(This post is the balance of Chapter 4. To catch up on the story so far, look at:
Post 1 (Chapter 1, Part 1)
Post 2 (Chapter 1, Part 2)
Post 3 (Chapter 1, Part 3)
Post 4 (Chapter 3, Part 1)
Post 5 (Chapter 3, Part 2)
Post 6 (Chapter 4, Part 1)
NB: Chapter 2 has been omitted deliberately, as will Chapter 5 be).
And immediately gave a squawk as I realised that the notes I was looking out related to Penny Ganz’s cases, Penny, whom I was supposed to find first thing at recess.
“Uh, guys, I have to go do something,” I said, aware how weird it sounded. “So can we do this later, at lunch, maybe get some of the other kids from our class too? Right, thanks, bye then,” and I shot off, Seb following in my wake as I strode around to the breezeway where the cool kids often hung out in various-sized gaggles.
Penny wasn’t hard to spot, being the centre of a cluster of nice young ladies who were exchanging news while buffing their nails. She was chatting to a girl named Marlo Conroy, who raised her eyebrow so high at the sight of me charging up to them that I thought it was about to disappear into her hairline. Here we go, I thought, plunging ahead regardless.
“Hi Penny,” I said, ignoring Marlo and her other cronies and looking straight at the girl I’d come to see. “Listen, can we have a chat?” I did not say, but obviously she knew I meant, About that thing that we talked about last night, you know?
Marlo laughed, one of the nastiest sounds I’ve ever heard, a laughter with not one tiny bit of humour in it, all pure malice.
“Oh my,” she said, her voice dripping. “Frankie wants to be BFFs with Penny now! Isn’t it just incredible how people don’t get it!” Her little gang tittered. Penny looked uncomfortable, but didn’t say anything.
Marlo went on, addressing me now. “Frankie, look. I know you think you are something special, with the Detective thing and all, but really, you are just another fat ugly kid who doesn’t know her place. Someone like Penny would never want to talk to someone like you!” The disgust in her voice was so strong that I, normally pretty immune to this kind of thing, actually took a step backwards. Oh yeah. Kids can be cruel.
Penny stepped towards me. She turned back to Marlo and said mildly, “I need to talk to Frankie a moment. She’s looking into something for me.”
Marlo’s face was a picture, but she just said, “Oh. Right. I guess.” Then she turned back to the group, shutting out my existence as effectively as if she’d slammed a door in my face.
Penny sighed. “Let’s go over here,” she said, gliding towards the picnic tables. I stomped after her. (Slender, graceful girls like Penny “glide”. Me? I clatter, I stride, I stomp.)
We sat down on the picnic table benches. Penny frowned slightly, watching her friends, and said. “I didn’t think we’d do this at school. You know. I thought we could get together at your place, or even mine, rather than...”
I suddenly realised how angry I was. “Yeah, uhuh,” I said, my voice flat. “About that? There were things that I needed to know pretty quickly so I could get going on your Thing. I was going to catch you at the start of recess but as it turned out, my class was held back so we could be accused of cheating on a maths test. So, yeah, you know, Penny, sorry about embarrassing you in front of your friends and all, but please, don’t worry about it. This particular fat, ugly detective who isn’t good enough to shine your shoes won’t be wasting any more time on your case. Good luck with it,” I concluded, as I stood up to leave. “I’d suggest you start with any family friends you’re still in touch with from your mum’s time. I hope you find out what you need to know,” I added, more gently, as the stricken look on Penny’s face softened me a little.
Penny reached out a hand towards me, but then let it drop as she registered the look on my face, which was not all that friendly. “Frankie, I can’t,” she said, her voice taut. “If I could find out for myself, don’t you think I would have? If I knew how to ask, what to ask, where to look? I would have. This matters to me!” she burst out with a sudden flash of anger. “This is my mother I’m looking for here, answers about who I am! And you’re going to walk away because Marlo called you a few names! I can’t believe you’d be so ...”
“Childish? Immature? Sensitive? Thin-skinned?” I suggested helpfully, standing my ground, but not walking away. Not yet. “The thing is, you see, Penny, or maybe you don’t see, is that I have to spend every single day dealing with ‘a few names’, a ‘bit of harmless teasing’, a quick shove here, a trip over there. I have a thicker skin than someone like you could ever imagine. No-one ever says that kind of crap to you. You haven’t the first idea what it’s like to be picked on because of how you look. And you never will.” I was getting angry again now, and it showed.
“So, look, yeah, if what you’re getting at is that what Marlo said wasn’t anything new to me, abso-fluting-lutely. She’s not even up there with the worst I get; quite boring and predictable, really.” I paused and looked directly at Penny.
“But here’s the thing, Penny – you hired me. You hired me. To do a job that you want doing, and you came to my house and sat in my office and made nice to me because it suited your purpose, which, OK, fine, I didn’t see our little juice-drinking session last night as any kind of offer of eternal friendship, but I think I should be able to expect you to not disown all connection with me if I should happen to have the nerve to speak to you at school!”
Penny looked taken aback. It was obvious to me that she had literally never thought about what life was like on the other side. I sometimes think that to the popular kids, we outliers are like shadows flitting around, not people at all.
“I didn’t disown you,” she demurred, but her heart wasn’t in it. She paused. “But I should have said something to Marlo.”
“DAMN RIGHT you should have,” I bit back curtly. Oh no, I wasn’t letting this go. Not yet. “You should EVERY time, Penny. When you don’t say anything, you are agreeing with it.”
“No...” she protested, but it was clear I was making headway. “No, I don’t agree with it. Kids can’t really help how they look. Or how they are. If your parents feed you badly, obviously you’ll end up fat. That’s obvious. My stepmum says if you want to know why a kid is fat, you just need to look at the mother’s attitude to food.” She repeated this with a conscious air of satisfaction, like it was eternal truth.
Except, of course, for the fact that it isn’t.
“Right,” I said. “Explain my family then, Penny. You’ve met my brother and sister, Seb and Phil? Would you describe them as fat, at all?”
Penny half-laughed. “No,” she said. “Poor Seb looks like a breeze could blow him away.”
“Yes,” I agreed. “And my parents, you remember them? My Mum, who’s ye typical average sized, and my Dad, who’s really thin? My Mum, who cooks for us all the time, and who knows about food and nutrition and whatnot?”
Penny was, to her credit, starting to look a bit embarrassed by this point. “I get it, Frankie,” she said. “You’re not fat because of your parents or what they serve you.” She looked at me curiously, then said. “Why are you, then? Don’t answer if you don’t want to,” she added hastily.
I let the silence hang between us for a minute. “It’s complicated,” I said. “I was pretty sick for a year when I was 7, and on some medicine that made me gain weight, and the doctors think, changed my metabolism. Then after that my grandma died, and I was sad for a long time. Eating helped me feel better.” I looked at her. I wasn’t angry anymore, just tired.
“The point is, does it matter why I’m fat? Are you only going to stick up for people when they’re teased because they’re fat, or ugly, or strange, if the reason is one you’re OK with?”
Penny sighed. “No,” she conceded. “It’s not my business, anyway, is it?”
I sat down again. “No,” I agreed. “But finding out about your Mum is your business, and I’ll still do it if you still want me to. I’m going to be working this grade 5 cheating case at the same time,” I told her, to be fair about it, “but I can do both. I’ve handled more than one thing at a time before.”
Penny sat down too. “Thank you,” she said. “What do you want to know?”
I pulled out my notebook. “My Mum told me last night that your mum’s name was Miranda. I was wondering if you know her full name, and even better, her maiden name?”
Penny replied readily. “Oh yes. Miranda Rose Ganz. Her maiden name was Woszewski. I got that from the marriage certificate,” she added. “I found it last night, After I went home I was feeling a bit ... so I thought I’d poke through the old photo box, see if I could find any photos of her. It was tucked inside an old photo album. I’m not sure Dad or Mum – my stepmum, that is – knew it was there.”
“That’s great news,” I told her, “because we would have had zero chance of getting the certificate from registry. Marriage certificates are closed for 60 years to public access.”
“Yeah?” said Penny, interested. “That I did not know ... Well, I wrote down all the other stuff on it. I thought you might ask.” She pulled out a scrap of notepaper and passed it to me.
I read it. Marriage between Ivan Rutger Ganz, aged 28, born Williamstown, Victoria, and Miranda Rose Woszewski, 20, born Sofia, Bulgaria. The marriage took place at the Registry Office in Melbourne, on 23 August 1997.
A little bit of mental maths told me that Penny, who had a February birthday, was born just six months after her parents’ wedding, but that was no great shocker – more than half the kids at our school had parents who’d never got married at all. Still, it was a point to note. I noted it.
“You said you found this in a photo album. Does that mean you have photos of your Mum them?” I asked. A good photo was high on my list of items for this search.
“No,” said Penny regretfully. “Every now and then I look through the albums again, hoping maybe I missed something last time. But there aren’t any unlabelled photos at all, and most of them are of people my Dad still knows, and me too.”
I thought about this. It seemed odd, but I could only assume that Penny’s Dad had destroyed or removed the photos out of sadness, or maybe anger. It was a real shame, in more ways than one, but I moved on.
“Right, next – was your Dad and Mum living in the same house you’re in now when you were born?”
Penny nodded. “Oh yes, definitely. Dad bought the house as a new build when he was 21 with money he inherited from his mother. He’s never lived anywhere else since.”
That was promising, so I followed up with, “I know the odds of this are small, but I don’t suppose any of your neighbours have been there 11 or 12 years?”
Penny thought. “Definitely not any of the people in our court – there’s only 12 houses and I know who’s in all of them, and no-one has been there longer than my Mum – I mean, stepmum – and that’s 9 years. I’m not so sure about the streets around about and behind ours, though,” she conceded. “It’s possible”.
I wrote in my notebook. “Listen, Penny,” I said, “for the sake of common sense, let’s just use ‘Miranda’ when you’re talking about your birth mum, then you won’t have to keep correcting yourself when you’re talking about Yvonne – your mum, I mean. OK?”
Penny nodded again. “That makes sense, Frankie.”
“One last question, then I can let you go,” I said. “My Mum said your Dad used to say that Miranda was a fashion model before she married him. Do you know anything about her career, or has your Dad ever said anything to you about it?”
Penny looked sad. “Nothing, ever,” she said. “You’ve just told me something new about her already. I was never told she was a model.”
I patted her hand, tucked my notebook away, and stood up, just as the bell for the end of recess rang. “Give me three days to get started,” I said. “Let’s meet at my office after school on Friday, and I’ll fill you in on what, if anything, I’ve found.”
“OK if we make it 5:30pm?” asked Penny, moving off to her classroom. “I have ballet after school on Friday.”
“Sure, that’s cool,” I agreed, and waved as she left. She smiled at me, a smile of great sweetness and thanks.
She really is nice.
At least, she will be, one day, if she thinks it all through.
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