I met the girl with hexadecimal hair about halfway through my last year of primary school. She was wandering around the bench at the corner of the playground where I normally had my recess and lunch. The first thing I noticed was her long hair: a bright, almost blinding yellow, constrasting sharply with her grey hoodie and pants. Nobody else was paying her much attention. Maybe that’s why I wanted to. I asked her what her name was and she said “I’m a girl”, or, I think that’s what she said. She had an adrift, strangled voice that sounded wrapped around a foreign tongue, rushing to be done with English words. I asked her if she wanted half of my muesli bar, but she just started poking around near the bin.
After the bell rang, she didn’t come back to the classrooms. I was almost late waiting for her, watching. She just kept searching that area: around the bench, then the bin, the dirt by the old demountables, under the trees, the gumnut-strewn corner of the concrete, and back to the bench again.
Mr Turnbull made us do maths until lunchtime. I couldn’t pay attention, but I hated maths anyway. Once the bell rang, I took my sandwich and my banana and headed across the edge of the playground. She was still scouring the same area, around the bench, by the bin, on the corner of the concrete. But her hair was a dark purple this time. I asked her about it.
“Changed code. New colour looking,” she said, or something like it.
Then she looked up, like she was trying to smile, or putting syllables together, before slowly speaking:
The next day I rode my bike to school. I normally caught the bus, but I went to the shed and got my bike and didn’t let mum see. I rode down the street on the footpath, taking the long way to school, past the shops down the road. There’s a baker, a hairdresser, a florist and a gift shop on the corner, or there was back then.
I went in to the gift shop and pulled the money out of my pocket. I had about twelve dollars and fifty cents, I remember. I looked around the shelves of bric-a-brac, knick-knacks, trinkets and cards, past the books and kitchenware and tea towels. Then I found it. It took nearly all my saved up pocket money, but I thought it was perfect.
I got my bike in to school just as the bell rang. I could see her on the far side of the playground. Fiery red hair.
Mr Turnbull got a bit mad at me because I didn’t do my homework, but I didn’t care. I could hardly wait for recess.
When the bell rang, I just grabbed my bag and headed straight to where she was wandering around. She looked a bit more frantic than before and her hair was a deep blue.
“Hey,” I said. For a moment she gazed to her left, towards the old bubblers, then continued scratching in the dirt behind the bench.
“I-I got you a present,” I said, as I pulled the box out from my bag and held it out to her. It was hair dye: Almond Blonde.
“I thought you might – ‘cos you said you wanted a new…I-I thought—”
“I want you go with me,” she interrupted, looking at the box of hair dye, then at me, properly, for the first time.
“Go with you? I…”
I wasn’t sure I’d heard correctly. But then she seemed all of a sudden in pain, face twisted, body clenched.
“No!” she shouted, and she ran off, staggering, struggling to pull the hoodie over her head, clawing at her scalp.
I just stood there, holding the box of hair dye, as she disappeared behind the demountables. When I went and looked, there was nothing there but dirt and asphalt, the high wire fence and the rush of traffic beyond.
I came out to look for her again at lunchtime, but she wasn’t there. I left the box of hair dye for her, just in case she came back.
She wasn’t there at recess the next day either, but the box was gone. Someone probably picked it up thinking it was litter, I figured.
At lunch I went back out to the bench, resigned to just eating my sandwich and banana by myself. But when I got near the corner of the concrete, I noticed a shallow hole in the ground next to the bench, and a small mound of dirt. And lying right there on the bench, as if it had never disappeared, was the box of hair dye. I looked closer. A scrap of paper was resting underneath it, gently waving at me in the breeze. I grabbed the scrap and read the words scrawled on one side:
don let them se
don get involvd
don stai to long
don let them no
and on the other side, typed in the centre:
I opened the box of hair dye and checked the bottle inside. Empty.
Then I looked up and I saw her through the trees, standing on the footpath just outside school grounds. She had a golden box under her arm and I think she was smiling.
And maybe my childhood memory has self-embellished since then, maybe it was just the sun sparkling off the blonde, but before she turned and disappeared into the streets beyond the school fence, I swear I saw her hair shimmer with every single colour of the rainbow.