came up with.
Annie was pouring her soul into the performance. She shouldn’t have to deal with this. And I should really stop picturing her naked.
Without thinking, I turned and glared at Tommy Dell and Aaron Mace. I had no words, so I gave them the finger and when Aaron noticed he said, ‘What the bleep man?’.
Tommy sniggered louder beside him. They think they’re so clever, saying ‘bleep’ all the time in class so they can sort of swear without getting detention.
I still had no words; I stood, and pushed my legs down the aisle, towards the stage. When I was only two rows away, Annie glanced towards me, but didn’t meet my eyes. Then she looked away and asked Wendy a heavy question, in a light voice.
Pushing open the Fire Escape door to the left of the stage, I followed the stairs and climbed into the wings, behind a thick black curtain. Jayden was sitting on a the lights platform at the top of a ladder and, looking up, I saw his shoulders twitch.
I climbed the ladder, and heaved myself onto the wooden platform. Perched on his fold-out black chair, Jayden shook with silent laughter as he held the spotlight in place on its stand. A narrow beam of light shone from the whirring machine; its shape reminded me of pirates’ spyglasses in playgrounds.
I didn’t ask Jayden to stop, I didn’t threaten him or plan anything. He was lying on the ground, his mouth open in shock, with my knuckles buried in his ribs again before I registered that I’d hit him the first time.
The spotlight machine swung down with a heavy clunk, and hit the platform. Jayden yelled in my face, pushing me off him, and I shuffled back, blocking his blows and wanting to hit him again.
But I didn’t because for the first time that night Annie broke character, and looked up at me.
It was a deep, questioning look with none of Peter Pan’s joyful naivety. I saw confusion and curiosity in her expression, but not judgement.
I don’t know what I was hoping would happen – that I’d push Jayden off stage, maybe, and take over for him, or one of the dancers would fall over so people would remember that instead of Annie’s chest. What really happened was that Jayden wouldn’t shut up, the freak, and kept shouting at me, and the audience got loud in response, some whispering and others just calling out like they were at a soccer match, and Wendy panicked and forgot her lines, and Mrs Jaline, the principal, marched onstage to see what the hell was going on, while Mr Hart came backstage and found me and Jayden with fists up like boxers in an elevated ring.
The show must go on, I hear, but it didn’t. Mrs Jaline apologised to the audience and said, ‘Due to unruly and unacceptable student behaviour, the performance cannot continue this evening’. I got a month’s worth of Saturday detentions, Wendy left the hall sobbing in her nightie costume, and when Tommy Dell and Aaron Mace passed me on their way to the doors, muttering and throwing dark looks at me, I gave them the finger again.
Mrs Jaline saw and gave me another detention.
Slowly, the hall emptied. I recognised a bunch of people from my year as they trickled out, some of them with siblings or parents. The kids were the most reluctant to leave, and I watched a couple of tantrums. One boy, who was maybe five, wrapped his arms around his chair and wouldn’t let go. His mum had to drag him away, while he wailed.
I waited in the fourth row from the front, for Annie to get dressed and come out. After forty minutes, I thought maybe she’d decided to sneak out through some back door and was already home, or maybe she wanted to stay in this hall all night, thinking about the disaster that was meant to be her triumph.
Then I saw her, making her way quietly down the aisles between chairs, slim in a pair of pale blue jeans and a loose-fitted grey shirt. She’d taken pins out of her hair, and brushed out the scrunched curls, so it fell in fluffy caramel waves almost to her collarbone.
‘Hey,’ I said, standing.
Her face was clean and smooth without make-up, and she looked pensive rather than upset. Annie turned her huge hazel eyes on me and said, with a slight edge to her voice, ‘So, what was that?’
Dully, I realised that if I didn’t tell her, someone else would. I can’t remember the words I picked; I remember her cheeks changing colour, and making sure I looked only at her face while I talked.
Annie is vulnerable. In home-group the next day, Tommy nudged his desk buddy when she walked in, and murmured, ‘Nice tits’, and I threw my sharpener at his head.
‘Mr Taylor, that’s detention. You could have cut his face.’
I seriously doubted it, but the detentions were stacking up so I didn’t talk back.
Annie sat next to me in our next class. She kept her head bowed while she took notes, and I drew waves and swirls in my margins. While Ms Kenningson drew a mango-shaped heart on the whiteboard, and rambled about its four chambers, I death-stared any guy who looked at Annie, and at lunch my mate Ryan Murray told me, ‘Tasman, lighten up’.
But I didn’t, and giving the finger became my signature move. Tommy and Aaron deserved it most lessons, so it’s what they got when the teacher’s back was turned. Nina McInnes called it, “pulling a Tas”, and pretty soon everyone had adopted the expression. It wasn’t the coolest thing to be known for, but at least people were talking more about me and my attitude than Annie.
Before long we had an unspoken agreement to sit together for lunch. We’d trade off stories about playing Melting Candles and Bullrush, and argue over our favourite superheroes and authors. (Annie stood with the Hulk as a tragically misunderstood man in need of a little anger management, while I favoured Batman.)
I could tell she was grateful that I stood up for her, but she had a no-crap policy that applied to everyone, including me. Annie is tough. If I said something she deemed sexist she would shut me down immediately. Ryan sat with us a lot of the time, and she’d refuse to laugh at his jokes about our teachers. Annie is disarmingly honest; when she’s not on stage she doesn’t know how to pretend. She would stare the pair of us down, Ryan’s grin fading away and my laughter trailing until it got stuck in my throat.
See, Annie is compassionate. She can’t stand seeing anyone ridiculed, and she cares about world issues – the stuff I usually can’t be bothered thinking about. Her comments in SOSE drew eye-rolls and sighs from Nina, but she’d argue against capital punishment, and sending back refugees, with such passion that I’d feel my usual boredom die, and start to listen.
I knew Annie had empathy, but I didn’t realise how much until our Term 4 camp, at Mullin Creek. For the first two days, I had a blast. I was the only student to go through the advanced high ropes course, and it felt incredible up there in the red gum trees, hearing the kookaburras, and climbing and swinging on tyres, ramps, and branches, like a possum. Ryan brought cards, so Annie and I versed him in Speed and Poker around the campfire at night, and cracked up at Ryan’s complete lack of a poker-face. I ate burnt, rubbery sausages for breakfast, smothered in tomato sauce, and loved them.
Then, on the third day, we went to the Southside Falls, and I got caught in the river’s current and bashed against some rocks. I broke my right arm in two places, but I honestly don’t remember doing it. I remember being hauled out of the water – by Aaron Mace, of all people – and white pain searing through me while I swallowed my tears. And having Annie beside me.
I’d seen her suffer weeks of torture after the Peter Pan incident, trip down half a dozen stairs after Bio, endure countless jibes about me, and get knocked off her feet when she took a volleyball to the face during PE. I’d never seen her cry, but she was crying for me. My pain was somehow hers, too.
Mr Hart called out an ambulance, and I lay shivering in a grass patch with the sound of the rushing water loud in my ears, telling everyone to get the bleep away from me because I needed space. Then I realised I’d used Tommy Dell and Aaron Mace’s stupid expression, and hated myself for that.
When I woke up in hospital, Annie was sitting in a white plastic chair beside my bed. As soon as she saw I was awake, she was on her feet leaning over me. She brushed back my hair and murmured, ‘You’re okay, you’re okay, Tas’, and then my lips were on hers.
She told me later that she’d never been so shocked in her life, and I was just as surprised. I didn’t plan to kiss her – but I never planned anything with Annie. She kick-started something inside me, and I reacted.
It hurts to think about Annie, knowing I ruined things. I’d defend her from Tommy, from Jayden, from Nina and the whole world if I could – but I couldn’t stop arguing with her myself. The smallest things annoyed me, like her overuse of the word ‘maybe’, the way she cited statistics, or her refusal to use stronger curses than ‘bugger’ and ‘crap’. Or I’d start a conversation about TV shows, and end up explaining why her favourites were the worst, because problems couldn’t be fixed in half an hour with canned laughter in the background. I’d feel frustrated with her for wearing me down with a resolute look, or for spinning out strange logic that contradicted my own.
And sometimes – God, this sounds stupid – she made me feel small. She’d talk about plans for the future: getting good grades, moving to Sydney, studying acting…and I didn’t have a bloody clue what I was going to do. I was the guy best known for his middle finger, not the guy with talents or ambition. I could beat Ryan at any board game, and read whether he had a royal flush or not, but that counted for zilch. I was okay at rugby, could play basic guitar chords, and write an alright essay when I summoned the motivation…but I was sick of living in mediocre, and Annie made me more aware of everything I lacked.
We had a thousand stupid conversations where I forgot everything that made her shine: that she’s fearless, and vulnerable, smart, tough, and kind. I chucked a Tas, I guess; I took our relationship and said screw it, because I destroy and pull down more easily than I build, craft, create.
Annie is so many things. She is too hard to think about. But Annie is also impossible to forget.