Read This and Be Smarter

‘At Fifteen’

by Tracy Ryan

Westerly is the premier literary journal of Western Australia, publishing since 1956. Westerly produces poetry, short fiction, and non-fiction from around the world, with a focus on the voice of Western Australian authors. Westerly publishes two print editions a year and digitally year-round.

Tracy Ryan was born and grew up in Western Australia. She has worked at various jobs in libraries, bookselling, editing, community journalism and university teaching. She has a BA in English from Curtin University and a BA (Hons) in French from the University of New England in NSW. She is especially interested in foreign languages and the translation of poetry. Her latest collection of poetry, The Water Bearer, is available from Fremantle Press.

‘At Fifteen’ was published in Westerly 42.2, Winter 1997.

At Fifteen
You women all die at fifteen—Diderot

We called her the Albino Girl, but I don’t know whether she really was, because true albinos are meant to have pink eyes, and you never really saw her eyes. She was always either looking away or wearing sunglasses. She came to our school halfway through that year, and that year everyone was wearing those big bulging sunglasses Jackie Onassis wore, the ones that made you look crustacean, or even insect-like.

Compound eyes. We were talking about them in biology. We had to pin insects and describe and classify them. We needed the normal specimens for this, so anything deformed or even runty got off lightly. We learned Family, Genus, Species. We learned that two creatures were of the same species if their different sexes could not only mate but produce fertile offspring from that mating. We learned to make either/or judgements, taxonomies for classifying plants. We collected nectar from eucalyptus flowers, fragile as pale eyelashes. We pared garbage from under our fingernails and watched it blossom monstrously in petri dishes of agar gel. When the boys heard you could eat agar gel of course they wanted to. We gave them some with fingernail grunge in it, for a joke. But it had no effect.

The boys took to her straight away. For about three weeks they all tried to go out with her. This was partly because she was a new girl, and any new girl had to be better than the old girls. But it was also because of her blonde hair. This was full, long and coarse—not especially alluring, but it was pure white, the furthest you could go. And naturally so. Not that they ever minded fake blonde, but somehow the naturalness of it made her more of a prize.

You couldn’t really tell if she was pretty without seeing her eyes; all you really noticed was this band of red, peeling skin across her nose and upper cheeks the only streak of colour about her. She was slim and delicate and moved about quietly, like I always imagined the Lady with the Lamp did. Only she was the lamp, a strange kind of lamp, a light that did not radiate but seemed somehow to implode or suck in.

Her name was Rae-Lee, but all the kids called her Raeleen; they just couldn’t get it right. She was always on her own. That was because of the boys-thing. None of the girls liked her because the boys all did, and when the boys lost interest after those three weeks or so, it was too late to make friends among the girls.

Not that she ever went with any of the boys. She was totally aloof. But it was the fact of the boys’ desire for her, however shortlived, that made the girls dislike her.

We didn’t dislike her; we just weren’t interested. We were too busy with coaching for “Class Struggle”, a rather simple television quiz show where you could win big prizes for your school and an engraved ballpoint pen for yourself. You needed teams of three. We spent all our lunch times up in the Social Studies room with a makeshift buzzer-set that the science teacher had rigged up for us, and put our general knowledge through its paces. We were not the girls who went with anybody. We spent our spare time in the library writing improbable novels we never finished. We were not popular either, but at least we had our means of retreat. A retreat we could ill afford, since we were girls from working families and would need to find jobs, just as much as the girls who went with Pablo Lazaros behind the disused music room or up on the oval after school—just as much as the girls who let Darrell James put his hand down their top, who got engagement rings, however temporary, by Year 11, and then left school.

“Why does Darrell James put his hand down their tops?” Muriel puzzled. We shrugged, indifferent. We were wolfing down salad rolls and picking the sesame seeds from our uniforms, waiting for Mr Terry to arrive.

Mr Terry was the dream teacher, all the girls giggled and blushed around him. But we knew they hadn’t a hope. We were the luckier ones, the brainy squares who got to spend all our lunchtimes with him, in training. Of course we giggled and blushed too, but never in front of him.

He had a studious-looking dark-haired wife who dropped him at school in the mornings and picked him up in the afternoons, and he was a Labor man. He said that all teachers who didn’t vote Labor were fools, they were thwarting their own class interest. He taught us history and geography and always squeezed in sensible moral lessons about hard work and self-belief. He wanted our team to win ‘Class Struggle’ not for the sake of the prizes but for School Pride and Self-Belief. Our school had a bad name, our parents all drove Valiants and Toranas, if they drove at all, and hoped we would manage to get jobs in Coles. We were keen to win, but knew we’d be up against all those private school kids who probably had extra tutoring. We had something to prove.

So we didn’t feel guilty about leaving the Albino Girl to her own devices. We had serious work to do.

The Albino Girl had troubles with most of her work, even with cooking and sewing. She tried switching to Animal Husbandry and Market Gardening, but developed an allergy to some product they used on the school farm. We should have felt sorry for her but she was so, well, characterless that even compassion could hardly find a point of entry. She was like a blank in Scrabble, a template, an outline with no detail. She’d auditioned for ‘Class Struggle’ training but there were only three spots to fill and she didn’t get in.

We had our team pretty well figured out. None of us knew much about sport or sporting history, so Muriel was boning up on that. I was supposed to be the spelling and literature whiz. In fact the words they usually asked on ‘Class Struggle’ weren’t that hard to spell but you had to be fast at it—visualise the letters and pull them out of thin air. Nadine, our science and maths boffin, was so confident of my spelling that she always pressed the buzzer in advance, as soon as she heard the word, ‘Spell’—a quirk I was sure would cost us the game on the big day, since you lost ten points for every wrong answer, and she couldn’t guarantee I’d know the word. But you couldn’t argue with Nadine.

Nadine was the tallest girl in the school, a fact that made her freakish among the general school population, but which in her own group conferred upon her a kind of natural authority. I was part of that group, but so was Muriel. There were others who hung around its edges, but I guess we formed the core. We’d frown out of the stage of twosomes with ‘best friends’, we’d all known the pain of losing her, whoever she was, to some boyfriend.

I lost Maggot that way. Maggot was my best friend in first year—her real name was Margot, but some older boy came up with the nickname and it stuck. At first she hated it, but before long she was writing it on her bag, her pencil case, her pictures of Fonz and John Travolta. HANDS OFF MAGGOT RULES O.K. Soon her name began appearing on school toilet walls and in telephone boxes down town, alongside words like SLUT and MOLE. Maggot didn’t ever really dismiss me from my role as ‘best friend’, or I her; she just moved off, always had something else on at lunchtime or after school.

Occasionally I saw her waiting in the bus queue, her uniform unzipped a bit lower at the neck than it used to be, a Winfield Blue between her nailbitten fingers. I let go of her silently, the way a lizard leaves it tail—is it painful, or a narrow escape? I never even knew who the boy was.

But now I was part of a group, even if it was a despised group: the squares. Safety in numbers. There were the rocks, the skins and the surfs (though we lived inland, far from any surf), and outside all these configurations, the squares. We squares even walked home together, since the bus didn’t go out our way. The Long March, we called it, thinking ourselves witty.

Some days Nadine had to work in the newsagent’s after school, so Muriel and I walked along together. Then the tough girls, walking behind us, would home in. They didn’t ever do this with Nadine around, because they were scared of her height and her deep voice, her boyish manner. But without her we were fair game.

“Hey hairy legs, love your skirt, bit short for a surfie skirt innit?”, and they’d tug at the back of our dresses as we walked, or lift our skirts and poke us in the bum with wooden rulers. We tried to ignore them and not quicken our pace as it just antagonised them. We’d seen cat fights after school, seen the perfect scorched circles on the backs and bellies of girls who foolishly stood up to them and copped the tough girls’ cigarette treatment.

The tough girls usually turned off near the railway line and then, when we were sure to be out of their range, we’d run all the way home, laughing stupidly so that our mothers shook their heads and said, “Simmer down and act like a young lady.”

I’d sniff, dump my school bag in my room and run in to take a shower, as if all that other skin, that school-self, could be washed off with the sweat and suburban dust. At home I was not a square, I was not anything in particular. I’d grab something to eat and go downstairs to listen to cassettes taped off the radio or, more rarely, a real record I’d saved for. Most days I had plenty of homework but, contrary to all myths about squares, I never did it, or did it only the next morning before class, half-guessing the answers. My parents never seemed to notice this.

I put on the headphones I’d won in a Polly Waffle contest when I was a kid, and listened to Wuthering Heights, that thin high wail that seemed to come from somewhere inside my own body.

The needle jumped, the record stuttered, and the shelves began to sway. My mother came running down but by the time she reached me the tremors were practically over, only the windowpanes still quivered a little. I took off the headphones. Mum was panicky, remembering the Meckering earthquake when I was a toddler, our house falling to bits. But this time everything settled back to normal after a few minutes. Even the turntable went on turning. A disaster ominous in its very simplicity.

Suddenly the phone rang. It was Nadine, and she was crying. Nadine never cried. I thought their place must have had pretty bad damage, but I couldn’t get any sense out of her. Couldn’t calm her down.

“You don’t understand,” she said. “They’ve grounded me, I’m not even supposed to talk to anyone on the phone. They’re going to send me to another school. It’s unbearable.”

“What? Who, your parents?”

“I can’t talk now,” and she hung up.

That was the last I ever heard from Nadine, the night of the Cadoux quake, and no-one found out what had happened, though at school the rumours flew thick and fast. That she’d stolen from her employer. That she’d smoked pot, beaten someone up, had a weird secret lover, had an abortion. In class people stared at Muriel and me, as if we knew and weren’t telling.

“Idle gossip,” Mr Terry said when we arrived, forlorn, for ‘Class Struggle’ practice. “It’s a shame she’s gone, but it’s nobody else’s business. Let’s get to work. Rae-Lee has agreed to fill in. We only have two weeks to go, so we should be very grateful to have her.”

This was the first time I got a good look at Rae-Lee, but I still never really saw her eyes; she let her hair hang forward all the time. Her quiz-answers, when they came, were better than we expected, but few and far between, as if her heart wasn’t really in it. She just wasn’t Nadine.

She hung around us in the schoolyard now; only at the edges, like something not quite fully formed, but there nonetheless, in her Jackie-O shades. We weren’t sure how to feel about this—it was almost as if she’d bought her way into our group, riding on our loss of Nadine. But as soon as you thought that, you felt guilty. She was harmless, really. Quiet, inoffensive, always disposed to be helpful. Only you couldn’t tell if that was a pose, whether she was that transparent or in fact very, very opaque. You sensed she was always watching you, guessing your needs, growing useful. She took her lead from us and began to dress more as we dressed, to use the odd little inflections of speech we were unaware, until now, we had used.

On the big day my parents drive us out to the studio. They have never been that interested in what goes on at school but this is television! It’s a makeshift studio with no seats for the audience, so my parents and the others have to stand down the back and be quiet. We three girls sit behind a maze of wires that’s not seen by the camera, our knees cramped under fake desks. On the floor behind these façades are broken foam coffee cups, sawdust, rubble and bits of cable. We didn’t expect this, we thought we were in for glamour. Our only moment of glory. But from where we sit it doesn’t look at all like what you see on the monitor.

“TV’s like that, very artificial,” Mr Terry says. “Don’t worry, it’ll look great to the kids at home watching you.”

I wonder just who will bother getting up on a Saturday morning to see three square girls—or two square girls and their pale, would-be shadow—doing what square girls do best. We are pitted against an Anglican boys’ team and some Catholic girls. Three teams of three, in three rounds. The camera-men seat Rae-Lee in the middle, which gives her a sudden ironic dominance she doesn’t usually have.

The first round goes well, though Dad keeps making gestures from the back and getting told off by the studio people. Rae-Lee answers no questions, and we feel as if we’re one person down, but nonetheless by the second round we’re neck-and-neck with the Catholic girls, all ahead of the boys.

What is the capital of Afghanistan?
Spell “inconsequential”.
Name the two men who walked on the moon in July 1969.
Who wrote the novel Heart of Darkness?

Each team has a set of questions to answer, and then they stop the cameras, and we all have a drink of water and tell jokes. The last round will be the hardest—it’s an open section addressed to all three teams and you have to get in first. Pressing the buzzer too early means you might not hear the end of the question, so caution is needed.

We squeeze back behind the chipboard façades and the cameras roll again. The Catholic girls are good at this part; quick reflexes. But Muriel and I between us manage lots of the answers. The boys have rather dropped out of the picture; they watch us going at it.

Who along with Batman was co-founder of the city of Melbourne?

Rae-Lee presses the buzzer and says, “Robin!”

The quiz-master splutters and the small audience begins to giggle. Soon even the other contestants are laughing, and the cameras have to be stopped. Muriel and I are not laughing. We can’t look at Rae-Lee; our faces are burning. Finally the quizmaster regains composure and asks for quiet, and we film the closing segment. Our team has lost by the ten points Rae-Lee buzzed away.

The adults pressed forward to console us, but Rae-Lee, inscrutable, was already heading for the door.

“She did it on purpose,” Muriel said.

“No,” said Mr Terry, “I’m sure she didn’t. She just panicked, people say silly things under pressure. She badly wanted us to win.”

Muriel shook her head.

The three of us rode home in the back of my parents’ car. A thick silence. When we reached Rae-Lee’s house Muriel said at last, “Cow! You don’t know anything.”

“Muriel, don’t,” I whispered.

But Rae-Lee just said softly, getting out of the car, “I know why your friend Nadine left school, and that’s more than you know.”

The State Library of Western Australia promotes literacy for all ages. To this end the ‘Read this and be smarter project’ has been developed, providing a short piece of writing from Australian publications every Monday to Friday to read on your commute or lunch break.

Westerly acknowledges all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as First Australians. We celebrate the continuous living cultures of Indigenous people and their vital contributions within Australian society.

Westerly’s office, at the University of Western Australia, is located on Whadjak Noongar land. We recognise the Noongar people as the spiritual and cultural custodians of this land.

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