Extract - Lucy and Linh by Alice Pung

Laurinda is an exclusive school for girls. At its secret core is the Cabinet, a trio of girls who wield power over their classmates - and some of their teachers. Entering this world of wealth and secrets is Lucy Lam, a scholarship girl with sharp eyes and a shaky sense of self. As she watches the Cabinet at work, and is courted by them, can Lucy stay true to herself as she finds her way in this new world of privilege and opportunity?

When my dad dropped us off at the front gate, the first things I saw were the rose garden spreading out on either side of the main driveway, and the enormous sign in iron cursive letters spelling out Laurinda. No “Ladies’ College” after it, of course; the name was meant to speak for itself. Then there was the main building: four sections of sandstone brick, and the giant cream tower in the center.

This place is giving us the finger! you squawked when you first saw it, Linh. I thought that in a black-and-white photograph, it could be mistaken for the main house of a plantation in the Deep South of America. I could imagine young ladies in white gloves with lace slingshots, lying in wait to kill a mockingbird or two. It was beautiful, but as it was guarded by a gate and set against the enormous lawn, the beauty snuck up on you, like a femme fatale with a rock.

We could make fun of it because we knew we’d never enter the school itself, only the gym, a massive, windowless box that looked like a giant’s shipping container. There was a sign stuck to the door: YEAR TEN SCHOLARSHIP EXAMS THIS WAY

. Rows of plastic chairs and tables had been set up, with numbers taped down the sides. It was morgue-cold in there, as though we were going to be strapped into those seats and have our minds dissected in some awful autopsy. There were over three hundred students in the room but only two of us would make it through this elimination round: a boy for Auburn Academy and a girl for Laurinda. This was the first time Laurinda and Auburn had offered “Equal Access” scholarships, which were supposed to go to kids with parents the school considered broke.

That morning, all the parents were begging the deities, white-knuckled with want, for their kid to be the one who made it through. There were two types, I noticed: the ear pullers, who drove off immediately after giving their kid a serious stare and a punishing pointed finger, and the bum wipers, who stayed as long as they could, until they were kicked out because the exam was about to begin.

It was good to see some familiar faces from Christ Our Savior. Tully was there, and Yvonne and Ivy. They were trying out because they hadn’t made it into Hoadley Girls’ State Selective School and their parents were giving them a rough time at home. And you, of course, Linh.

I felt sorry for Tully. The way her mother was dragging her to the gym by the elbow, it was as if she was heading for the firing squad. “Your cousin Stephanie got into Hoadley seven years ago,” we overheard Mrs. Cho muttering, “and there is no way that you could be dumber than Stephanie.”

Now Stephanie was an accountant who sat on her bum churning through numbers all day instead of standing in a factory pulling out chicken gizzards. My parents had taken me to visit her when I was seven. I stared and stared at the badges on her red woolen jacket and her checkered skirt with a big metal pin through it. “She had to take a test to get into the school,” my father told me as he drove us home that evening. “She has a good future ahead of her.”

As a kid, I wasn’t forced to think about The Future much, but I knew I wanted to be dressed like Stephanie in a royal outfit that magically seemed to make adults take you seriously and ask you quiet and sincere questions and listen to your answers. None of that “Wah, what a pretty girl you are!” which seemed to be the only way adult strangers behaved toward me back then.

As I walked to my place in the gym, I saw Tully hunched over the desk ahead of me, her back a hard cashew curve and her fingers at her temples. I thought of all those afternoons when she couldn’t hang out or even do homework with us because she was being whisked away to some tutoring program or other.

When the exam began, the gym fell so quiet that I could hear myself blink. It must have been like this all the time for Tully, I mused, her whole life one exam after another in white-walled tutoring centers run by dour former math teachers or engineers whose qualifications were not recognized here. She would be used to this silence.

We walked with Tully, Ivy and Yvonne when it was over to catch the bus home. Ivy and Yvonne had been such close friends since Year Seven that they had identical haircuts. They commiserated with each other when their parents made them find after- school work at the local Kumon tutoring center and Kmart, and they planned to run away together when they turned twenty, before their parents could send them back to Vietnam/Malta to get cheap eyelid surgery/nose jobs and/or husbands.

As we walked, we wah’ed over houses with roofs like red bonnets on top of white faces with unblinking bay-window eyes, fanned by decades-old London plane trees. Ivy and Yvonne skipped down the sidewalk, playing the old game of avoiding the cracks in case we broke our mothers’ backs. Tully had her fingertips in her jeans pockets; occasionally she would pull out a soggy tissue and wipe her nose. I could hear Ivy bellowing down the quiet street that Yvonne had stepped on a crack.

“I did not, bitch!” Yvonne screeched back. I noticed the airy curtains of a house ripple.

“Be quiet, youse!” you said. “People are watching us.”

“Let them watch!” yelled Ivy in glee. “We probably interrupted their eleven o’clock croissant.”

We caught up with Yvonne and Ivy. “What did you write about for the final essay?” It was the first time Tully had opened her mouth since the exam. Forfifteen minutes, it had been set in a straight line, with a small hook on each end, as if latched to her chin and dragging her head down. In the last part of the exam, we’d had to write an essay based on a badly photocopied picture of a person sitting behind a desk in the dark, a candle burning. The picture was done in the style of the drawings in the Good News Bible with swirly lines and no features, so you couldn’t see the facial expression.

“I wrote about feeling trapped in an exam that will decide whether my father will disown me,” Yvonne joked. “This is my second go! Sixty bucks down the drain again, just because my dad won’t accept that I’m not a genius like you, Tully. What did you write about?”

“I wrote about Peter Benenson, who founded Amnesty International,” said Tully. “I figured they wanted us to show that we knew about world issues, and they might give bonus credit if we knew about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”

“Waahh,” breathed Ivy, and she whacked Yvonne on the shoulder. “We’re stuffed, my friend. I wrote about how when my brother Ming went to prison, he missed Asian food so much that in the exercise yard he watched the pigeons and wanted to kill and roast one, like quail.”

I saw the upside-down hooks on Tully’s face turn themselves the other way.

“What the hell, Ivy?” Yvonne said, laughing. Then she turned to Tully. “Man, Tully, that is what they call a sophisticated essay. You’ve got the scholarship in the bag.”

“Hear me out!” declared Ivy. “I thought that if I wrote about true life in—what did Mr. Galloway call it?—an ‘evocative and poignant’ way, those examiners would be amazed by my ability to portray real life and feel sorry for me. Two birds with one stone, my friends. Two birds, one massive stone.”

Suddenly Tully turned toward you. “What did you write about Linh?"

You just laughed. “Something stupid.”


Lucy And Linh by Alice Pung is published by legend Press on 3rd may 2018 and is availble online and in bookshops