I lie prostrate in school-yard gravel, limbs akimbo, skinned and bloody and as painful as the bruises to my 7-year-old ego. A foot or two above me stands a girl my age, frilled & crisp white socks spilling out over matching patent black leather sandals, spindle legs shooting up beneath a chequered school dress. She stares, face cold, black hair braided to one side and perfectly accented with a hot pink scrunchie. She speaks, low and emotionless – “we’re not friends anymore” – and that is that.
A week or two earlier – or maybe a month, a year, more – at After School Care: we stand in Autumn sunlight (I remember this setting only for the leaves), munching peanut butter sandwiches and overcooked cheese toasties. In my right hand I hold a cheese toast – the fat and crisped skin squeaking against the holes in my baby teeth – and in my left a mottled yellow teddy bear.
“I dare you,” she slurs, her tongue stuck tight to the roof of her mouth by dry bread and salted peanut product, “I dare you to throw your bear.” She points, sharp, to the roof of a nearby shed: “Up there.”
I take a gargantuan bite, finishing the toast. My hand slinks tight around teddy’s, I am suddenly aware of the deep and obvious beating of my heart and I turn to face her.
“Dare you,” she repeats. “Double-triple-dare-you.”
I swallow. I blink. She laughs. And I throw my bear heavenwards.
“TEDDY ON THE ROOF,” she squeals. “TEDDY ON THE ROOF!”
Half an hour later, as an adult pulls the bear down, I lie and say that once my parents find out I threw the bear I’ll get smacked. Not just smacked, beaten, probably.
“My father’s a doctor,” she says, “and nobody ever died from being smacked. You’ll be okay.”
Some years later – Year Four, roundabouts – I sit at the back of the classroom during the annual Maths competition (in essence a depressing exercise in the dreaded Times Tables), with a veritable beast of a boy I have befriended. It’s down to the last two, and she’s up there: knocking down maths problems with abandon.
I turn to the boy; the boy turns to me. And I yell – “Nerd! Nerd!”.
The boy joins me – “NERD! NERD!” – and we yell through laughter. “NERD!”. She cries – “NEEEEERD!!” – and runs out of the room.
We’re not friends anymore, and she is a nerd.
Later that week, I make a dunce cap and put it in another boy’s bag – the perfect payback for the days of irritation he’s given me, poking me in the side every time I pass his personal space. As class finishes he pulls the cap out of his bag, but doesn’t know what the word “dunce” actually means, and throws the cap away. My teacher does not see the irony.
A year earlier, on the playground, I tell a boy I call my friend that I’ve spoken to God. I’m Catholic, you see, and I’ve spoken to God, and to Jesus Christ, and he’s told me, personally, that this boy will burn in the fires of Hell for all eternity.
They later find this boy crying in a cupboard.
He is an Atheist.
Years later, I am 20, 21, 22, and reading a good friend’s poetry piece. She writes of the girl from the teddy incident, who once told her she hated Rosella, hated White Crow, ’cause her Dad got nasty when he was “on the sauce”. After years of failing Maths grades, I retroactively envy her numerical talent.
A new girl has arrived at school, and I take part in a class-wide initiation process dubbed “The Spying Game”.
To call it an initiation process really gives it more officiousness than is honest. We’ve never played The Spying Game before, and we never will again. We creep – the whole class, all 20 of us – behind New Girl. She turns, whirls round, and we all do the same: suddenly engrossed in lunchtime friendships.
A beat. The mood is tense, and every eye lies sideways on this girl. She turns, slowly, sadly, and continues to walk.
In unison, we pad after her – the world’s quietest welcoming party, peering round corners, hiding behind trees – ensuring she can see that we don’t want to be seen. Before the day is out, of course, she cries – somehow both too close and too far away from the kids in our year level for any kind of comfort.
This girl is now a working model and mother.
I remember each of these incidents with an indirect sense of clarity. The above, of course, are dramatisations, though I know the bulk of each incident to be truth, the fact of each interaction’s occurrence, yet the details remain blurry in my mind. Who said what, to whom, and how, I could not tell you. I used to tell friends, with slight amusement, that I was a childhood bully, but the truth of it is that I don’t remember doing any of this with malice (no more than any other child my age, surely) or even really doing them – but the recollections of my school peers assure me that they occurred, and I am unsure whether or not I’ve whitewashed these stories in my mind, or made them worse.
In my later years – an obese, bookish, fey teenager – I myself was bullied. I won’t say that I deserved it, though I would occasionally provoke it in a fierce, misguided attempt at payback (weighing more than a hundred kilograms makes it mighty difficult to run, and fighting was certainly out of the question unless I could manoeuvre myself to sit on my opponent) – but it gave me a new and terrible insight into the things I had done as a child (along with a wonderful sense of social anxiety and awkwardness; though maybe that was always there).
Playing The Spying Game with my schoolmates I felt so together – part of a community, a closeness, a togetherness – more than I had ever felt. As a child I wanted more than anything to be a famous actor, and from this I do remember: sneaking along with my classmates, ten paces behind the New Girl as she sat all alone, eating her peanut butter dry white bread sandwiches.
I remember thinking that this must be what it’d be like to be famous; adored from afar, your every move watched by others.
I remember telling myself how lucky she must feel, and I remember not believing it, not one little bit.