Meet June Jindabyne. She’s a girl with a not-so-secret secret.
Every time something shitty happens (break-up; rejection; loss), she grows an extra layer of skin. No, not a metaphorical layer of skin. A real life, touch-it-don’t-touch-it layer of skin. She’s a girl with one hell of a callus.
It first happened one lazyhot afternoon during P.E. in Grade Seven. Picture this: June’s thirteen. Her best friend is fourteen, her mum is forty and her dad died ten years ago. These are just some of the numbers that race around June’s brain, interrupting her thoughts when she’s lying wide-eyed in bed, or daydreaming at her school desk.
‘Oi, June!’ Steve Granger calls out, waving across the school cricket pitch.
She hates cricket. Hates. She doesn’t understand why everyone chomps at the bit to hit a ball across a hot oval. She’d rather listen to her TLC CD.
At home, June plays the CD on her discman until her sister swears at her to stop, just fucking stop playing that stupid Waterfalls song.
April is two years older and under Sibling Law is considered the most mature Jindabyne sister in the house by her mother, who is Cop, Magistrate and Prison Guard rolled into one. June dreams of becoming a barrister and learning how to defend real clients in court.
For the time being at least, she is thirteen and in school and her courtroom is confined to a four-bedroom family home. Or the schoolyard, where June sits now, popping her watermelon gum and fiddling with the cricket bat in her hand. P.E. is only halfway through, and June is dreading hearing her name called to the pitch.
Panicking, June looks up. Nah, it’s not my turn. It’s just Steve. He probably wants to know why I’ve been avoiding him.
Sure enough, he yells, ‘Why are you avoiding me? Huuuuuuh?’ It must be hard for Steve to say this and let out a loud sigh across a large oval at the same time but he manages it quite well.
‘LOOK I’LL COME OVER OK?’ June trudges across the grass, dragging her bat in her reluctant wake.
‘WassgoinonJoon?’ Steve says through a mouthful of ham-and-cheese sandwich.
‘Nothing,’ she says.
‘Is it Brad?’
‘That bitch Jenny?’
‘Mr. Brinkley? You know you don’t even havta listen to him, he’s a dufus. I thought that cartoon you drew on the blackboard was real funny.’
‘It was a dick butt drawing, Steve. Of course I got into trouble.’
‘Yeah! Brillian’. Everyone was gaggin’ over it you shoulda seen ‘em.’
At this, June’s ears go red. She plonks down next to Steve on the grass with a sigh.
‘It’s just…’ June opens her mouth, closes, opens and closes it again. While she does this, Steve fiddles with the gladwrap hugging the remains of his sandwich.
How could I tell him? I don’t think he’d understand. And what if he tells the rest of the group… or worse, what if he tells her? I’d die.
‘Just what?’ he snorts, curious.
‘Well… you know Jan?’
‘Hot girl in Grade Eight. Yeah. What about her?’
June does the open-close-open-close mouth thing again. Steve and June have been best friends since they lived next door to each other on Sunraysia St when they were in Grade Two. So he knows June has a secret she wants, but doesn’t want to tell him.
‘Do ya gots the hots for her?’ he says half-jokingly.
June shrugs, ‘I… guess. I guess I do. Pass me that other sandwich will you. I’m starving. And stop looking at me like you’ve just seen a ghost.’
‘Sorry. I just never- y-y’know- knew a lezzie before.’
‘I’m not a lesbian, Steve. I just… I just like her. OK?’
‘And don’t tell anyone, will you?’
‘Especially not Jan.’
‘Now can I have some of that sandwich?’
They sit in the hot silence, until Mr. Grinkley calls out Steve’s name.
‘Ah, guess I’m up next,’ he says, clambering up, ‘can I take that bat?’
June yanks a blade of grass from the ground and begins to chew.
The tang mixes with her saliva, and it reminds her of another summer afternoon, this time at home, eating salty pistachios and watching black-and-white Paul Newman movies.
‘Now there’s a man,’ her mum would say, gesturing at Newman, unscrewing the tops of parking meters, blind-drunk and determined.
He would tip his broad-rimmed hat with a wink at the camera and May-Anne Jindabyne would slurp her lemonade and flick another pistachio shell in a ceramic bowl with a ting.
‘Never settle for anything else, June-bug.’
‘Never settle for second best!’ Mr. Grinkley yells at the cricket pitch, to no one in particular.
This is one of Mr. Grinkley’s go-to cries, encouraging success to varying degrees, along with ‘go get ‘em!’, ‘you call that a bowl?’ or ‘you’ll have to try harder if you’re going to get anywhere!’
He casts an accusatory look at the crowd of students on the sidelines. ‘Come along, everyone! Now who hasn’t had a turn yet? Are you coming Steve?’
June watches as Steve stalks back across the oval near a red-faced and sweaty-browed Mr. Grinkley, who is flailing his arms around like a windmill. His black-and-white Collingwood cap flies off his head. He sighs, picks up the hat and wanders off in the direction of shade.
June is half-tempted to follow, but instead takes out her discman and lies down on a patch of grass, using her backpack as a makeshift pillow. It’s some time before the CD stops and June wakes up to the sound of jeering. Her freckles burn in the sun.
Nearby, Gary Stinner and his mates have left the group to gather a pile of sticks. The guy with Gary – Jad or James Someone – jumps with excitement as he picks up a thick piece of branch.
It all then happens very quickly: he takes aim at the tree; a sqwark; a black-and-white blur falls to the ground.
‘What the hell?’ June jumps up and stalks across the oval.
‘IssnotyourturnyetJune,’ Gary Stinner says.
‘I’m not over here to play stupid cricket, Gary,’ June snaps.
‘Well, jeez,’ Gary’s lazy eye narrows and he spits at the ground.
‘You’re disgusting. What are you guys doing anyway?’
James Someone turns to June, shrugs. ‘Nuthin’.’
The magpie lies still at his feet. It takes June a moment to realise the bird is dead.
‘You idiot! You just killed it!’
June crouches over the magpie. Its leg is twisted from the impact of the fall. She holds its soft head in her hands; the still-sheen of its feathers is soft like her grandmother’s chooks. June wants to keep stroking the magpie’s head like this, until she can coax another singsong warble from the depths of its chest. Until everything else is still. Until the rest of the school disappears.
June feels her cheeks flare and her mind turns blank-red and a voice, maybe hers, spits, ‘fuck off, dickheads.’
Confused grunts, but Gary quickly recovers with, ‘Don’t get your dacks in a twist!’
The other boys snigger.
June blinks back surprise at her flit of fury. In a split-second, her wrists start to tingle. My hands are too small for my skin, she thinks, looking down at her pale fingers. She’s not sure where this thought comes from, but now that she’s said it aloud (has she said it aloud?) she’s certain of it. My skin is growing.
Before June has time to process all this, James Someone leans over to Gary, whispering in his ear.
Gary’s eyes widen. His red, wiry eyebrows rise as though lifted by the force of a secret. Even his lazy blue eye fixes on June. The tingling in her hand crawls up her wrist, then to her elbow.
‘Why didn’t you tell us?’ Gary smirks.
‘Tell you what?’ June snaps up, folding her arms.
‘Why didn’t you tell us you’re a dyke eh?’
‘What?’ The corners of June’s mouth go dry. She bites her lip.
‘You heard him,’ James Someone chimes in.
‘Dunno what you’re talking about,’ June finds her voice again. Just.
Around her, the school ground buzzes to its natural rhythm. Mr. Grinkley’s resurgent yelling; the distant barking of neighbourly dogs; the clanging of Grade Six’s banging drums in the nearby music shed in practice for the School Eisteddfod.
‘DYKE. Y’know. DEE-EYE-KAY-EE,’ Gary pauses on each letter.
‘Learn to spell before making big accusations like that Gary, okay?’ June huffs.
As she turns to walk away, James Someone says something that makes June’s hands vibrate.
‘Steve told us.’
‘Yeah, just now. Sounded pretty upset. Like he had a boner for you or something. I told him he was pretty stupid ‘cos only a fag could like a dyke like you. Now we all know.’
June inhales, then exhales.
She closes her eyes and pictures Steve, sitting next to her on a trampoline (a product of weeks of begging her mother when she was seven), eating lime icy poles. Another scene: Steve and June, folding paper aeroplanes in her backyard. June had always talked to Steve about everything. He was always the first person she dialled when something was wrong, like when she missed her Dad, or when she wanted to just talk shit for two hours. June felt more alone than she had for a while.
She suddenly notices Gary staring at her. Or maybe it’s just his lazy eye. She turns and leaves.
‘Oi, where are ya going?’ Gary yells at June’s back, but it’s too late. She’s running, past the boys and the cricket pitch and the demountable classrooms, running until the blisters on her left foot rub red raw against her lace-up sneakers.
June finds the girl’s loos and sits down in an empty cubicle, her breaths shallow and flustered.
She looks down at her hands again. Is it my imagination or are they darker? Curious, she traces her left palm with her hand. June’s skin is normally soft to touch. It’s something Steve always ruthlessly teased her about (‘Like a baby’s bum! Never worked a bloody day in your life have ya?’). The thought of Steve makes June wince.
My hands aren’t soft anymore. They feel different. Hardened, somehow.
June unzips her bag and pulled out a blue biro. She pricks her left palm with the biro, expecting to see a dark dot. But it doesn’t leave a trace. She pushes the pen’s point deeper into her skin, but again, nothing. Just a tiny point of pressure. What is going on? June pulls out her maths notebook and runs her pen over the margins. Tiny blue scribbles. Nothing out of the ordinary. It’s definitely not this pen, then.
Someone steps into the cubicle next to June. ‘Oh, thank god,’ a voice says, letting rip a loud, thunderous fart, the kind that could bowl over a small animal.
It makes June giggle in spite of herself.
She pulls out a pocket mirror from her bag: a tiny one with a leather case her mum had given her years ago. She examines her face, from the freckles on her nose to her auburn hair. The skin on her face looked different, too. She can’t really explain it to herself just yet, except to say that it looks rougher. A feeling of now having the ‘hardened’ look of someone much older than thirteen.
June flushes the toilet, hurrying out the door before the other girl gets out. It’s not that she’s afraid someone might see her; she just doesn’t really want to explain what was going on to anyone yet – at least until she can explain it to herself.
She glances at her watch: 12.45. I might have time to sneak back before mum comes home from work. June grabs her bag from her locker, pushing thoughts of Steve and the dead magpie and Gary Stinner out of her mind with each determined step back to her house.
I’ll sneak back tonight, and if the magpie’s still there, I’ll bury it. I’ll find a little patch of grass in our backyard and a nice box for it to sleep in. I’ll call Steve and see if he wants to come too. No, wait. I won’t call Steve. I’ll give him a week and if he doesn’t apologise for fucking up our friendship by then, I’ll forget him. Who needs friends like that anyway?
As June walks past the red brick houses on Riverina Avenue, squinting in the midday sun, she thinks, maybe I’m becoming a weird Spiderman-type-thing.
She laughs aloud at this, and immediately dismisses the thought.
Image credit: Mark