I tell my family and friends I’m moving interstate. It seems easier than trying to explain.
Then I begin the slow, systematic process of killing myself.
Step one is to erase every trace of my online presence. There isn’t much. A photograph from my university’s Education Revue. A few articles from Westview’s school newsletter. A local critic’s write-up of the musical, Matilda, which I directed two years ago. (All of the news stories about what happened have redacted my name, refer to me only as ‘the teacher’— an archetype, protector and guardian and now mercifully anonymised tragic figure). Before long, typing Jenny Chen into the search bar produces a sea of other lives, other faces.
Next, I change myself.
I crop my hair short and bleach it moon white. I buy a pair of thick-rimmed, unflattering glasses, exchange colourful silk scarves and funky prints for monochrome sharp-cut pantsuits.
My name is the last to go.
I follow all the correct legal processes. Acquiring a fake ID would defeat the purpose. I’m not pretending to be someone else. This is an amputation. I am carving Jenny Chen out of myself, stepping out of my old skin and being reborn anew.
I let a random name generator do the work for me. I don’t want to baptise myself, don’t want anything with sentimental or symbolic significance. If this is a reincarnation, I will let karma tug me into whatever new life it chooses.
Millie Lorraine, the website spits out. I don’t know who Millie Lorraine is, not yet, but I’m eager to find out. I pull her on around me like a coat. She feels warm, and safe, and clean.
As the plane hurtles towards Australia’s eastern coastline, I do not look out the window. I can’t bring myself to watch the fields of golden wheat drop away, the parched stretch of desert that lies ahead.
A sea change will do you good, my parents said. When I left, everyone was very relieved, very understanding. After what had happened, who wouldn’t want a fresh start?
A sea change. The words are ironic. Instead of fleeing the urban grind for the countryside, here I am, spiralling towards the heart of the smokescape. Hoping that in a city of five million, where casinos and shopping malls and apartments scrape the sky, people’s eyes will slide off me like something too slippery to be held. That in a city of five million, it will be possible to rebuild myself into anything I want.
That in a city of five million, the noise, the noise, the noise of things will drown out everything else. All the things you can’t stop replaying in your head. All the things that keep you up at night.
I build Millie Lorraine’s backstory out of scattered scraps of character prep from my university acting days.
Millie moves like Lady Macbeth – regal, confident, with languid grandiose gestures. She speaks like Maggie of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof – not in accent but in cadence, driven and sultry with an undercurrent of vulnerability. Lorraine was her stepfather’s name: he was a Willy Lomanesque figure, a deluded salesman constantly chasing a dream that hung just out of reach. Like in Death of a Salesman, he died when his car veered off the road, leaving a meagre inheritance to Millie and her mother, who migrated here from Penang and, in the vein of Kristine of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, endured an unhappy marriage to support her ailing siblings.
I root my backstory partly in reality: Millie is an amateur actress, who’s moved to the big smoke on a whim, looking to remake herself. She’s a vegan, and passionate about Pilates and kickboxing, and juggles two jobs, in a vintage record store and a call centre. With every mouthful of quinoa salad and every overpriced barre class, I feel my old life being scoured away, leaving me raw and smarting.
At night I lie in bed in a tiny studio apartment near Redfern. Unlike the silence of my hometown, the night is alive with the tipsy laughter of passing students, the blare and ferment of traffic, the roar of aeroplanes along the flight path overhead.
I close my eyes and let Millie Lorraine’s memories play out in my imagination. A childhood trip to the beach. Musical productions and university revues. Late nights in pubs. A brief, passionate affair with an international student. I run my mind over them, caressing them again and again, until I can reach for them and find them easily at hand.
When my eyes slip shut, the past finds me in dreams.
An eye, round and white and staring. A pale hand, flung wide. The dreadful angles of things. And the way later, much later, a strand of a nursery rhyme ricocheted around my skull: Jack fell down and broke his crown. A memory of my mother explaining for the first time what it meant. The image it evoked. A sickening crack. A head caved in like an eggshell. Jack fell down and broke his crown.
I wake, cheeks sticky with tears, and resculpt this into a new memory. Millie Lorraine witnessed the aftermath of her stepfather’s accident. She was one of the first on the scene, when his car veered into an electric pole and his head went through the windshield. It is his eye she dreams of. His hand. The lopsided shape of his skull.
If you run your mind over something enough times, it becomes muscle memory. It becomes familiar enough that you can believe it’s real.
The problem in Sydney is the schoolchildren.
I have never seen so many in one spot. They seem as incessant in the city as pigeons.
They flock in trains and buses, spilling onto one another’s laps, huddled over phones, stinking of sweat and the school day and cheap hairspray. They cavort through shopping centres, walking four abreast with that particular adolescent callousness that vignettes one’s vision and makes everyone else fade into the fringes.
They linger on street corners, giggling. They eye passers-by sullenly, legs kicked out in front of them, holes in the knees of their winter stockings, scuffs on their uniform shoes. They lope after their parents in grocery stores, shoulders hunched and hands shoved deep in pockets.
And the sounds.
They shriek and chatter like swooping gulls. They scream – at nothing. At something on their phone screens. At a playful pinch from a friend. At a choice piece of gossip.
Scream like they’re hurt. Scream like they’re falling.
Each time, my stomach lurches. Each time, I press my hands into fists and reach for Millie Lorraine’s memories.
Millie Lorraine dislikes schoolchildren. To her they’re noisy, selfish, blinker-blind zitty little pests. She doesn’t mind infants, strapped in strollers and gazing wide-eyed at the world – but teenagers? She doesn’t understand them.
Millie Lorraine doesn’t know what it’s like to hear a teenager stumbling over Shakespeare for the first time, to hear that fumbling clumsiness transform into something confident and rhythmic as the beat of a war drum.
Millie Lorraine has never seen the sort of blazing, urgent passion that only adolescents are capable of. She’s never seen them striking for climate action, debating whether The Crucible’s Abigail is a feminist character, laying out a case for an extension for an upcoming assessment task with the ferocity of a world-class barrister.
Millie Lorraine has never seen a shy teen step onstage for the first time. Seen acne-scarred cheeks blush at an audience’s applause. Seen eyes shine with tears when reading the closing scenes of Of Mice and Men. Seen just how deeply a teenager is capable of feeling. Fury. Compassion. Heartache. Hope.
I’m walking through Pitt Street Mall when I hear the call. I flinch, shoulders hunching, and look for an escape route. Lunchtime shoppers parade past, crowds cluster around a busker strumming a guitar while perched on an upturned bucket, vagrants puff cigarettes by shop windows.
There’s nowhere to go. Two young women are rushing towards me – fresh-faced university students laden with shopping bags.
“Miss Chen!” one cries. “It’s me! Laura, from Westview? Graduated two years back? Did that scene from Pygmalion for my final project?”
Some Westview girls head east for the cities and metamorphose into effervescent, cosmopolitan beings. Others stay put, grow into strapping, practical women, in love with the sky and sea of their home. It’s a good school – rigorous, yet warm. Ambitious, yet humble. They’re good girls, who grow into good women.
“Oh my God, your hair’s so different!” She tugs her companion forward, gesturing excitedly. “Talia, this is Miss Chen, my old drama teacher. She was the best –”
“I think you’re mistaken.” Lady Macbeth’s voice comes out, imposing and self-assured. “We’ve never met before. My name’s Millie. I’m not a teacher, I work in a record shop.”
“What?” she stares at me, and I fight not to flinch as her gaze rakes over my face, taking in every feature. “I could’ve sworn – oh, god, how embarrassing. I’m so sorry. You look exactly like someone I used to know!”
She backs away, whispering and giggling and casting me confused, speculative glances. I want to laugh or smile or nod or turn and walk away, but I can’t. I can’t take my eyes off her.
Has she really not heard about what happened? The headlines made national news for days, and in our town the locals know all the grim details. Or perhaps she’d heard, but didn’t quite put the pieces together.
What am I saying? I don’t know any of this about her, and she doesn’t know anything about me.
After all, we’re strangers.
Inevitably, though, she will ring her parents and mention her odd encounter. Inevitably, they’ll tell her. And inevitably, she’ll Google it all – of course she will, the morbid curiosity will be too strong. And this is what she’ll find.
A security camera captured everything. The footage was played over and over again at the inquest.
This is what they saw.
The camera was perched high in the eaves of the open-air Globe Theatre, a pop-up amphitheatre nestled on one of the lovely lookout points along the coast.
In the footage, Jenny Chen rounds up the students as the performance finishes. Year nine girls, that difficult, liminal age when half the cohort have grown into women’s bodies, and the other half are stick-scrawny children a head shorter than their peers. An age when everything feels somehow sticky and aching and restless. When they want to be noticed, but also invisible, and respected, but also indulged, and left alone, but also coddled.
They have just seen Romeo and Juliet. The footage, monochrome and grainy, does not quite capture the tear-tracks drying on the girls’ cheeks.
Everyone is in high spirits. The sun is shining. A brisk wind whips ponytails and ruffles braids, sends tartan skirts flapping like sails. Jenny Chen points at two students, eyebrows raised, directing them to throw their rubbish in a nearby bin. She turns to another girl with a grin, hands flying in a series of wild, animated gestures as they speak. The security cameras do not have sound, but the girl is saying that the show was transformative. That is the word she uses. A word they’ve used in a class discussion lately but haven’t felt, not until now – not until here, in the open air with the sea beating against the cliff in iambic pentameter, not until the words on the page that they’d painstakingly annotated were given breath and life.
Jenny Chen claps her hands, waves her arms like a conductor and begins herding the girls along the path that meanders down the cliff towards the carpark where the buses wait.
And here – here is where the inquest paused, rewound, resumed, paused, rewound, resumed, the actions on the screen unspooling backwards and forwards, an interpretive dance of gesture and motion.
A student trips, drops her workbook. Paper billows through the air like the release of doves at a wedding.
Jenny Chen turns away, towards the child. Helps her to her feet, reaches to snatch a page from the air.
Behind her back, two girls hop the safety fence and walk towards the cliff edge. They turn, balancing on a rocky outcrop, lifting a phone to take a selfie. It will be a fantastic, Instagram-worthy shot. Their smiling, sunlit faces. Their hair billowing in the wind. The sparkling blue of the Indian Ocean stretching out behind them.
One girl slips. The rock is slick, treacherous from recent rain. Her weight lists sideways and before you know it – the footage will be slowed down, later, played beat by flickering beat – she is stumbling over the edge. Her friend reaches for her, startled, and their hands catch. Both girls tumble over.
The camera does not catch their screams.
But scream they must, because Jenny Chen turns. For a moment, every figure on the camera is still, a frozen tableau. Then teacher and students and theatre staff rush towards the fence.
Pause. Rewind. Resume.
Paper bursts and billows through the air.
Jenny Chen turns away, just for a second.
The girls vault the fence. Lift the phone, fall, disappear.
Pause. Rewind. Resume.
The paper –
Jenny Chen turns away –
Just for a second –
They vault the fence, fall, disappear –
Jenny Chen turns away –
Just for a second. That’s what she says, later, during the inquest. It was just for a second.
It was all very clear-cut. The camera footage helped. As the only teacher on the excursion, she had sole duty of care – but it was clear the students climbed the fence of their own volition. That in the limited span of time, the suddenness with which tragedy struck, there was nothing Jenny Chen could have done.
A single, childish mistake. A tragic accident. It wasn’t anyone’s fault, not really.
None of this really matters to Millie Lorraine, of course.
After all, it all happened to somebody else.
I stand in the streets of the city centre and let the crowds ebb and flow around me. One person in a city of five million. I want to straighten my back, adjust my coat, shake it off as a strange encounter, and walk on.
That’s what Millie Lorraine would do.
But my feet are fixed to the pavement. I stand and breathe in the stench of Sydney, cigarette butts and stale McDonalds rotting in bins and summer sweat and city smog. I tilt my head back and let it all wash over me. The traffic. The chatter. The lilting rise and fall of notes from the busker. The schoolchildren – distant, ever-present, shrieking like gulls.
Laura and her friend have dissolved into the crowd. I’ve met teachers who claim that once students graduate, they wipe them from their memories. I’ve met others who can encounter a child years later and still remember their name, where they sat in the classroom, every detail finely etched into their minds.
Duty of care. Three words, clinical and impartial. Duty. Imparting a sense of responsibility, but also distant. We care because it’s our duty. Because we are legally bound to.
This is what the camera footage did not show.
The way Jenny Chen fell to her knees when she looked over the cliff-edge. The way she took the steep, sloping path down to the little bay below, where the bodies lay sprawled against the rock. The blood that seeped through her jeans and stained her skin. The way she began CPR, mechanically, just as they were trained to once a year in the school hall – laughing and joking amidst the plastic mannequins, never quite believing they’d ever have to use it. The way, when the paramedics arrived, she fell back and stared out at the distant blur of the horizon, the gulls that dipped and whirled against the water, and the waves that lashed the rocks below in great gushing, pounding thumps. Like the ventricles of a huge heart. Like the sound of skull splitting against stone. And slowly, inevitably, the cold stillness of rigor mortis that crept up over her feet, her legs, her torso, as her life left her body, as Jenny Chen was swallowed by the impartial, relentless sea.
The city blurs. When I begin to cry it is quiet and desperate. My breath comes in sharp knife-cut gasps, in and out and in and out like the tides.
It’s a very cinematic moment. Millie Lorraine standing in Pitt Street Mall, crowds parting about her like the Red Sea. Weeping, because the girls mistaking her for someone who mattered, someone who touched their lives, has brought her own purposeless existence into sudden, sharp clarity.
In some plays, the ones with happy endings, this would be the peripeteia, a turning point towards some incredible life change. In another genre, this is the tragic denouement. The final, symbolic image of self-pitying realisation left burned on the backs of the audience’s eyelids as the lights drop out.Just don’t look too close. Something is wrong with the actress. It’s subtle, but she has not quite struck the right tone. These are not noble, regal tears of helplessness – but sheer, raw, consuming grief.
About the Author:
Josephine Sarvaas is an English teacher and aspiring writer from Sydney, Australia. Her work has appeared in The Big Issue, NYC Midnight,Gertrude, and is forthcoming in Tangled Locks Journal and A Public Space. Find her on Twitter: @josesarvwrites
Feature image by Repic Studio/Pixabay