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  • Published: 5 March 2024
  • ISBN: 9781761340680
  • Imprint: Viking
  • Format: Trade Paperback
  • Pages: 304
  • RRP: $34.99

Lead Us Not


It was dark in the gym. A spotlight slunk through the audience, finding its way to the temporary stage that had been set up under the rock-climbing wall. We settled in our chairs, scraping them over the parquetry. Silence fell. Our blazers were damp from the rain that had passed over in the morning, unusual for February, and the scent lingered like a dog at my feet.

In the middle of the stage was a stool with a bowler hat on top and next to it on the floor a box of costumes. From the front row, I could see that it contained neon feather boas and oversized sunglasses, a nun’s habit, a biretta. The players filed in from the change rooms and took their positions. There were four of them, three from our year level and one from St Mark’s, the boys’ school across the road. They were dressed in jeans and white t-shirts, and their faces were neutral as they lined up next to one another, their hands folded behind their backs.

One of them was different from the others. Olive O’Reilly wore a long silk robe over her shirt, a deep rust colour. She had creamy skin and dark red hair, which framed her face and softened her features. Her eyes were the colour of swimming pools in the late light of summer, with thick, black rings around the irises. When she smiled, she showed all her teeth at once, slightly crooked along the bottom row.

Olive stepped forwards from the line and pulled a slip of paper from the bowler hat on the stool, showing it to the other players. They drew their heads together and whispered to one another as she walked away from them without speaking. She turned her head back to the audience and her mouth twitched, almost imperceptibly. She folded the paper, threw it to the floor and began. Her hands carried pale blue veins.

I did not know her. Although we had been at school together since Year 7, Olive and I had never spoken to each other. One week earlier her family had moved into the house next door to mine, but even then I did not manage to properly introduce myself. Instead, I watched her through my bedroom window – which faced hers on the second storey – as she unpacked her belongings. The walls of her room were painted white, although she soon covered them in posters and photographs too small for me to see. She lined her mantelpiece with a selection of antique cameras, filling the remain­ing space with a rough stack of slim books, glossy and new. Once she had cleared her bed of clothes, Olive pushed it to the wall opposite the ornamental fireplace, collapsing onto the mattress in what might have been mock fatigue.

All that was left on the floor were a couple of loose bottles of cider, flavoured with strawberry and lime. Olive got up off the mattress and took a dressing gown from the hook on the door, rolling each of the bottles in it and tying the sleeves together to make a tight bundle. Kneeling, she tucked it under the foot of her bedframe. When she stood, she turned towards the curtains and noticed me lying in my bed, watching her. I raised the book in my hands to my face, but it was too late. She lifted her chin towards me in acknowledgement and, grateful for her indifference, I waved.

Like mine, Olive’s house was a beige weatherboard with fresh solar panels that glinted on the tin roof. Ours had a large front garden with vegetable beds lined up in neat rows, tended by my father. The garden never looked good in the way that I wanted it to because the fruit trees were always covered with white soccer nets and the plants had been tied to uneven plastic stakes using ugly, coloured wire. By contrast, the front lawn of Olive’s house was empty and clean, save for the brick porch and the thick vine that choked its columns, the colours of which I loved to see change with the seasons.

I knew that Olive’s family came from Ireland, and that her parents had taught at the junior campus of our school for as long as I had been there. She had three brothers, two of whom were twins. Out of all the people I knew, Olive’s parents were the only ones with accents and we used to make fun of them in the playground when we were younger, sticking out our tongues and blowing air hard through the gaps between our teeth. Sitting in the gym, I heard traces of their voices in Olive’s own. And although she still sounded Australian, there was a musicality in how she spoke, which was at its most pronounced during theatre sports.

Olive moved behind the other players quietly. She bent down to the costume box and took the habit into her hands, lifting it high into the air until it hung before her, long and austere, almost touching the ground. She placed it on the stool and removed her robe. I saw how slim her shoulders were, her collarbones. Not like mine. I touched my fingers to my arms and felt the flesh beneath my dress, unyielding. Where she was light, as though she might drift away, I was hot, muscular. She had the appearance of being tall, her limbs slender and long, but she was smaller than the others, perhaps even as short as me.

I was envious of how effortlessly she held the space on the stage. She took her time in dressing, fixing the tunic in place before lifting the wimple over her head. The veil tumbled over her shoulders, heavy on her neck. She smoothed the habit down over the length of her body, at the same time rearranging her face to take on a pious expression. The three other players had built a scene in front of her, and their voices echoed across the gym as they grew in volume. Laughter rose around me, but I wasn’t listening. I watched Olive’s stride change, from something soft and weightless to something that commanded attention in its confidence. The audience shifted its focus to her and, at last, she walked into the scene.

I watched her hands; they did not tremble. Her face betrayed no sign that she was nervous, that she had to think about what she was going to say next. When she did speak, it was in the knowledge that she was worth listening to, slow and careful. She performed as though she knew that no one would interrupt her – as if, contrary to improvisation itself, nothing unexpected would happen.

She interacted with the other players when necessary, but I noticed that Olive enjoyed turning to the audience when she spoke, a glint in her eye. It was a look that made it impossible, as far as I could tell, for us to focus on anyone other than her. Although theatre sports was supposed to be a team activity, it was obvious how much the other players relied on her. They orbited her, so much so that they did not consult with one another while she was present in the scene. Instead, each player watched her for signals, clear but subtle – the point of a finger, her eyes tracking towards an object on the stage. I wondered if she could see us through the glare of the spotlight, and whether she noticed who was looking at her, whether she knew she was in control of our attention. I laughed at everything that she intended to be funny, and only realised after the performance had ended that she had been quoting from a film I had never seen, and that this, in fact, was the punchline.

After lunch, I walked into the classroom and sat down in the middle row. Religious Studies was the only subject that Olive and I had been placed in together. It was not mandatory as a Year 12 subject, although it was encouraged. I chose it because I knew that it was easy to do well in and because the teacher, Mr Morris, had no control over the class.

I was only just religious enough for Our Lady’s. I had completed all the sacraments and, before I realised it was pointless, I used to pray a little before bed. On the rare occasion that I went to Mass, I could hardly hear the sermon over the sound of my own sighs and the rattling breath of the congregation, much less pay atten­tion. But I knew when to make the sign of the cross and I could remember all the words to the hymns that were played on the organ, even if I only mouthed them.

I was not an atheist, I didn’t think, but I found it hard to under­stand why it had to be so tedious to be religious. On my first day of primary school, we learned to recite the Lord’s Prayer, and from then on whenever I heard even the opening lines – Our Father who art in Heaven / hallowed be thy name – it would begin its ceaseless march in my head, unable to be silenced until the final words – And lead us not into temptation / But deliver us from evil.

It was hard to say how religious our school was. It seemed normal, for a Catholic school. And it was difficult to describe not just how religious I was but how religious my family was. Although I was now seventeen, and my father himself didn’t even believe in God, he and my mother still forced me to attend church at Easter and Christmas. Even worse, my father would monitor whether I declined the sip of wine from the chalice as part of Communion. I was glad to have a reason not to drink, as it repulsed me to watch the lips of strangers touching the rim, the priest’s liver spotted fingers on the stem. It must have looked like I was being obedient, which pained me, but I had to avoid the crusty residue that would peel from the brass onto my lips and make its way down my throat as I waited for any of it to resonate.

Before class began, my friend Jess sat down next to me. She had a stark tan line that drew a fresh ring around her neck and wore her dark, rich hair in a ponytail. Without speaking, she placed a series of sticky notes on my desk, neatly written using a fineliner. The sinews of her neck stood out as she sequenced them, one atop the other, along the side of the table, pressing the adhesive edge onto the laminate. They were reminders of approaching dead­lines, both for our assessments and the tasks I had agreed to assist her with in her capacity as school captain. Wristbands. Newsletter. Emergency contact list. Insurance. I had forgotten about each of them. When she noticed that I had begun chewing at my lip, the freckles on her brow merged into a frown. She sat back in her chair and folded her arms across her chest, looking at me with small, dark eyes.

‘I’m sorry.’ I laughed.

‘You’re always sorry. And always laughing about it.’

‘I genuinely am, though.’

‘Why do I bother delegating to you at all?’

‘Because you know I’ll do it in the end?’

‘It’s as much work as if I did everything myself.’

‘Jess, come on, it’ll happen. I’ll get to it at some stage.’

‘I texted you. More than once.’ Jess’s text messages were offi­cious, which she said was deliberate given that I was prone to distraction.

‘I must have missed them,’ I said.

‘Do it this weekend.’

‘I have homework.’

‘As if you’re actually doing it,’ she said. That was a fair criticism, but only because we moved through the study guide at a glacial pace, so I couldn’t concentrate on anything.

‘Can we do it together? Tonight at my place?’ I asked.

‘I have training.’

‘Seriously? It’s Friday.’

‘I have training. Up at the velodrome. And then I’m studying for Chem and Bio with Natalie tomorrow morning.’

‘How are you even getting to training tonight?’

‘Dad’s on sabbatical, remember?’

Jess’s mother had died of cancer two years earlier and her father, a surgeon who had trained in the army, now taught first-aid courses at the RSL. Their family had moved around when she was young, but at the beginning of high school they’d settled two suburbs over from mine and stayed in the same house, even after her mother passed away. It wasn’t something she talked about.

I didn’t know why Jess was friends with me, although my theory was that it was because neither of us had siblings and so she assumed a similarity between us that didn’t really exist. We had met on a leadership camp a few years earlier, and even though I couldn’t be bothered applying for any leadership positions in our senior years, she had involved me in her school captaincy as if it were mine too. We were regarded as inseparable. I had asked her once why she made such an effort with me. ‘Everyone likes you,’ she replied, as if it answered the question.

Mr Morris drew the projector screen down over the whiteboard and pressed play on episode four of the series we were watching, which buffered for the first few seconds. It was an old miniseries that followed a group of girls at a school run by nuns, not unlike how our own had once been. The room was too bright with afternoon sun for the video to be truly clear. The sound was tinny and the acting bad, made worse by scenes that went on forever. There was too much time spent in the convent and no one really did anything wrong, although the nuns often punished the students anyway.

My attention drifted and I looked around the room, assess­ing whether any of the other girls in my class had sweat patches under their arms, what pyjama shorts they were wearing under­neath their school dresses. Although Mr Morris always threatened to measure our hemlines by making us kneel next to a ruler, we still got away with licks of silk that exposed themselves when we sat down at our desks and when we picked up pieces of rubbish at the end of class. Jess nudged me and passed over a note telling me that it was obvious I was staring. But by then I had been thinking about whether the gum trees along the fence could be considered elegant, their branches bending under the magpies that alighted on them.

‘Sorry,’ I whispered.

Lead Us Not Abbey Lay

An emotionally charged novel of female friendship, for readers of Elena Ferrante and Diana Reid.

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