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Hot Desk Extract: Allee Richards

Read Friday, 1 Apr 2022

As part of the Wheeler Centre’s Hot Desk Fellowship programme, Allee Richards worked on her novel-in-progress.

The story follows to young girls – Iris and Nina – and their years involved in the drama club of the all girls’ college they both attend. The themes the novel ruminates on are ambition, desire for fame, and the different ways that disappointment manifests for people. 

This extract is the prologue of Allee’s novel-in-progress. 

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Iris doesn’t remember the first time she met Nina. It drives her mad because when Iris looks back on school it’s like all she can remember is Nina. Nina in the drama room, both arms held straight above her head, holding a sign that read SHY. Nina standing in the middle of an empty quadrangle, her head stooped low, not moving as rain pelted onto the back of her neck. Nina sitting on the bench behind the performing arts centre writing in her notebook. Like Nina herself – that notebook appeared, as though from nowhere, and then it was always there. Forever flipping over to a new page, as though she’d never reach the end of whatever story she was telling.

Even when Iris distinctly recalls Nina not being there, the memory is shaded with her absence. Where was she going at lunch time all through year nine? Why didn’t she do the show in year ten? Iris woke up that night in the hotel room on her own.

She’s narrowed it down to three instances, all from the first half of year seven.  Logically she knows one must have been their first meeting.

They were learning field sports. The oval set with numerous bars for hurdles and high jump. There was a sandpit for long jumping. Iris doesn’t remember the sandpit as a permanent fixture on the oval. She also doesn’t see how that much sand could be bumped-in and out each time they needed to do field sports. Her only memory of it is from that day. She was lining up with other girls from their class. The students were instructed to practice the run up first. Approach the edge of the pit then stop. Only a toe over edge would result in a fault, meaning they needed to get a feel for distance. Like all the other students before her, Nina began five paces back from the pit. She ran and stopped short. Then, before Nina returned to the starting point to do her real jump, she dipped her toe into the sand. Her foot pointed downward, she poked the top of her runner onto the box then quickly removed it. Her gaze peered curiously into the shallow box. The action one does if they’re dipping their toe in a pool to test the water temperature. Iris doesn’t remember anything about Nina’s actual jump. Or her own, for that matter.

The village, a weekend. Iris was there with Molly. They’d bought custard scrolls from Brumby’s and taken them to a playground behind the shops. They sat idle on swings side-by-side. Iris had been watching a group of primary school aged boys pretending to shoot one another with sticks. One of them jumped and did a three-sixty turn on the spot. Suddenly he pointed his stick at the picnic table beside the playground. ‘Nina, you’re dead, you’re dead!’Iris hadn’t noticed until then that anyone was seated at the table. She looked over to see the crown of white-blonde hair. Nina was looking down at a mobile phone that lay flat on the table. She didn’t look up as she called out to the boy. ‘I told you, I’m invincible!’

‘Nina’s here.’ Molly said, licking custard from between her fingers. ‘Those are her brothers.’ Molly was matter-of-fact and Iris remembers being bewildered, but cannot place if it was because she didn’t know who Nina was, or she just hadn’t known about the boys. Possibly it was both. She remembers the smallest of the boys was climbing up the slide. It was a cylindrical shaped, tunnel-slide and he was climbing up and on the outside of it. Iris looked back to the lone, statue-esc figure at the table, then to the boys again. Even a stranger to Nina might be confused as to how she could be cut from the same cloth as those rowdy kids. Before they began their walk back to Molly’s house, Iris and Molly approached the park bench.

‘Hi Nina.’ Molly said.

Iris had seen Nina’s eyes dart quickly upward to them as they’d neared her, and yet Nina acted as though she was surprised to see people standing before her.

‘I didn’t see you there,’ she said, no hello.

Iris felt a sharp pain in her lower back. Molly yelled, ‘Piss off!’ Iris turned and saw the last boy – not the one who’d tried to kill Nina and not the small one who’d climbed up the slide –  the tallest of the three, running fast away from them. ‘You can’t disturb Nee-na!’ His brothers repeated him and then all three boys proceeded to chant in their prepubescent sing-song voices. ‘You can’t disturb Nee-na! You can’t disturb Nee-na!’

‘Sorry,’ Nina said.

The third memory is the most innocuous. Iris and Molly arrived at the library. They walked to some empty seats beside a window. They sat down and Nina was there, standing behind them.

‘You dropped your pen,’ she handed Iris a biro.

‘Thanks,’ Iris replied. ‘I hadn’t realised.’

‘You dropped it at your locker.’

Iris watched Nina turn and walk all the way across the library, disappearing then reappearing behind rows of books, until she reached the exit and left. Their lockers were all the way across campus. Nina hadn’t intended on staying in the library. Why hadn’t she just caught up to Iris to give her the pen? Was her statement, you dropped it at your locker, meant to flag how far Nina had walked to return it? As it was a nice gesture, Iris wasn’t allowed to be irritated by it, which of course made it more annoying.

Present in all these memories is the particular exasperation Iris only ever felt around Nina. Nina, could you stop saying sorry. Why can’t you just be normal? Iris knows how memory works – that each time you recall something you’re not remembering the time it happened, but the last time you remembered it. With each recalling it becomes uniquely warped, like a balloon you’re filling and emptying with your own breath for years. She can’t have hated Nina the first time she met her. It’s likely in those memories Iris felt nothing toward her. And yet she feels her dislike for Nina so deep in her bones she believes it must have been there before she was cast in Fame, before she even arrived at the college. To Iris it feels as though when her mother gave that final heave, when Iris’s legs slipped from the birth canal and she thwapped into the Latexed hands of some doctor, when her lungs opened for the first time, Iris believes she was screaming in rage.

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