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Iris grew up a few suburbs away from Pen College on the flatter, more concreted side of Frankston. David’s footy team often had matches further down the Peninsula, meaning her family drove past the college occasionally. If Iris was in the car with her father, he liked to point it out. ‘That’ll be your high school one day, sweetie.’

Her mother noted it in her way too. Stopped at the intersection near the college, Iris would turn to Yvonne in the driver’s seat and see the way she looked toward the campus with resigned dislike.

Iris wasn’t included in any of the conversations about where she would go to high school. She pieced together the arguments from what she overheard of her parents’ discussions. Like reading only the headlines in a newspaper, Iris shaded in the blanks with what she knew of their histories. Brett wanted to give his children the resources and encouragement he’d never had, but Yvonne had been to an all-girls’ school herself and maintained that it wrong-footed her career: ‘Learning to survive in a room full of men is a skill a girl has to master.’

David went to a private boys’ school, Grammar, that had recently turned co-ed. At the time, it was still skewed male with only a third female students. Iris had been to her brother’s football matches. He was only in Year 9, but the senior students would chant at him from the stands during the game, drowning out the teachers’ attempts to silence them—Here’s to David, he’s true-blue. He’s a pisspot through and through. The same chant that eventually thrummed in the background of David’s eighteenth and then his twenty-first, that rendition followed by an outro of, Scull, motherfucker, scull. It was obvious to her parents that throwing a couple of girls into that rowdy den had not changed the fact Grammar was an institution for boys; that school would crush her.

There was a co-ed public school nearby, like Iris’s primary school. ‘But if we send our son to private school and our daughter to public school, what does that say about what we believe she’s capable of?’ Brett would say.

He convinced her mother to let Iris sit the scholarship test. From then on, her father’s words and her mother’s expression spoke of it as an inevitability.

The day of the test was the first time Iris saw what was beyond the school’s gates. They were large wrought-iron gates, each bookended by a segment of brick wall just a few metres either side, like a theatre prop—not meant to be functional, but to make a statement.

Her father steered carefully up the driveway, as though even their driving was under scrutiny. The school’s vast lawns were shaved with the uniformity of an army buzzcut. The sprinkler system that maintained their vibrant colour tsk-tsk-tsked away like a marching call.

Her father steered carefully up the driveway, as though even their driving was under scrutiny.

The college buildings were set several hundred metres back from the road. The space itself struck Iris more than any structure. Look how much room we have, we don’t even need it all.

The test was held in the school’s performing arts centre, which Iris would eventually refer to fondly as ‘pacs’. The audience seating banks had been dismantled and stacked along the sides of the auditorium, and the space filled with small, individual desks arranged in lines facing the empty stage. Iris stared at the stage as she waited to be handed her papers. It was a large concave space in the wall, as plain as an empty closet. Iris had never been on stage. She wasn’t enrolled in ballet, despite there being classes on Saturdays at an Anglican church at the end of their street. Iris remembered being in the backseat of the family car one weekend. Her father was driving and her mother was complaining about the parked cars lining both sides of their street and the endless stream of traffic preventing them from getting through. Little girls swathed in baby pink and topped with knobbly buns were piling in and out of the church. Some of them so young they were closer to waddling than walking.

‘Should Iris be doing ballet?’ Her father’s awed tone suggested that not only had he just realised other little girls existed, but that they all seemed to be a part of the same club that convened on weekends.

‘I’m not paying money for her to stand in a leotard comparing her body to other young girls,’ her mother said.

It became common family practice not to go out before one o’clock on a Saturday—the baby-bun bottleneck was best avoided.

Iris completed the test easily and as she sat looking around the room waiting for the end to be called, she spotted only one other girl who also appeared to be finished. Iris was seated a few rows back and several desks across from her. For the final twenty minutes, she admired the origami the girl was making with a spare sheet of test paper. Iris hadn’t noticed her turn and look at her during that time, and yet when they emerged from the hall, the girl walked straight up to her.

‘How’d you go?’ She spoke with confidence Iris only had with people familiar to her. She turned to check for someone behind her.

‘I’m Molly.’

Iris took in the girl’s dark chocolate hair and broad face, which she had the eyes and mouth to fill out. Her lips were pink-lady red and her skin bright and unblemished. She was holding a copy of Twilight, but not the origami Iris had been admiring. She felt an urge to go back inside and retrieve it.

‘I think I did okay.’ Iris had easily topped her class in her primary school. As had Molly, who wasn’t modest like Iris.

‘I aced it.’

A moment later, Molly ran toward a car the size of an army tank that had pulled into the carpark. Iris didn’t know then that Molly, who had been at the college since prep, had parents who could and would pay the full fees. Sitting the scholarship test had been at Molly’s insistence. With a deluge of new peers arriving for Year 7, she wanted to know where she ranked.

‘See you next year,’ she called to Iris as she climbed into the car.

Even before Iris had found out she would receive a full scholarship, it seemed Molly had picked her as her equal.

Even before Iris had found out she would receive a full scholarship, it seemed Molly had picked her as her equal.

It took Iris an entire term to learn how to play her part at the college. The school was stuffed with terminology and traditions. There was a welcoming assembly featuring teachers wearing robes and carrying the flags for each house, which all had Latin names. Then a post-assembly morning tea where the women handing out shortbread were referred to as ‘old girls’, which confused Iris when many of them only looked in their early thirties.

The Black Saturday bushfires tore through the Victorian High Country at the beginning of that year. The school camp was incinerated along with the whole town that housed it. Molly’s mother was on a committee organising a fundraiser in the wake of the tragedy. She asked Iris if her father might be interested in donating a painting to auction. Iris was confused for whole days following the interaction before she realised that when she had told Molly’s mother her father was a painter, she’d assumed Iris meant he was an artist rather than a tradesman. How funny she found the image of her short, pot-bellied father even entering an art gallery. The fundraiser ended up earning close to fifty thousand dollars from parent donations. When Iris read the number in the school newsletter, she’d assumed it was a typo.

There were two shops on campus—the tuckshop and a uniform shop that also sold stationery. Some students had ‘accounts’, meaning whatever they bought was added to their school fees. Molly’s parents didn’t allow her to have a tuckshop account, but she did have one at the uniform shop. They sold commemorative shortbread emblazoned with the school logo, so Iris and Molly would venture there every recess for the biscuits.

Their uniforms were maroon, rigid and boxy, characterised mostly by what they weren’t allowed—no makeup, no nail polish, no unnatural hair colours, no piercings. Hair neatly tied back and fastened with a ribbon. All the way up to Year 12, it was compulsory for each girl’s hair to be secured by a neat little bow.

Iris mumbled her way through the Lord’s Prayer and the school song and made up for it by overemphasising her vowels when she repeated their motto. Always strive, always thrive, as inscribed on their pockets, their pencil cases and the school gates.

She clung to Molly those first few months. It calmed her each time Molly explained one of the rituals, ‘That’s what we always do.’

Molly clung to Iris too, because of the Blondes.

Gemma Neil and her friends had been through primary school with Molly. They were all pretty, with clear skin and small breasts, and all of them—except for Miranda Che—were blonde. Next to them, Iris felt about as womanly as a lizard. Her body was flat and squared off at its edges. Her face and arms were almost entirely freckled. The patches of her pale complexion traced through them like waterways on a map. Her hair was no colour. Darker than blonde, lighter than brown—wet sand.

When the Blondes passed them around campus, Gemma would comment, ‘I’m not sure which one is uglier, the fatty or the one with ants all over her face.’

‘At least we actually look different,’ Molly would sometimes call out to their retreating backs; sometimes she’d just say it to Iris. Apart from Gemma, Molly never referred to any of the girls in that group by their names, but as ‘Blondes one through five’. According to Molly, there was ‘not enough personality between them to hold even one conversation’.

Iris and Molly spent their lunchtimes discussing the books they were reading, which were always the same. They browsed the school library and decided on their reading list together. They borrowed half of the stack each, but Iris would read all the borrowed copies. Molly’s parents would buy hers. Each day they agreed on how much to read that night and then discuss at the following day’s lunchtime. The bubble they had created together felt impenetrable to Iris. When she imagined what Molly’s life at the college might’ve been like before she arrived, Iris understood why the Blondes upset Molly more than they did her.

This is an edited extract from A Light in the Dark by Allee Richards (Hachette),  available now at your local independent bookseller.