Spring 2015, Volume 18

Fiction by Shweta Kissun


They sit in the counsellor’s office, The Three and another girl, the odd one out. The Three are notorious delinquents. Though they’ve never been caught, they’ve brazenly circulated the evidence of their petty crime among their schoolmates in the recent past: cans of cola, pretty woollen gloves, music magazines and earrings.

As far as anybody knows, The Three haven’t attempted pilfering from the bakery until now. Perhaps because suspicious figures dressed in navy-blue uniform, hanging around at the time of theft, were so easy to trace to the school next door.

It was so today: spotting a shelf completely empty by the door, despite having stocked it a moment ago, the savagely mad Asian manager had run out into the street and caught hold of the first running-guilty soul he found—the ringleader of The Three, the one who wears pitch black makeup. He’d dragged her (and of course the others in The Three, plus the odd one out, followed) into the school’s front office, and there he shouted for the people in charge, invoked the threat of the police and spat all over the receptionist’s beautiful burnished desk.

In the counsellor’s office, of all the four detained, it’s the odd one out whose bag belches up the stolen mass of baked goods.

While it’s plain she was involved, the deputy principals fault The Three, though they’ll never say so explicitly. Even so, they can’t help wondering whether her sorry look is less for having taken part in the deed than for having been caught. She sits with The Three on the floor, spine curved like a cat’s against the wall instead of standing as they were told to, and she whispers a sly comment about the deputy principals hogging the food for themselves. The Three laugh boldly.

Her own laughter draws out more meekly, ending with a strange delay a moment after her smile fades, a smile which doesn’t diminish her sorry look, stressed by the heavy plum hue coated across her eyelids and lips, turned brown by the office’s soft yellow light and sharing none of the starkness of The Three’s fluorescent yellows, neon blues and pitch blacks. 

It’s perplexing, seeing her like this, but she was always one of the perplexing students. She’s spent most of her high school junior years languishing in hospital, yet her exam results have consistently proved her the brightest in the year. She floats to the top without any sustained presence in class, effortless and entirely without ambition, but all the teachers excuse her for it, especially the deputy principal who teaches her in Biology. Perhaps the nature of her condition—unpredictable, likely to strike without provocation at any time—should have infused her with some urgency to do more with herself, but on the other hand, the deputy principal theorised, perhaps she’d lived too long without any control over the inexplicable debilitation of her body, the acrid smell of sanitizer and other people’s shit in patient-only toilets, the flimsy gowns that let the air all the way in, swallowing one with cold, the demoralising sight of elderly patients cragging up the horizon of her room and the daily prick of blood-test needles. Why should she boast the ambition they force-fed the other students, urging them to aim for university or, at least, the prospect of steady work? 

It was last term that she’d started attending school on a daily basis, having finally regained enough of her health. Since then, the deputy principal who teaches Biology had observed that she was worryingly withdrawn, both in class and especially out of it, but this wasn’t her natural state. The wish to be part of something exhibited itself in the way she sat, however apprehensively, wherever people gathered—in the quad, in the common rooms—and furtively watched them instead of looking into space as the true loners did, in the library or behind the gym, away from all the noise.

The sporty kids were never going to notice her, for she obviously wasn’t the budding star of their various teams, the debate club kids were never going to notice her because she never spoke enough to offer any kind of opinion, and the average kids were never going to notice her, even if she was conspicuously cleverer than them, simply because she’d been absent too long. But in hindsight, it seemed inevitable that The Three would notice her. First week back this term, the deputy principal had given their Biology class a task to work on in pairs, and she’d been lumped in with one of The Three, Neon Blue. She completed the work without any help and Pitch Black had wound up copying the answers, which were correct. For the few weeks since then, The Three have sat with her in Biology, and presumably in other classes they share, benefitting from her answers. They will have been sweet to her, calling her smart and advising her that plum is her colour.

The deputy principal is certain that, if it weren’t for the dour damp that comes with July in Auckland, The Three would have broken her by now into their most annoying habit, cigarettes, indulged behind the AstroTurf enclosure, a spot overlooking the back field where the smokers gather at lunchtime and for a few stolen minutes between classes.

In the close confines of the school corridors, the smokers are easily picked out. The smell insinuates into the fibre of all their breath and jumpers, just as with his colleagues, a couple of whom rhapsodise how they’d live on cigarettes if they could. Hadn’t it taken these people years to become so addicted? Yet the school was full of kids putting on that show of a neurotic need as strong as that of his colleagues, acting as if they couldn’t wait another minute, rushing off for that moment of calm during which slow-working poisons coddle their throats and lungs. 

Most lunchtimes, huge bands of smoke will colour the wind around the AstroTurf, a sad, misty grey. It curls through the wires of the enclosure, pouring into the paths of the hockey or tennis players practising there, kids who never complain, too wrapped up in their game. The teachers have stopped caring enough to confiscate the cigarettes and lighters and threaten to tell all their parents. It’s always been a losing battle. So long as the smokers make that half-effort to conceal themselves behind the enclosure, it’s easy to pretend the smoke is just wind turned opaque, by a trick of the light.

The deputy principal who teaches Biology can’t imagine Plum partaking, but what if he did spot her out there, tinier than ever in the distance? How could he stand not to go over, break up that muted party, confiscate cigarettes and lighters, threaten to tell their parents, and scold Plum, for he expected more of her? Her condition was too severe to turn a blind eye even to an odd puff here and there.

But it made no sense when the others were getting away with it all the time, and anyway, the idea of telling her mother was no threat at all. Bringing her back to school last term, the mother had explained to the deputy principals that, since good grades were a sure thing, all she wanted was that her daughter make friends—she was ‘starved’ for friends—and start ‘doing teenage things, getting into a bit of trouble.’

But with all the rain of late, the smokers, particularly The Three, have temporarily foregone their cigarettes. Weighed down already by sullen eyes and downturned mouths, they’d never deign to carry the ungainly form of an umbrella—and not even they can really flout the rules and smoke in the quad or in the shadow of the canteen. He knows this for certain because they no longer reek of it in class, sitting with Plum, who now often passes along papers which The Three study intently. He’d caught a glimpse yesterday during Biology: remarkably well-drawn designs for cocktail dresses and ball gowns. Probably they tell her what they want and she draws it, and it seems even in this small way she isn’t quite a part of them, an appendage recently grafted onto their body for some superficial purpose, a seamless merging unlikely ever to take.


In walks the guidance counsellor, middle-aged and accustomed to spending his lunchtimes talking to students in this glass-panelled office, instead of in the quiet refuge and refuse of company his own age in the staffroom.

It irks many that his office is in the front building, which is reserved for staff, a space recently revamped with new creamy floors, mahogany walls and cherry birch décor. Never mind that his is the most disagreeable room, miniscule and at the very end of the hallway, which is already grey and unkempt thanks to the daily frequenting by scores of students to the counsellor’s warm, yellow office.

As he sits behind his cluttered desk, the deputy principals clear up the stolen food and leave. Once out the door, the other deputy says they might as well dump the food in the staffroom: it doesn’t look contaminated and they’ve reimbursed the bakery, anyway. When they return, they wait outside the office, watching through the glass panel as the counsellor talks to the girls and hoping for some quick admissions. The Three, apparently more comfortable now, have moved to fill the chairs around the desk. One of them, Fluorescent Yellow, moves her motor-mouth too happily to be confessing to anything. Plum remains on the floor, static and sober.

The bell rings—first period’s beginning. The counsellor takes over the conversation for a minute, then seems to start asking questions. Neon Blue shrugs, Pitch Black offers no visible response, Fluorescent Yellow babbles her answer before the counsellor cuts her off, and Plum just looks at the floor.

The counsellor talks a minute longer before standing, The Three rising at the same time. He herds them out of the office; at the door, he whispers to the deputy principals that he’ll try talking to Plum alone.

They take The Three to class instead of dumping them with the principal, before returning to their own work, waiting for the counsellor to retrieve one of them. He doesn’t do this until the bell is ringing for second period. The one who teaches Biology is more interested than the other, so he goes to talk to Plum.

In the tiny room, the deputy principal stands to the side as the counsellor resumes his seat. Plum is still on the floor, cradling her yawning bag as if it’s the one who needs comforting, not her, diminished with silent crying.

‘It’s alright,’ the counsellor says, all fatherly. ‘Talk about what happened this morning.’

It’s difficult to watch, particularly from above, the shadows of the desk and the chairs and himself all looming over the girl. The deputy principal tries to look at the floor, but can’t help catching sight of her faint reflection in the glass panel. Why’s it there? he despairs. Of course, to give the world a view into the office, to reassure them all with a glance that their counsellor isn’t taking advantage of the intimate divulgences of so many sad girls.

It feels almost voyeuristic, to be avoiding the sight of her and then pretending he can’t see her, only to watch as she lifts a hand to wipe her tears, and catches sight of herself in that same reflection. She pauses, almost imperceptibly; the tears go on streaming, even as she starts to rub away the viscous mix of eyeliner and mascara pooling around her eyes. In the process, she smudges her eye shadow so that the plum streaks across her temple.

‘Go on,’ the counsellor prompts, and she half-shakes her head, again, almost imperceptibly, but then she twitches her uniform skirt to cover her knees, so she can’t see up that certain triangle of space (or perhaps so the deputy principal can’t see), and starts talking, through breath that hitches and kicks in her throat.

She begins with how she’d had to leave home early this morning, same as every morning, to catch an early bus to school, since the later one is always full by the time it reaches her stop and she isn’t supposed to travel standing, being prone to motion sickness.

The deputy principal, arriving around seven-fifteen, has seen her many an early morning, shuffling through the morning fog that edges into the school-grounds, arms held tight across her middle, to suppress either shivers or abdominal pain.

‘I don’t get enough sleep because I can’t have sleeping pills,’ she continues, ‘because I’m already on too many other pills and sleeping pills might give me bad side-effects. I can never fall asleep until early in the morning, and then I have to get up early for the bus, but my mother lets me sleep in because she knows I’ve got no sleep—’ uncontrollable hitching and kicking of breath ‘—so I only get a few minutes to shower and dress and get to the bus stop. We’re not allowed to eat on the bus and anyway the only thing I can eat without throwing up is cornflakes. I can’t have anything to eat here because it makes me throw up, food from the canteen or…’

She frowns, studying her reflection’s mouth, and starts to pick at the lipstick flaking there.

‘It is bad enough,’ the deputy principal finally says, ‘not having breakfast, but then to have nothing all day,’ —trailing off because he’s not sure where he’s going.

‘And on top of that, a terrible night’s sleep,’ the counsellor chips in. ‘I’ll admit with all that going for you, I can understand how—well, I’ll admit I’ve thought about snatching a bun from that bakery once or twice, when running late to lunch. They do leave a lot of food right in the open…’

The deputy principal has thought of it too. Everybody must have. The bakery is too much of a scrumptious presence itself, resembling a croissant, painted marmalade and much longer than it is tall, topped with three dooms for a roof, the centre dome the biggest. Even the floral engravings carved around the entrance lend to the building a look of bread-brittleness, a certain crumbliness. The fragrance of fresh baking rolls over the school all day long, so intense, particularly in the mornings, that one can almost see the tawny tint of a baked loaf in the air after a new batch of food has been birthed from the bakery’s prolific oven.

‘…but if I ever were to,’ the counsellor says, ‘not that I would, I’d take just a morsel. I’d never think of feeding myself and my friends that way. I doubt you thought of it in this case, but you should never have felt a need to go along with—’ 

‘It was all for me,’ she says abruptly. ‘The others were only waiting for me. They didn’t know what I was doing. I just wanted to try something from that bakery for once. I can’t eat anything from there but it doesn’t mean I don’t want to.’

‘So why not buy something?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘But why would you even need so much food when it only makes you sick?’ the counsellor asks, too deliberately for the deputy principal’s taste; it feels too much like he’s cornering her. ‘Besides, the bakery manager is adamant he saw—’

‘I don’t know. I just got sick of smelling it and seeing it all there every day. I just did it. You don’t know,’ suddenly accusingly, ‘I get so hungry.’

She cries angrily now, with a mournful keening. On the crests of each sob the deputy principal catches the plaintive echo of that word, hungry, starting off as a fraught lunging vowel and ending in a recoil choked on its own consonants. Perhaps in being so deprived, her hunger has evolved from basic need to complex emotion, so that it must be dealt with, like sadness for a lost childhood—surely one of the most complex emotions of all—by crying out so, without a hint of inhibition, let alone logical direction.

It shakes the deputy principal. As he and the counsellor glance up at each other, the deputy principal wonders if they’re imagining the same thing. The scene from the other side of the glass panel, spied by the woman on reception, the principal, or a student employed as school messenger for the day, anybody who might pass by to see two grown men standing over a sobbing girl curled up awkwardly on the floor, men who both know better than to keep such suggestive company: each other and a girl hinging on the point of hysteria, all but hyperventilating herself into it.

The deputy principal crouches, cursing himself for not minding to bring in a female member of staff, just to take care of her the way they can’t during eruptions like these. He can’t even put a comforting hand on her shoulder, so he hovers, barely able to look at her, his shadow swallowing her shadow whole.

Finally, the counsellor thinks to pass over a box of tissues, from which she seizes fistfuls, burying her face in a dozen little white flags.

The easiest thing now is to leave her alone, wait outside the opaque office door and let her calm down with some degree of privacy. It unsettles and shames the deputy principal, this violence of tears and that singular word, moored to her paltry form.

The food that had scattered across the office floor from her bag was a waste, regrettable even if it wasn’t the freshest, stocked on the day-old shelf right beside the bakery’s entrance—making it so easy for The Three, with Plum in their centre, obscured from view, to quickly load the bag. They’d picked a banana-caramel muffin and a blueberry-hazelnut muffin; a chocolate lamington and a strawberry lamington, frosted in the sweetest dried coconut; a doughnut hard with chocolate icing and rainbow sprinkles, the dough extra chewy; a custard twist, the thick bun layered with custard, glazed with golden syrup; and, most delectable, two chocolate Melting Moments, swirl-shaped biscuits sandwiching a thick layer of icing, which crunches as satisfyingly as the biscuit.

For these minor acquisitions, the gaunt Plum has been lying. Another thing that unsettles the deputy principal, how good she is at it. Yet there’s a truth to her tears that goes beyond any shame over being caught. Hunger might only be the purlieu of this truth, but still, it’s no lie; it’s not nothing. Such misery can’t be faked, even if she’s deliberately misplacing and manipulating it.

With a visceral empathy—for it’s his gut that feels sorriest, in all this, for her gut—the deputy principal decides to believe her, and convince the counsellor to let the incident go. Besides, he muses, the counsellor is right. She would never have thought of the deed, nor acted, on her own. Her mother, even, is right. This is just another experience in the glib world of teenagers the girl had been sure to gain, sitting day after day in room after room filled with louder, duller souls.

Ten minutes later, when it sounds quiet, safe, enough to enter the office, the deputy principal tells her none of this will go any further, if only she will give her word that it won’t happen again.

The grave face, rubbed free of makeup, lights up, though not enough to hide her confusion. ‘It won’t. I’ll feel sick every time I pass that place,’ she says, looking to the counsellor, her favourite, the favourite of all the students.

Upon recounting the incident at home, the deputy principal’s wife will accuse him of playing favourites. He will deny it the only way he can—wholly, unswervingly, enough that even if she detects the lie, she will turn a blind eye and make a show of believing him, revealing her strained but altogether benevolent bias.




BIO: Shweta Kissun is a writer from Auckland, New Zealand, who has previously been published in Cliterature.