Imagine your Mum’s handwriting was so appalling that you were registered with the wrong name. An embarrassing one. And to get around it you create a whole fantasy existence …
By Any Other Name
by Caroline Sully
I was born at the same time we were moving house: from our crowded rented terrace in Glebe to a Federation pile on the lower north shore my Dad’s childless, widowed aunt had left to her only nephew.
From the confines of the Crown Street Women’s Hospital in Surry Hills Mum dazedly gave instructions about the move as Dad and my three older sisters thundered into the ward to congratulate a weary Mum and get their first peek at me.
I was, apparently, a red-faced squawking scrap of a thing with a mop of dark hair. My sisters, expecting a pink and white angelic infant who slept with a Mona Lisa smile on her perfect face, were disappointed and said so while Mum and Dad filled out the paperwork.
I was to be named Denise after the said departed aunt. After a heated discussion about my middle name, which made me howl even louder and brought a starchy nurse to the bedside, Mum scrawled the name Elinor down and sent the family away.
She gave the nurse the completed form for my birth certificate, and went to sleep. Job done.
Nobody thought to question Mum’s writing, which was appalling at the best of times and even worse after a long labour and a good dose of painkillers.
It wasn’t until I was five years old and starting school that we all realised the name on my birth certificate had actually been recorded as Penise.
* * *
Australia – or at least our little part of it in an affluent leafy suburb – was very much a white world as the 1960s gave way to the 70s. Names inspired by the hippy era were beginning to make an appearance – after all, my dippy Mum had chosen to name her next daughter Venus, and the baby boy she was suckling when I pulled on my school uniform for the first time was called Ziggy.
My older sisters, born before Mum started wearing long ethnic smocks and skirts, were, in order, Elizabeth, Susan and Katherine, and it was plain names like those that filled my class roll-call. There were no Asian kids; there was a Greek girl called Soula, and that’s as odd as names got until I arrived there.
“Her name was supposed to be Denise,” Mum explained apologetically to the kindergarten teacher while I hid behind her legs, awed at the sight of 31 other kids my age all indeterminate in the same blue (for girls) and grey (for boys) uniform. “She’s been Denise since day one in our family. It’s just my awful handwriting, you see. My D must have looked like a P. But she’s Denise.”
“The records say she is named Penise,” Miss Gardener said firmly. As an employee of the government she believed her employer to be explicitly correct as far as records went. She clearly didn’t approve of Mum; other mothers turned up at school in Jackie O pastel shifts or tailored minis with immaculate lipstick and hair that was set every week. Mum rocked up wearing a purple kaftan, with long wavy brown hair and no makeup.
And that was that. It took me a week to realise that when the teacher called “Penise,” she meant me.
It took less time than that, of course, for me to be the school laughing-stock. Nowhere does the grape vine grow tendrils quicker than a school.
“Penis, Penis, Penisey,” was the chant that followed me everywhere. At first I was confused. Kids were more innocent back then and I had no idea what the word penis meant, until a little bastard called Mark whipped his out behind the toilet block in front of me on my second day in school.
“That’s a penis,” he said proudly. “You’re called Penis.” He stuck his tongue out as well. Then, tucking in both tongue and wee-wee (as the family referred to Ziggy’s), he ran away, leaving me stunned.
If the teachers caught a kid calling me Penis or Penisey there was trouble – a visit to the headmaster’s office, or a quick smack on the bum – but kids are sly bullies and managed to taunt me mercilessly without being caught, so my only recourse was to hang around with Katherine at playlunch and lunchtime. Kath was seven. She was a big kid with her own friends, and having a small sister with an official name that was an embarrassment was crucifying to her. Her favourite trick was to involve me in a game of hide and seek, and she and her friends would run away, never to be found, while I counted laboriously to twenty.
It took me a month to make a friend, and that was Soula, another outcast. It was an obvious match. The teachers thought it was sweet that the little girl with the unfortunate name finally had a friend, but it was more of a case of the two of us against the world. Soula used to cop it from the bullies too as she was, quite simply, the ugliest child in the school, short for her age and long-faced with eyes that didn’t line up, sticky-out ears revealed by two tight frizzy pigtails, and teeth like a horse. She wore heavy glasses with thick grey frames – standard issue for little kids, tough and unbreakable and defiantly 1950s – so it was as Penis and Four Eyes we were taunted.
Soula, bless her, called me Denise.
Years later I asked my parents why they didn’t simply change my name by deed poll to Denise then and there. It would have been the obvious thing to do. Mum said that by the time she was in her hippy phase she thought Penise an unusual and interesting name. Peneeze. Dad, a graphic artist, was flat out busy feeding a family of six kids and it didn’t occur to him. Like Mum he lived in a world of art, although in his case he’d sold out to the establishment, and the establishment kept him employed for nine hours a day and kept us in lentil stew.
In my second year at school the kindly Mrs Eltham abbreviated my name to Penny, which suited me fine. I had come to her in tears on the first day of school after the current intake of kindergarten kids had started taunting me and calling me Penis. Primed by their elder siblings, no doubt.
So now I had two names I could happily answer to. Denise at home and Penny at school. With Mrs Eltham as my teacher I refused to answer to Penise and the craze for teasing me slowly dropped off with all the teachers gradually referring to me, with relief I think, as Penny.
Penny was a respectable name. A Penny didn’t have parents who smoked pot when they thought the kids were all in bed asleep. A Penny didn’t have parents who invited workmates and other school parents home for dinner and played a game where you threw your car keys in a bowl and then … well, I never was allowed know what happened next but it wouldn’t have been Penny territory. A Penny’s Mum wasn’t a hippy who went on peace marches and made horrible scratchy wool on a spinning wheel and forced her children to wear jumpers knitted from it. A Penny’s Mum would wear smart trouser suits and lipstick rather than bare feet below Indian skirts. A Penny’s Mum listened to oh, I dunno, Frank Sinatra or someone, not Joni Mitchell or Ravi Shankar. A Penny’s Mum didn’t sit outside on the step with a glass of red wine composing folk songs on her guitar. And if she did, she would at least sing in tune. A Penny’s Dad would drive a car, perhaps even a station wagon, instead of putt off to work on an ancient and loud motorbike. A Penny’s Dad would wear a suit to work, not a t-shirt with a peace sign on it. He probably wouldn’t have wild hair to his shoulders and huge sideburns either.
Liz, Sue and Kath were cool with our bohemian lifestyle. They wore peace signs around their necks, parted their long hair in the middle and tied leather or beaded headbands around their foreheads. They wore midriff tops and maxi skirts, or jeans with flares so wide they swished impressively when they walked. Outside school they rarely wore shoes and jumped on the craze for Slave Sandals – pieces of raffia with a flower in the middle you simply tied around your bare feet and big toe. Little Venus and toddling Ziggy embraced the freedom we had, the encouragement to express ourselves openly, the lack of a need to dress up even when visiting relatives. If Ziggy pulled down his pants and nappy to show the contents in front of visitors, that was, apparently, OK.
I had become a Penny, and I was the odd one out.
My wardrobe was full of my sisters’ hand me downs and for that I was grateful, as some of it was what I termed “normal” clothes that ‘nice’ girls wore. Blouses. T-shirts without anti-war slogans. Knee length skirts. Drainpipe jeans. Trousers and shorts that weren’t denim. Conservative dresses that had been gifts from our grandparents. Jumpers and cardigans in pretty girly colours, knitted by grandmothers and aunts. Penny clothing. Stuff my sisters didn’t want.
When I was eight I read a storybook about a girl called Penny, who dressed in such clothes. The book had been written years before and Penny was a bit of a boring kid really, playing with her dolls and crying when her brother stole one. She should live in our house, I thought grimly, and try going through school being called Penis. Then she’d have something to cry about. But I was intrigued by the drawings of Penny and her family. Her Dad in suits, her Mum in a nice dress and she herself with a pretty blouse and skirt, and short bobbed dark hair worn with a fringe and a bow tied on one side.
I had the wardrobe. My hair was the right colour. I found the only pair of scissors in the house that weren’t broken or blunt, and, sneaking to the room I shared with Venus, proceeded to cut my hair as near as I could to Penny’s style. I should mention that my hair was almost waist-length at this time, and I typically wore it in two plaits to distance myself from my sisters’ hippy looks. So it was an obvious move to saw through each of the plaits and deposit them on my dressing table. What was left was pretty ragged and all different lengths, most of them touching the top of my shoulders. I turned this way and that. I’d have to even it up quite a bit and it wasn’t as short as Penny’s bob. I was humming happily to myself as I snipped away, not considering the impact my haircut would have on Mum when she finally saw it.
As I’ve said my parents were both arty, and I was, in my turn, good with my hands. I could draw well, I was good at craft projects, cutting paper designs fairly neatly. It took me a while to cut my hair and even using one hand to feel the length at the back while I cut it, the end result was still a bit asymmetrical, but it looked okay if I tucked the left side behind my ear. I didn’t dare cut it any shorter as it was, by now, almost up to the bottom of my earlobes. I combed some hair over my face until I couldn’t see, and with my hand muscles trembling from holding the heavy dressmaking scissors for so long, cut myself a fringe with one big snip. It was angled across my forehead, unfortunately, and I was just about to have another go at making it straight when Mum found me.
She used words I’d never heard before then grabbed the scissors from my hands.
“Denise! What on earth are you doing?”
I’d forgotten my name for a moment. In my heart, I was Penny. I looked guiltily at the plaits on the dressing table and the clumps of hair down my clothing and lying at my feet. Then in the mirror at my rather ragged bob with its crazy fringe. It didn’t look good. Not on Denise OR Penny.
“I wanted my hair like that,” I whispered, trying not to burst into tears. I showed Mum the drawing.
Mum closed her eyes and breathed deeply. I was afraid she was going to start meditating on the spot, standing up. Instead she opened her eyes and told me to hold still, and grim-faced, neatened up my maiden attempt at haircutting. “God. It looks like a pudding-bowl haircut,” she grumbled, clipping away at the back of my neck where I’d cut it unevenly.
Finally, though, I had a straight, if rather short, fringe and a bob haircut no hippy would be seen dead with. When I shook my head my new short hair flipped out wildly. It looked just the part with my blouse, skirt, knee-hi socks with the frilly top and mary jane shoes. I grinned at my reflection, grinned at Mum.
“You are one weird kid, Denise. Go and get a dustpan and tidy this floor up.” Her face sad, Mum grabbed the severed plaits and stalked from the room.
Two weeks later I found another book in the school library with a heroine called Penny, who rode horses, and solved a mystery involving stolen gold coins. She was brave and interesting and coshed the bad man with her stirrup irons. She wore her dark hair in two long plaits. I sighed.
* * *
As Penny, I fitted in to lower north shore society. As well as the faithful Soula, who’d begged to have her hair cut like mine (but when she did it frizzed out like an Afro) I had Justine and Wendy as friends. They were newcomers to our school that year and only knew me as Penny, and were rather mystified to hear my sisters refer to me as Denise.
“Denise is my family nickname,” I told them. They desperately wanted to come and play at my house, as I’d been to both of theirs – Mums dressed in smart dresses, neat bedrooms with pretty white-painted furniture, no lentil stew on the stove – and I’d been stalling them as long as possible, but the day had finally come.
I’d tidied my room as much as I could and put Venus’ toys in their box. In faithful imitation of Justine, I’d nicked a frilly pillow from Sue’s bed and put it on my own, and propped up a soft toy – a gangly clown – in front of it. I wished there was something that could have been done with the huge mural of cartoon characters Dad had painted on the wall near Venus’ bed, as it looked so weird compared to the Holly Hobbie print Wendy had in her bedroom, but short of repainting the wall I was stuck with it.
Mum was having one of her creative days, so when I arrived home with Justine, Wendy and Soula there was no lemonade and baklava like Soula’s Mum made. Her hands covered in oil paints, her hair tied back with a painting rag, and wearing a smock so stiff with paint it could stand up by itself, Mum trailed vaguely into the kitchen when she heard us arrive.
My friends were goggle-eyed as Mum wiped her hands on a rag soaked with turps. “I meant to make a cake,” she apologised.
The kitchen bench was covered with unwashed dishes, plates, pots and pans, and our grey tabby cat Zola was licking one of them with a faraway look in his eyes. A line of ants was patiently and purposefully clearing crumbs off another.
“There’ll be something here somewhere.” When she did bake, Mum made good biscuits, and she pulled a tin from the larder. My elder sisters had got there first, however, and all that was left were broken bits of coconut biscuits which looked very sad and sparse on the plate. I was mortified.
“I’ll make some scones. With jam,” Mum promised, and sent us out to play. Wendy looked nervously back at the kitchen and all its mess with Mum standing paintily in the centre of it.
We heard pots clanging, and finally Mum shrieking, and then Venus, her face painted purple and green, shot into the garden, crying, with Mum in hot pursuit. Ziggy trotted after them both, red paint looking like blood in his hair.
“Denise! Get the scones! Now!” Mum panted, grabbing Venus roughly.
I rescued the scones from the oven and found clean plates and the jam. There was a fresh bottle of milk in the fridge so I poured all four of us glasses, and we tried to ignore Mum reading Venus and Ziggy the riot act about going into her studio.
David Bowie blared from upstairs; Liz was thirteen now and had her own room. She claimed she could only do homework to music. Sue and Kath were yelling firstly at her then each other.
Zola jumped on the end of the dining table and proceeded to wash his genitals in that boneless way cats have. I pushed him off but he complacently jumped back up with a flash of green eyes and continued.
Ziggy ran howling into the room, screamed, “I’m going to poo poo D’neece!” and ran out again, pulling his pants down at the same time.
Justine, Wendy and Soula were nervously silent, nibbling at their scones, which I must say were delicious and the best thing about the afternoon so far.
Sue thumped down the stairs, her face like thunder, and pulled my hair until I yelped. At least being short it didn’t give her the same advantage as pulling a long plait. “Listen here, PENISE. Who told you you could nick my pillow? And my clown? Stay out of my room, you little creep. Penisey.” She let go of my hair and then thumped the back of my head, then pivoted on one bare foot, the fringes of her leather jerkin swirling behind her.
“Penise? Penisey?” queried Justine.
“Another nickname?” wondered Wendy.
Soula, thankfully, said nothing.
I was too busy seeing stars to think of a response.
It was Mum, Venus in tow, who opened her big mouth. “Oh, Penise is Denise’s legal name. Would you believe my writing was so bad in hospital when I had her, they thought I’d written Penise? Whoever heard of a girl called Penise? You’d think common sense would tell them I meant Denise.” She laughed, halved a scone and gave one half to Venus and smothered the other in jam for herself, then took Venus, now with a clean face, into the garden.
“I thought your name was Penny,” Justine said accusingly to me.
“It IS,” I said desperately. “Penise… that’s a long form of Penny. You can see it’s Penny. I’m a Penny. Not a Penise. Not even a Denise. The teachers call me Penny. So I MUST be Penny – see? The teachers wouldn’t call me Penny if it wasn’t my name.”
But I could see she wasn’t convinced. Nor was Wendy. They were looking about them, clearly thinking, “This house is a Penise house, not a Penny house. Not even a Denise house. There’s a cat licking his doodads on the table and the little boy has done a poo in the hall.”
“What’s the time?” said Justine. “My mum wants me home by four thirty.”
“So does mine,” said Wendy.
“I don’t know,” I said miserably. “The clock stopped yesterday and nobody’s wound it up.” My vision of taking my friends to my bedroom, where we could sit and talk about clothes, about music, gossip about our teacher, play with dolls and generally just be nice normal girls together, disappeared.
“It’s quarter past four,” Soula ventured timidly, sneeking a peek at her wristwatch.
“Gotta go,” Justine and Wendy said simultaneously, and it was hard to say who was faster – those two galloping out the door or Zola pouncing to lick the jam from their abandoned scones.
Soula and I looked at each other. She still had thick glasses but they were round frames this year, and her crooked eyes looked enormous behind them. “My mum doesn’t expect me home till five,” she said kindly.
So we went up to my bedroom and sat and talked about Justine and Wendy, who were really not nice at all.
For a while there I got taunted with Penis or Penisey again at school, courtesy of Justine and Wendy, who had immediately inveigled themselves with the cool kids – you know the type, the ones who have the latest fashion in clothing, toys, books, who never have a hair out of place and who never even get red faced on sports afternoons. They’d told stories about their visit to my house, exaggerating everything until it was the cat crapping on the scones in the middle of the dining table and Ziggy trying to paint everyone purple and my Mum being a slut.
The last made me angry. Mum was no slut (whatever that was), she was just an arty hippie who was hopeless at housework. Sue, who was three years older than I, wandered past and overheard me telling Justine and Wendy they weren’t to call my Mum a slut. Sisters are funny things. One moment they’re pulling your hair and thumping you on the head. Next moment they’re pulling the hair of your ex-friends and calling them revolting little liars.
Sue got a slap on the hand with a ruler for bullying smaller kids when the teacher caught her, but she said it was worth it.
* * *
I’d begun to live a fantasy life as Penny.
Mealtimes in our house usually meant most of us had reading matter stuck in front of our plates. It was a great way to keep us kids from arguing.
Dad usually read the newspaper over breakfast, and magazines over dinner, marking advertisements and graphics he was impressed with.
Mum read art journals and women’s magazines, occasionally telling us gossip from the showbiz and television world.
Venus was galloping through kiddy storybooks now she was a schoolgirl and Ziggy smothered even more food on the reading primers we had all, in our turn, read at the dining table as kindergarten kids. See Jane run! See Ziggy spill sugar!
Liz, Sue, Kath and I read novels. Liz borrowed books such as The Happy Hooker and The Story of O from her classmates, and wrapped them in innocuous covers from books more suitable to a teenager. Sue and Kath devoured Mills and Boon, which Mum occasionally borrowed when she didn’t have a magazine to hand. I was graduating from Enid Blyton to school stories by Angela Brazil and Elinor M Brent-Dyer. None of the characters in those books were called Penise, and while they may have had troubles at their boarding schools the characters didn’t get shunned like I did. Gosh, they had fun, too. They were good friends, actually enjoyed playing sport, had midnight feasts and exciting adventures.
So I pretended that I, Penny, was going to one of those posh boarding schools where everyone had good manners and was neatly turned out. This, our dining room, was the school refectory. The cartoon-infested bedroom I shared with Venus was the dorm. The lessons I attended at our local school were, natch, part of the whole fictional school world. I was careful not to betray my fantasy existence to anyone; not even Soula, and certainly nobody at home or I would have been ridiculed beyond belief.
Here in a utopia of freedom in the house that now bore the painted nameplate Bohemia, why would anyone want to pretend they were in a world of strict rules?
I started writing my own ‘school’ stories with the central character called, naturally, Penny. I illustrated them as well with my heroine wearing a classic mid-century pleated school uniform including a blazer and hat – items that never appeared on the uniform list at my own primary school. Initially I borrowed plots from other authors before coming up with my own wilder and more improbable ones, and set my stories in England. With a squint or two I could pretend our very green back garden, with its tangle of weeds and vines along the rear fence and its lush veggie patch in the centre, was located somewhere in Surrey and not suburban Sydney, so I could play act my stories to my heart’s content in the garden.
I lived as Penny in an imaginary world full of imaginary, for the most part, friends: characters from my stories. Soula was still my best if not only actual friend, and despite Sue giving Justine and Wendy a hiding 18 months before, tales of our house’s untidiness had spread to legendary status in my class. Depending on who you spoke to, we were overrun with cats, there was paint in the jam and poo on the walls, Ziggy was a retard, Mum wasn’t all there, Dad buried visitors he didn’t like in the backyard and Liz smoked pot. The last was true.
Only the advent of a new kid starting in school the year I turned 11 took the focus off me as class weirdo. He was an Italian kid whose Mum gave him pasta salad for lunch. In a world dominated by Vegemite or peanut butter sandwiches, he copped it. He wore his lunch over his head twice in the first couple of weeks. Kids said loudly in class they didn’t want to sit near him because he stank of garlic. It took half an hour for him to earn the nickname Wog Boy. I sympathised with him when exaggerated tales of his home life started the rounds. Knowing what it was like to be teased, however, I kept to my own devices and shut up.
Because I didn’t join in the teasing – and nor did Soula – we soon saw graffiti chalked up on the back of the toilet block: Wog Boy 4 Penisey. Four Eyes + Wog Boy. Our initials in hearts together.
Now THAT annoyed me. I recognised the writing, too. I nicked some chalk the next lunchtime and, looking over my shoulder, wrote Justine luvs Bob and Glyn 4 Wendy 4ever in big misshapen love hearts. Glyn and Bob were overweight twins with bad teeth and bad breath.
As luck would have it I was dusting the chalk from my fingers when the headmaster, Mr Cunningham, strolled around the corner and saw me admiring my handiwork.
I quickly pretended to be incensed and started blabbering about people writing horrible things about Soula and me. Mr Cunningham knew all about me being called Penisey and I assume he gathered Soula, with her coke-bottle specs, was Four Eyes.
“Penise…Penny. Penny, why is there chalk on your hands in that case?”
“I was trying to wipe it off!” I quickly retorted, attempting to smear Wog Boy 4 Penisey, but it was chalked onto brick and only detergent and a scrubbing brush was going to shift it. I found that out the hard way. Mr Cunningham hadn’t believed me and I had to spend the rest of lunch scrubbing the brickwork while Justine and Wendy peeped occasionally around the corner at me, cacking themselves.
* * *
Being a bit of a loner had its advantages. Not for me afternoons spent at a different friend’s house each weekday, or the awfulness of team sport training. When I wasn’t writing my school stories I was studying. I had decided that the only way to get respect and stop kids calling me Penis was to be smart. Aim for the top of the class.
Liz, Sue and Kath thought I was weird; they didn’t study hard but each of them was blessed with a good brain and therefore good grades, and in Liz’s case a photographic memory – well, the bits of it the pot wasn’t killing off.
“Here, smartarse.” Kath threw The Sydney Morning Herald at me. “Some of those posh schools are offering scholarships. You’re always fantasizing about schools with dumb uniforms. Why don’t you try for them?”
With six kids in the family Dad wasn’t planning on giving any of us a private education. All my older sisters now went to the local High School, a place not known for academic achievement; the rich people in our suburb sent their kids to private schools with a ‘there but for the grace of God go I’ glance at my sisters and their friends in their miniskirts and makeup.
I asked Mum and Dad if I could try for the exam at the school I most wanted to go to, and Mum agreed to take me. I just hoped she wasn’t at an important part of her latest painting when the time came.
Thankfully she wasn’t, and she made an effort to look ‘normal’ as we ferried and bussed it to the private school. Normal for Mum meant taming her bright red hennaed hair into a bun of sorts, admittedly skewered with a chopstick, and wearing a longish velvet skirt, boots and one of Dad’s jackets. It was winter.
The exam itself centred around Maths and English. While I didn’t truly enjoy Maths I felt I’d done pretty well and I ripped through the English section with delight. There was even a question asking me to write a short story. What a no-brainer. My boarding school world was vivid in my mind and my pen flew across the page, with heroine Penny saving the school from a gang of thieves who were after the silver sports trophies. Her long brown plaits flew as she coshed them on the head with a hockey stick. I clearly marked my paper Penny Drummond. Not Denise. Not, under any circumstances, Penise. If I succeeded in getting any kind of scholarship, I’d be starting at this school as Penny.
Mum and I looked around the school afterwards. It was a Saturday, so the place was silent and empty; I could imagine the slap of school shoes on the stairs, hear the desks opening and shutting with a clatter. I could see groups of girls huddled together laughing in their smart green uniforms; all friendly, all accepting. The library was filled with thousands of books I hadn’t read. The science block promised all kinds of mysteries would be unravelled. The Domestic Science kitchen would teach me to cook exotic things like soufflés. Here I could and would make good friends, as good a friend as Soula (whom I thought of rather guiltily at this point). It was a day school, not a boarding school, but it was an all girls’ school. What fun we’d have! All I had to do was win a scholarship and beat the other forty nine girls who were trying for it.
It took six weeks – six long weeks of me asking daily whether the school had sent any letters – to learn that I had, in fact, been chosen as one of two girls to win a full scholarship for the full six years of high school at Sydney Ladies’ Grammar School.
Mum left the letter for me on the dining table; she was, as usual, painting.
I read through it three times, disbelieving at first. It said Penny Drummond. Not Denise. Not Penise.
When Dad took off his helmet and rumpled his hair that evening, I showed him proudly.
“Penny? Penny? But you’re Denise,” he frowned. “Well, Penise, really. Haven’t you grown out of that Penny thing yet?”
“No, Dad. I’ve got to be Penny. I HAVE to be Penny. Don’t enrol me as anything else. Please? I don’t want to go to another school and be called Penis.”
The look on my face – a mix of horror and pleading I had practiced in front of the mirror – convinced him.
* * *
The letter stated what books and uniform I’d need, and mentioned a rule book which was apparently included. It wasn’t. We all shrugged that off; rules in our house were flexible things which broke easily when they existed at all, and I’d read enough school stories to have a handle on rules.
So it was as Penny Drummond I was enrolled at Sydney Ladies’ Grammar School, and my uniform – blouse, tunic, hat, blazer, jumper, socks, gym tunic– were all neatly and appropriately tagged P Drummond.
It was as Penny Drummond that I excitedly caught the ferry and then bus to school for the first day of year 7, a bit warm in my bottle green blazer as it was early February, my hair (now shoulder-length and side-parted) tied in plaits with green ribbons on the ends. I wore a straw boater. I had shiny new black Bata Ponytail shoes. I couldn’t stop grinning.
It was as Penny Drummond that, three and a half hours into the first day of the first term that I decided I hated the school after all. Not for nothing was I a child of Bohemia.
The rules! Shit! Only I said “Shit!” privately in my head as swearing got you a detention. While rules might have been fine to read about in Angela Brazil novels, the reality at SLGS (which of course was called SLAGS by one and all) was that the rules were infinitesimal, inflexible and pretty well ancient.
The rule book issued to all new girls at the first assembly had been printed before Australia embraced decimal currency in 1966. The book, therefore, was older than I. While the headmistress Miss Harman touched on some of the most important rules I flicked through the book.
“Any girl who carries more than ten shillings on her person should deposit it in the book room for safe keeping during school hours.” Ten shillings! That was a dollar! What century was this book from?
Even on the hottest day I must not undo the top button of my blouse or loosen my tie on pain of detention (The line about not taking gloves off in the street on days over 100 degrees had a neat black line ruled through it, as gloves were no longer part of the uniform).
I must not eat in the street; girls caught eating in the street will be given a detention. Likewise eating in class.
Chewing gum was a prohibited substance, even in the open grounds. Detention!
I must not wear my jumper in the street unless I wear my blazer over it – you can guess by now what the punishment was.
If I get caught with a transistor radio I will have the radio confiscated and will earn myself a Saturday morning detention to be taken in full uniform. Bugger, I’d been looking forward to listening to 2SM over lunch as I was heavily into the Top 40 by then.
If my hair was longer than my collar it must be tied back with green ribbons on pain of detention (or scissors, I thought wryly).
I must keep the inside of my locker tidy as mistresses could demand random inspections.
Mistresses could also demand knicker inspections at any time. I would have to wear green full brief granny knickers for the next six years – granny knickers! – and not the colourful hipsters I preferred to wear.
No running. Anywhere.
No talking in the corridors.
No talking in class.
No sending notes to each other in class.
No borrowing or lending of pens, pencils, erasers, compasses, slide rules, textbooks…
My skirt must reach to the middle of my knee, no shorter.
I must not walk with my hands in my blazer pockets.
Inkwells must be emptied at the end of each day and nibs cleaned with water. (Inkwells! Nibs! At that point I lost all respect for the rule book and drew a line through the offending sentence with my biro and wrote SHIT next to it.)
My shoes must be shined daily. And not have a heel higher than ¾ of an inch/one and a half centimetres (this last metric term inked in by hand by someone with more time than sense).
Worst of all, no jewellery and of course no makeup. Liz would have walked out at that, she who went to school every day with black eyeliner in a ring around her eyes and a kilogram of jewellery scattered around her body. By the end of assembly my copper ring was safely in my pocket to avoid confiscation, and with my blouse buttoned up like a Victorian maiden’s, the silver chain I always wore was out of sight.
And of course, no smoking. This rule was broken daily, as it is in every school, with a cockatoo keeping watch at the entrance to the loos in case a teacher starts coming close. I’d even smelt smoke coming out of the lower locker room on the way to that first assembly. That this rule was broken was a bit heartening; it meant some girls at least were human.
On and on and on.
The 112 rules, plus sub-clauses,which made up the book made me long for the handful of rules we had in primary school. A handful it may have been but each one of them had a valid reason for existing. It seemed that some SLGS rules existed in the hope girls would break them and detentions could be issued. Rules at SLGS existed existentially.
Our form teacher, Mrs Hartnell, who resembled nothing less than a bespectacled toad in human form, ran through more of them when she sat her class down for the first time. Her wide, lipless mouth flapped open and shut and words came out of it as I listened dazedly, and by 10am three girls had already been given detentions for daring to open their mouths and ask questions. (“No running? What about sports?” piped up a wag at the back of the class, who immediately received a detention.) This wasn’t school, it was Colditz.
She did a knicker inspection, walking down between the desks while girls coyly lifted up the sides of their skirts. While the uniform list had stated green knickers Mum hadn’t been able to buy any at the time, so I was wearing orange and pink flower power hipster undies. Naturally, I was given a detention. I fumed. Silently. I crushed the rule book in my hands under the desk.
My Mum would be proud of me when I told her I was a rebel after all.
That was all before recess. By lunchtime more than six girls in my year had come up to me and asked me if it was true that my name was really Penis. Another three had already taunted me about it. I had never seen any of them before in my life.
“I’m Penny,” I said firmly. “You can check with Mrs Hartnell. My name is Penny.”
“Short for Penis. Penise, we hear, like Denise but with a P.” Whoever she was, she was bigger than I, with eyebrows plucked to near extinction and big boobs for a thirteen year old. There was something about her face – the eyes? The nose? – which reminded me uncomfortably of Justine. The grapevine was growing at a rate of knots; I found out soon after she was Justine’s cousin, Naomi Johnstone.
There was a ring of them around me now, all taller, all stronger, all jeering. I felt like a child beside my hefty classmates.
“Peeenis,” Naomi said finally, and they burst into giggles. “A girl called Penis. Your Mum’s a slag who serves up cat shit stew.”
I wriggled away from them and ran to the library, fighting back tears. Another six years of this. Of interminable rules and being called Penis by people I didn’t even know. I would have been better off in the local high school with my sisters, with fewer rules, being able to wear colourful undies and being called Penis by people I at least knew.
I’d come this far. I’d got the scholarship. I had to stick it out. Penise might run away – as Denise would – but Penny, staunch brave Penny, would hang in there and win the school over, just like in an Elinor M Brent-Dyer novel.
Embarrassed, I told Mum and Dad I hadn’t enjoyed the first day, and why. “I’ve spent hundreds on bloody uniforms,” Dad grumbled. “You can’t chuck it in and go to the local school now.”
“I could sell the uniforms to the book room,” I offered. “They buy and sell second hand ones.”
“Denise, you won a scholarship. You’re smart. Of course they’re going to pick on you. They’re jealous. It’s a nine days’ wonder. You’ll love it in a couple of weeks.” I think Dad was rather proud of telling his workmates that I’d won the scholarship.
Four friendless, taunted, weeks later I had been pushed – luckily harmlessly – down a short flight of stairs twice, locked in the loos, shoved against the walls hard enough to break the skin on my elbow, tripped up countless times, had photos of penises taped to the underside of my desk top and the front of my locker, had chewing gum firmly cementing my English textbook together, had half my other textbooks stolen and my locker broken into twice, had a dead mouse put into my locker during the second break-in, had my hair ribbons stolen in a guerrilla attack from behind (and another detention for not wearing them!), had my boater stomped on, been choked “accidentally” with my tie four times by friends of Naomi’s, my lunch had been stolen three times and my schoolbag thrown off the ferry. That was the last straw, I decided, as the deckhand hooked it back up with all its contents including expensive textbooks soaked through. Naomi and her friends had had their final bit of fun at my expense. I couldn’t even study properly in class for wondering what they were planning next.
The teachers weren’t like teachers in school stories, either. You couldn’t go to them with a problem such as, well, I don’t know, bullying. You were there to learn. Mrs Hartnell’s forte was English – my favourite subject with my least favourite teacher. Her squat, ugly form in its shapeless skirts stomped around the room, and the magic of the poetry of words felt flat as they issued from her lips. I couldn’t engage with her or her lessons. For my first assignment I received a B, which was mortifying. I’d been top of the class in primary school.
By now I was prepared to chuck all my school stories into the bin – even better, onto the bonfire! – and decided on a plan of action. Penny the Intrepid and Brave Schoolgirl was throwing in the towel.
If my parents wouldn’t let me leave, I would get myself expelled.
* * *
My first instinct with the rule book, once I’d read it, was to tear it into shreds, but I was glad I didn’t, as I needed to ascertain the worst thing I could do to get kicked out.
I could blatantly listen to a radio, get it confiscated, get a Saturday detention, not turn up for the detention and get suspended for two weeks. That wasn’t a bad deal. Two weeks away from the living hell of posh girls from posh families sneering at me. The book didn’t say how many suspensions you could rack up before expulsion, which was a shame.
I could do some graffiti – big black graffiti – on one of the walls. Big enough and rude enough might get me ejected. Miss Harman sucks dicks? That could do it. Especially if I signed it.
I could throw paint and/or detergent into the swimming pool – but someone would have to see me do it and report it. Probably not a cause for expulsion but might get me a suspension.
I could break into the book room and steal something. Even better, sneak into Miss Harman’s office and make off with one of her desk ornaments, china figurines or expensive pens.
There was a red phone for personal calls outside Miss Harman’s office. I could pretend to be calling a bookmaker and putting bets on the 1.30 at Canterbury on Wednesday; gambling was a real no-no.
I could skip sport on Tuesdays – that would at least get me a detention and if I kept persisting in skipping sport it might eventually get me chucked.
Soula and I spent hours discussing how I could set myself free. She was at the local High School and was slowly growing into her looks and filling out. She wasn’t called Four Eyes any more as there were other kids there with even thicker glasses than hers.
We sat cross-legged in the garden with Zola purring around us. I wore jeans and a tie-dye t-shirt, and bare feet. All my sweet dresses and pastel cardigans I’d handed down to Venus, who predictably hated them. I might still call myself Penny, but suddenly I wasn’t a Penny any more.
“I have to do something major,” I decided. “I hate the place so much I don’t want to have to rack up heaps of detentions. The fewer hours I spend there the better.”
We considered setting a fire in one of the classrooms. “But you’d have to make sure it was empty first,” said Soula very seriously. “Just a fire in the bin.”
In the end we decided I’d nick one of Liz’s joints and smoke it blatantly in the courtyard outside Miss Harman’s office. There was nothing in the rule book about the use of marijuana – pot probably hadn’t been invented when that horrible booklet was published – but if smoking was a serious offence marijuana would be a capital one.
It took a bit of animal cunning to find Liz’s stash, but while she was taking one of her epic bubble baths I found it tucked into a pack of Kotex in her chest of drawers. Thankfully it was already rolled into joints – eight of them – so I took two and hoped she hadn’t remembered how many she had left.
It’s a wonder I didn’t have guilt all over my face at breakfast the next day. I buried my nose in a book – one of Sue’s Mills and Boons – and crunched down my cornflakes wordlessly. I was out of the house and away to the ferry before Liz even got out of bed, the joints and a lighter also courtesy of Liz in my pocket. I felt like they were glowing.
It was a Monday, and Miss Harman generally stayed in her office on Monday morning dictating correspondence and being grand in the best headmistressy manner.
So at the end of recess, instead of going back into class, I sat on the ground in the middle of the courtyard, rolled down my regulation knee high socks to ankle length, undid the top buttons on my blouse, yanked my tie off and tied it around my head like one of Liz’s old headbands, pulled the ribbons from my plaits and set them free and lastly pulled a pot of eyeshadow out of my blazer pocket and smeared bright blue over my eyelids.
“Hey, kid, what are you doing? Get that makeup off and get back to class or I’ll tell Miss Harman.” A prefect loomed over me. “I’m giving you one chance.”
“I’ve given this place enough chances,” I said shakily. I was so nervous my hands were trembling even more than my voice.
“Get up. Now. What’s your name? Oh, it’s Drummond, isn’t it? The scholarship kid. Get up, Drummond.” She put her hands on her hips. She was scary.
I gulped and said, “Fuck off, Prefect.” Then I whipped out the joint, flicked the lighter savagely several times before I managed to light it and took a suck. I coughed like mad – shit, you mean people smoke these things for FUN? – and then took another drag.
“Right. You’re on detention. Get up.”
“Fuck off.” Emboldened, I blew some smoke insolently in her face.
“Jesus,” she exclaimed, her nose twitching. “It’s a joint!” She backed away from me. “Don’t move.”
“Thought you wanted me to get up.” I was feeling more relaxed now and took another suck on the thing.
Miss Harman’s head popped out from the first storey. I could tell you what she saw. An excited prefect jumping up and down and pointing at me, saying, “Joint, joint!” and a giggling Year 7 girl flaunting various uniform rules and smoking something that didn’t look like a packet cigarette. Through my giggles and the smoke I could see her sniff then her head disappeared from view.
By the time Miss Harman reached me I was incapable of getting up anyway. I was a laughing heap and felt as dizzy as if I’d been spun around quickly several times.
“Help me get her to Matron’s office, Carol,” Miss Harman said to the Prefect.
“Oh Carol,” I sang, remembering an old Neil Sedaka song. “I am but a fool.”
“You can say that again,” Carol grumbled as she and Miss Harman dragged me up and forward. The toes of my shoes scuffed on the concrete. So what?
I don’t know what happened to the joint en route – maybe Miss Harman took a suck, and I hope she enjoyed it – but my head was still spinning as I was unceremoniously thumped onto one of the sick room beds.
Matron – another squat soul who looked like Mrs Hartnell’s twin – kept a gimlet, if not disgusted eye on me. Miss Harman disappeared, presumably to phone my parents.
While we were waiting for Mum and/or Dad to arrive, Miss Harman returned. More composed, and breathing deeply to keep herself calm, she asked me why I was smoking a joint in the courtyard.
“Because I hate it here,” I burst out. “I hate the girls, I hate being teased and victimised, I hate the rules because so many of them are just stupid, I hate Mrs Hartnell because she’s a toad, I hate it because I just don’t fit in!”
Miss Harman blinked. “I see.”
Well, she didn’t see at all, did she? She didn’t ask me why I was being teased and victimised. I almost told her, but then realised she might give me a second chance, which was the last thing I wanted.
“Where did you get the joint?” she asked mildly.
Revenge was going to be sweet. “Naomi Johnstone,” I said softly.
* * *
It was what I did to Naomi that sealed the deal. Dad had chugged in on his motorbike and explained I’d been teased about my name – my real name – and that was the main cause of my behaviour, but when Miss Harman and Mrs Hartnell found the second joint tucked under textbooks in Naomi’s desk, things escalated to the point of no return.
A tearful Naomi denied ever seeing the joint before in her life and claimed I must have put it there. Well, she was right, but I was amused to find myself her target yet again.
I was obviously an evil child to plant a marijuana cigarette in Naomi’s desk. Naomi! Who’d been in the junior school at SLGS and was a model student.
I hadn’t planted the pack of Benson and Hedges that the teachers found in her desk, however. Or the Cleo magazine opened to the nude male centrefold annotated with comments and arrows. Or Naomi’s diary which in her own fair hand described what she’d like to do with one of the boys from Sydney Grammar, in graphic, luscious, poorly-spelt detail. Nope, that was all Naomi’s own.
As I collected my personal possessions – those that hadn’t been stolen – Naomi was bawling her eyes out and looking down the barrel of a suspension.
I took a final look at my classmates – none of them friends – and lifted my skirt. I was wearing pale blue hipster briefs with yellow butterflies all over them. I waggled my bum, heaved my bag over one shoulder and left to the unexpected sound of cheers and claps, and Mrs Hartnell’s booming voice telling everyone to sit down and be quiet.
“I hope you’ve got a spare helmet,” I said to Dad. “That bloody Naomi’s nicked my transport pass.”
* * *
“So what’s it going to be?”
Mum and Dad looked at me. So did all my sisters. Ziggy contented himself by trying to stick his finger up Zola’s bum.
“Penny? Or Denise?”
My parents had finally agreed to change my name by deed poll. We would see a solicitor the next day. There had been a few unrepeatable words said about my expulsion and Liz’s joint stash earlier that afternoon, but Bohemia was a house where arguments faded quickly into the old plaster walls. My hated uniform was destined for the SLGS book room, and I was snuggled into the sofa in my favourite jeans and t shirt.
“Um….” I stared at the ceiling. Gosh, there were a lot of spiderwebs up there. Really, I didn’t feel like I was a Penny any more. Penny belonged at a school like SLGS and I’d be going to the local High School now. It was more a Denise place. But Denise rhymed with Penise and I didn’t feel like a Denise either. There was, however, an alternative. I had a very nice middle name.
“Elinor,” I said finally. “Just get rid of the first name completely and I’ll be Elinor. Ellie.” I savoured it. “Ellie. I could be an Ellie. Or an Elle.”
Kath immediately said, “Elliphant.”
Sue came up with “Elle on wheels.”
I poked my tongue out at them. Compared with Penisey, that was nothing.
It would be a fairytale ending to tell you that I spent my high school years as Elinor, or Ellie or even Elle and was one of the popular girls, but we all know fairytales are just bullshit with sugar on top. Within a day I’d been christened Smellinor for no reason that I could fathom, but there was no vice behind it; rather than single me out, it was a means of acceptance by kids known as Jacksy, Maggot and Farta (Jacqueline, Margaret and Marta to you). Soula called me Nelly, which made me laugh. I had a great gang of friends, even we did hang out on the outside of popular.
I wore my skirts at bum-freezer length, my eyes were dissipated orbs defiantly fringed by kohl and eye shadow, my bangles jangled and my socks were ankle length above my scuffed Ponytails. I wore my hair loose, long and parted in the middle. I chewed gum in class. I took the precaution of cutting off the top button of my blouse so it could never, under any circumstances, be done up.
In short, I looked just like my older sisters. I’d never been happier in my life.
Copyright © 2013 Caroline Sully