(See this post for the introduction to this story).
Sitting in my luridly-purple cushioned Visitor’s Chair, Penny Ganz sighed heavily, glanced around at the wall art, my scratched desk, and the filing cabinet, crossed and uncrossed her legs five times, then leaned towards me and opened her mouth.
Then she shut it again, and leaned back, fiddling with the frayed straps of the schoolbag in her lap. I’d told her she could throw the bag in the corner; there was plenty of room, and if safety was her concern, my office, aka the old toolshed, is pretty snug – it wasn’t like she wouldn’t still be able to keep eyeballs on it at all times. She’d thanked me politely, but kept hold of the bag like her life depended on it.
I recognised the signs. Security object, I’d noted mentally, helps her feel comfortable, and I’d given a sage, if slightly surprised, nod.
Why? Well, Penny had never struck me as the sort of person who needed security objects, or routines, or rituals, to make her comfortable. The way I saw it, sitting in the cheap seats, was that things were set up generally to make the Pennys of the world feel comfortable. A year older than me, Penny was without question the most popular girl in school; athletic, beautiful, smart (but not too smart, or smart in the wrong ways, a la yours truly). She was the centre of an admiring cluster of similarly endowed girls, people who would probably be described by middle-aged women as “lovely young ladies” – smooth-faced, neat, pretty, well-dressed, polite (to adults), well-spoken, smart (but, of course, not too smart).
A lot of those girls left their adult manners behind when they were with other kids, though. It’s an old-fashioned saying, but a true one – kids can be very cruel. Some of those popular kids took great delight in tormenting those of us that were outside what they considered OK, or normal, or whatever. I have to be fair, though – for all she was the Goldenest of all the Golden Children, Penny herself wasn’t really a culprit, except maybe by omission. Oh, she’d stand by and watch some poor kid get teased, and say nothing, or something fairly weak like “Come on guys, that’s enough now” or something. (I particularly hate that phrase, like it’s fine to give someone a bad time for a while, just as long as it doesn’t go on forever. As if it wasn’t enough – more than enough – the very minute it started).
Penny herself, though, I cannot really say was ever the one doing the actual teasing or bullying, and I had noticed that the worst ones changed their behaviour a bit, eased up on the nastiest parts, when she was around. And she wasn’t one to just ignore the lesser mortals like some of them. She would smile, exchange hellos and goodbyes, even chat a bit, to whoever she found herself next to. Alright, so she didn’t go out of her way to befriend people like me, or my friends Egg and Jen, or the kids who hung around the margins of the schoolyard all lunchtime, desperately trying to stay out of the way of the roaming pack of bullies. All the same, Penny was OK. I thought she was nice, probably. Well, I had no reason to think otherwise. I’d always thought: nice, beautiful, very popular, world is her oyster.
It just goes to show that you never can tell what’s going on beneath the surface. Even with people who look like they have it all and then some, like Penny.
I waited a minute, sitting calmly on my desk chair, notepad on knee, hopefully looking professional and reassuring. (That’s what I was going for, anyway). Still, Penny said nothing. Her deep blue eyes, with their fringe of naturally curly dark lashes, looked worried, but the words didn’t come.
I cleared my throat. “So,” I said.
“Right. Yes,” said Penny, then stopped, clearly still unsure how to begin. She looked at me appealingly. Just like a lost little puppy, poor kid, I thought to myself, realising that Penny’s popularity wasn’t just about her shining golden hair, ocean eyes, clear skin, sports ability and brains. Penny was ... charming. Utterly. People wanted to be her, or if not, then at least, be near her. I did myself, in that moment. I wanted to help her.
I tried a different tack. “So, Penny,” I said, “”you thirsty? Want something to drink?”
Penny blinked. “Oh,” she said, “yes. Sure, that would be nice, Frankie, if it’s not too much trouble.”
“No trouble at all,” I assured her, swinging around in my chair to open the door.
“PHIIIII-IL!” I bellowed at the top of my lungs, startling Penny, who jumped a little. The top of my lungs is a very loud place, to be completely fair, and she wasn’t warned.
“Wha-at?” came back my sister’s voice, faintly. She’s 7, and not nearly as loud as me.
“DRINKS FOR GUESTS PLEASE PHIL!” I shot back, closing the door and turning to Penny with a smile.
“My sister will bring us out something,” I told her. “Lemonade, probably, or juice, whatever she sees first.”
Penny smiled back. “Your sister,” she said. “What’s her name? I thought you called her Phil...?”
“Yes,” I agreed. “Phil it is. Or Phillida, if you want the full version. My mother has a Thing for Victorian English names.”
“Oh yes, your brother is Sebastian, isn’t he? In grade 3?” said Penny, surprising me again by knowing Seb’s name. She really was a pretty nice person, I decided.
“Right,” I agreed, “and my littlest sister is Vicky – Victoria, after the Queen herself. Lives up to it too,” I remarked gloomily, hearing Phil chattering while coming down the garden with the drinks, obviously with Vicky in tow. “She’s not quite 2 and she runs rings around everyone.”
Penny laughed. “So Frankie, then, is short for...?”
“Francesca,” I owned. “However, it could have been worse. I was nearly Euphonia, if you can believe it.”
Penny snorted. “Well, it could have been worse again ... what’s the other shortening for Francesca?”
I groaned as I caught her meaning. “Oh, how right you are,” I told her. “Can you imagine being Fanny Loveday? At school? At OUR school?”
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