Sandra and Melanie were talented thespians. Way beyond good; no one had realized they were the best actors in the whole damn school. Melanie was such a chameleon, not even Sandra had twigged to Mel’s self-nomination for leading actress in a goth part. Sandra, though, had the more challenging role. Yet, Mel never asked herself if Sandy, acting like St Theresa’s Catholic School head girls have always acted, was an example of excellent performance art.
Given Mel and Sandy’s theatricals had drawn attention away from the light they’d desperately hidden under a bushel, they joined in the applause as Debra Mullins, the year’s top drama queen, rather than best actress, stepped onto the stage to receive the drama subject award at the end of year prize giving.
Not that Sandy could complain, having worn a cloak of nerdy-girl competence all year, she’d already netted a handful of academic subject awards. But, Mel, who’d turned classroom insolence into an art form, caused the night’s biggest stir by subsequently winning the music award.
Mel was surprisingly gracious, her black lips semi-smiled when the principal handed over the music prize. The principal, even more surprisingly, was gracious in return; turning a blind eye to Mel’s last-day-of-school flouting of the rules. She’d forsaken the traditional white blouse for a black Alice Cooper School's Out t-shirt.
While school may have been done with another year group, they weren’t quite done with school. For the year twelve formal was only days away. Talk about having been top of the gossip pops all year. Yet the time for debating–frocks, boys, hair, boys, could alcohol flasks be smuggled in undies, boys, and, once more around the table, boys–was done and dusted.
Sandy had heard that Mel wasn’t going. Apparently, she couldn’t get the principal's approval for some guy who wasn’t from the local boy’s Catholic school. Debra’s rebuttal had been acidic. “Bullshit. She’s just covering up. No guy’s interest that witch.”
Too self-absorbed in her own formal dramas, Sandy hadn’t pondered on Debra’s inadvertent hint. Standard practice was the head girl gave a vote of thanks to the organisers. She had to go, but it wasn’t public speaking that was troubling Sandy.
It had taken time, but she’d eventually conjured up an ingenious solution to her formal quandary; though, in her heart of hearts, she knew it was a bit morally dubious. Brian was a nice enough guy, but the wind had totally gone out of his sails after a horrific spinal injury playing rugby. Confined to a wheelchair, he’d been thrilled to be invited. The playground gossips, even the sharp-tongued Debra, surprised. Their consensus: another wonderful example of Sandy’s sweetness, always supporting those bearing a burden.
In truth, Sandy couldn’t stomach the idea of bi-sexual kissing. Despite being trendy amongst her peers, she’d rather have stayed home than go to the formal with a guy who expected a snog. Or worse: the formal was, after all, a pop-culture rite of passage. Octopus-like hands might, therefore, think they had that rite of passage under her dress. Though she wasn’t acquainted with the word, Brian, unwittingly, was to be her beard.
She didn’t think there was another option. St Theresa’s wasn’t woke by any stretch of the imagination. The recent marriage equality legislation was, to quote the principal, “The work of the devil.” So, if there had been a same-sex a la carte option on the dinner dance menu, one, reasonably enough, could have assumed hell had frozen over.
The point was kind of moot anyway. She’d spend her school days deliberately burrowing into the closet, eliminating any risk of pinging gaydars. Mind you, while she knew the absence of gay people was a statistical impossibility, she’d never actually seen so much as a pride flag in her country town.
The formal passed without drama, which is to say no one noticed or questioned why she hadn't kissed a boy. Her last act as head girl, a well-received speech, was, as always, a tribute to her understanding of her audience.
The next few weeks, however, were the most trying of Sandy’s life. Anxiety about exam results conspired with the sauna-like heat, and she spent the early part of the summer in sweltering self-absorption over whether she’d be offered a place at Sydney University. She was totally over the moon when the university confirmed her hard work had been totally validated: accepted into medical school, no less.
While that was one load off her mind, she then panicked over Christmas shopping, having realized she’d left it too late for online orders to be delivered before Christmas Day. What passed as retail in her outback town just would have to do.
As always, being so far from the coast, it was another stinking hot December day. Sandy wasn’t about to overdo the exposed skin. Not just because she was sun smart, with melanoma in the family. Rather, anything more risqué than a short-sleeved t-shirt and denim shorts topped with the traditional Akubra drew a creepy male gaze. She wasn’t Debra, who was up for accompanying the skimpiest of Daisy Dukes with her patented screw-you death stare.
Finding okay presents for the family didn’t take too long, and, having paid for gift wrapping, Christmas shopping was soon done and dusted. Heading home past the Vinnies Op-shop, she glanced inside and saw Mel, leafing through a stack of previously owned, probably multiple times, vinyl records. Dressed in black jeans and a t-shirt, she, as always, had made no concession to the heat.
Sandy’s text message traffic hadn’t included Mel’s results. “How’d you get on?”
Mel’s face lit up. “Dreams do come true. Into the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. You?”
“So cool. I got what I wanted too. Sydney Uni med school. Still Christmas shopping?”
“So deserved. Nah, any early punk classics are for me.”
“I know, I know. Don’t judge a book by the cover.”
Sandy laughed. “Fair. So, it'll be classical at the Conservatorium and punk in your apartment.”
“Yeah, like now. I’m not always practising the viola at home, you know.”
“I feel like an idiot, not knowing how talented you are.”
“I didn’t exactly hang out with the cool kids. The teachers knew. That’s why they tolerated me being a little shit.”
“Righteous indignation usually.”
“That’s sweet. Have you finished shopping? Want to grab a drink?”
“Sure. Not that there’s anywhere good to hang out hereabouts.”
“So true. Sydney can’t come fast enough. Let me buy this vinyl, and we’ll head to the pub.”
“My Aim is True. You don’t have Elvis Costello’s first?”
“A replacement, smarty pants. Didn’t know you were the seventies music type.”
“Don’t judge a book by its cover.”
That still had them giggling as they stepped into the old pub on the main street corner opposite the bank. Heads turned and the good ol’ boys, who typically nursed a beer or two to the last second before dinner was put on the table, just stared. Looking through Sandy, their appraisal of Mel felt as dark as her clothes.
The bar manager took his time, checking if anyone needed another pint, before serving them tap cider. Forsaking the struggling air-con inside, they disappeared out the back to a small garden area away from the regulars and sat under a shade cloth which at least provided token relief from the sun.
Mel sipped her cider. “Yummy. It always feels so creepy in there.”
“Yeah, like we’re out of place.”
“Surely Sydney won’t be like that.”
“Not from what I’ve read. Looking forward to finding out.”
“God yes. This place really can be a shit-hole.”
After swapping Sydney plans: accommodation, part-time work, and university life, they sipped their drinks in silence. Until seemingly apropos of nothing, Mel asked, “Enjoy the formal?”
“Okay, I guess. The speech went well.”
“Sweet you taking Brian as a date.”
“He’s an okay guy. A spinal injury is so sad.”
“He kisses good?”
“Wouldn’t know; wasn’t interested.”
Mel choked a little as she finished her drink. “Let me get another round.”
On returning, she blurted, “Let's meet up in Sydney after we’re settled. A Saturday in early March?”
At the end of their second week at university, on the seventh, the annual Mardi Gras parade was happening on Oxford Street. Neither had ever told a soul that, in previous years, they both had furtively scanned the web envious of the self-belief of the hundreds who felt confident about marching in Australia’s most iconic gay celebration.
“Sure, when and where?”
“Well, you’ll be up by the central train station, I’ll be down by the waterfront. Let’s split the difference.”
“Oxford Street, you mean?”
The silence hung as heavy as the humidity. “By early March do you mean the seventh, Mel?”
“Yeah… I will if you will.”
“Oh… I will if you will.”
“You know it will be busy.”
“Yes, silly. Of course, I know. Part of why I want to live in Sydney.”
“Me too. God. I’d no idea. Always assumed being straight was part of the head girl’s job description.”
“Same. Goth was a disguise, wasn’t it?”
“Yeah. Allowed me to be resentful without tipping my hand.”
“I was a terrible head girl then. Like to think I looked out for everyone.”
“Don’t. I know how hard it is. I felt alone and withdrew; if only I had known.”
Sandy’s fingertip brushed Mel’s hand. “Me too, threw myself into studying. Not alone anymore.”
January and early February passed in a blur: family beach camping, organising, packing and then having been driven to Sydney, a few tears as they farewelled the family. But both made time for each other; hundreds of texts passed between Mel and Sandy.
A couple of weeks later, Sandy, standing in front of the mirror, pondered her outfit for the umpteenth time. Even though she loved the anonymity of university, she hadn’t broken the habit of wearing what she imagined others looked down on as country casual.
Mardi Gras night was supposed to be different, but she couldn’t work out if her simple black crop top with pride-coloured stripes across the bottom, plus scanty denim shorts with a pride heart on the back pocket were altogether too subtle. Though those colours, plus a bare midriff and legs would be considered a radical look where she’d been brought up. She’d texted Mel asking what she was wearing. But the, you’ll see, response, even with lots of giggle emojis, was hardly helpful.
Sandy became certain, by the time she reached Hyde Park, that her pride look could only be described as ‘toe-in-the-water.’ She wandered around where Mel said she’d be, agog at the colourful and sometimes skimpy clothing which displayed more body paint and tattoos than she’d ever seen in her life.
“Ignoring me, you bitch?”
Recognition wasn’t instantaneous. Mel had abandoned black for the pride flag look. Her hair was dyed a pretty red, but orange face paint was less successful, giving off a tanning-bed-failure vibe. A taut canary yellow crop top accentuated her boobs, and the lime green pleated skirt gave new meaning to the word micro. Little vivid blue socks and jacaranda-violet sneakers completed a look so far removed from her school-girl goth.
“Oh. My. God. That’s really you?”
“What do you think?”
Sandy threw her arms around Mel. “Love it. I’m so conservative by comparison.”
“Cute though! Let’s find a good spot, once we’ve got you properly painted.”
They queued for a bit, loving the banter in the line. Sexuality wasn’t relevant, yet there was joy in everyone around them just assuming they were, like them, gay.
When Sandy reached the front, Mel directed proceedings; a mandatory pride flag on both cheeks and a larger one on her stomach. Then, holding hands, they threaded their way through the crowds until they found a front-row position further up Oxford Street. As they chatted excitedly about Sydney life, the crowd built, reaching a fever pitch of excitement as the dykes on bikes led off the parade itself.
A buxom butch biker winked at them; both felt the squeeze of the other’s hand in reaction to that flirtatiousness. The frayed, somewhat grubby street that usually was Oxford Street, then came alive with the growing cacophony of colour and noise, as floats and marchers started to ripple past.
Mel was gobsmacked by the red dresses, spinning like whirling dervishes, so full of life. Were they women or were they men? No one cared, in the end, they were simply gorgeous people in impossibly-high heels, twirling with beauty and grace.
Sandy identified with a gorgeous orange-themed float populated by medical types. orange being the colour of healing. She called out her support and got a cheery wave from a sexy blond whose scanty attempt at a nurse’s uniform would have had to been acquired at somewhere way more risqué than a hospital.
A krewe in yellow joyfully danced in the street singing, Let the sunshine in.
“They’re all so gorgeous,” Sandy said, as one of the pretty young things, twirled a yellow ribbon towards Mel and smiled.
“She’s in my class. Didn’t know she’s gay.”
“Bet she didn’t know about you either.”
The woman strutted over, showing off in her swirling yellow skirt. “Love the top, Mel. You’re joining us next year.” A flick of her wrist had the tip of the yellow ribbon trace over Mel and Sandy’s faces. “Your cute girlfriend too,” she added before re-joining her krewe.
The only thing that kept Mel from visibly blushing more than Sandy was her orange face paint.
At that moment they felt accepted into the community, subsumed in the flowing force that was Mardi Gras; a living organism, a kaleidoscope of different shapes and colours unified by a shared world view, snaking its way down Oxford Street.
Green banners hung from a float advocating climate change action. They’d seen the damage climate change had visited on their community; the productivity of the land had fallen with the drought. Instantly they got the message: the freedom for their communities to be themselves included everyone, even the good ol’ boys, being liberated from climate constraints.
Tears welled up as the few who remained of original Sydney78ers marched past, followed by a choir in blue singing We Shall Overcome. That was echoed in the crowd, and Oxford Street resounded to diverse voices in perfect harmony.
Towards the end, a group of gym junkies, all lithe and six-packs, glittery Purple H Wonder Boots, purple thongs and nipple tassels strutted in perfect time down the street. Holding masks in front of their faces, they shimmied and, on turning to the crowd, lowered their masks.
Orange tears dripped off Mel’s cheeks. “It took courage, but the most liberating thing I did was lose my black mask and wear rainbow colours.”
“I’m going to represent this year not just keep on putting toes in the water. Promise.”
Hand in hand, they joined those following the parade, wandering through the multicoloured flotsam and jetsam littering Oxford Street. Being in the parade’s slipstream felt like, having stepped over the Rubicon, they’d been absorbed into the Mardi Gras culture, their culture.
Instinctive Sandy and Mel went further, beyond Oxford Street and all the way to Bondi beach. There, snuggling under a pride flag they’d rescued from the gutter, they resisted the urge to sleep, desperate to see the sun slowly emerging from the sea.
A new day was about to dawn; the beginning of the rest of their lives. They too would overcome.