My 21-month-old loves to play with water. For preference, she does it outside, in singlet and nappy, with dirt, mud, leaves and sand thrown in for good measure ;-)
When the weather is too inclement to allow for outdoor water play (a frequent occurrence in the past few months, with Melbourne suffering a long, cold, rainy winter and cold spring), I have taken to setting up a simple water station for her in the kitchen, on the slate floor. It's just a thick towel, two bowls filled 1/3 with lukewarm water, and a varied series of pouring tools - cups, jugs, toy teapots, measuring spoons, anything really that my Tupperware cupboard disgorges.
She really enjoys it, and her aim is getting better all the time - my days of removing saturated towels after 3 minutes are passing! She spends ages carefully transferring the water from one receptacle to another, often narrating what she's doing for me as I cook the dinner. It's a great way to incorporate some fine motor play and casual togetherness at what can otherwise be a rushed time in our day.
(This is cross-posted, with some omissions, from a post on my private blog, Zucchinis in Bikinis. If you are also a reader over there, my apologies - the other post is an expanded version of this one, so you need not feel you have to read both!)
Yesterday, I hit the 50,000 word mark on my NaNoWriMo novel, Frankie Loveday: Girl Detective. While the story is not quite finished (I have a chapter and a half, about 7,000 words, left to write, I estimate), once I exceeded 50,000, I officially achieved the NaNo target and was able to validate my word count on the website. For which, I got to download this:
A website button is nice, and the purple WINNER! flag on one's NaNo homepage is nice, but obviously, that's not what I did it for (or, I imagine, anyone else either). I did NaNo because I wanted to practice my writing, and also I wanted stretch myself, to try something that I thought would be difficult for me and would require logistics, commitment and perseverance.
Writing 50,000 words in a calendar month when you have three small children, a part-time job that you are winding up (which always means more work, ironically, as I try to leave things neat for the next person who has to deal with it), and various seasonal imperatives is not a doddle by any means. I made a commitment to myself that I would not do NaNo at the expense of my children, my household or my workplace, and one of my greatest satisfactions in getting to the goal has been that I did it without once having to put a child off who needed something from me, without stealing a single minute from employment time, and without ending up in a state of disarray in this house. (Well, no disarray greater than the norm, I mean!) I met my obligations and delighted in my children first, and NaNo came second, and there was no doubt that that was how it had to be.
So what has it meant? It has meant that I've watched virtually no television in November - I sat down with my big girls and watched an episode of the newest River Cottage series on Thursday night and it was the first time I'd watched the little screen since Melbourne Cup Day. I've also read far less fiction than my norm, played no games whatsoever, tried no new recipes, visited very few blogs and no online forums or community spaces, and Tweeted (and blogged!) far more minimally than is my wont. Basically, I have devoted all my leisure time to crafting this story that I decided I would write, and I have kept to my decision, all month, despite being tired and under pressure.
And oh, but it has been a wonderful, creative and empowering experience for me. I feel great about the fact that I've done it - that I achieved the word count despite all the factors that said I shouldn't be able to - and that the story I've written is one that I think has some merit, is not utter rubbish. I don't kid myself that it's publishable, but I am proud of it all the same, and I feel that I didn't sell myself short in what I produced. Immersion in my little fictional world has been enormously enjoyable and energizing for me, and, combined with the thrills of the season and the late-coming warmth of spring, has made November my best month of the year by quite some margin.
So that would be my reply to the Salon article of a couple of weeks ago where the writer exhorted people not to do NaNo because "the world doesn't need more bad books." My answer would be that not everyone does NaNo in order to be published, or to inflict their literary outpourings on the world. Sometimes, as for me, people take on a challenge like NaNo in order to practice doing something creative, to get back in touch with a side of their personality that's been suppressed, and maybe to test themselves too, to force themselves out of a rut and perhaps forcibly effect a mood shift with it. It's cheaper than therapy, anyways ;-)
Overall - NaNo was a great experience for me. I savoured it, I accepted the difficult moments and got past them, and I am very pleased that I made it. Best of all, my 7-year-old is avidly reading my novel now (it was written for 9-11 year olds, but she punches out of her weight with fiction) and she is loving it, and says she's proud of me. That's the very nicest thing I could ever wish to hear.
After washing my hands and putting the nappy in the outside bin, I went back into the kitchen, where Mum was washing out the cutlery drawer with a set look on her face. “Mum,” I said. “I can walk Phil to gym if you like. I’ll call Mrs Obloswki and we can meet up with her and Tina and Jess at the corner and walk with them.” This, it must be said, represented a generous offer on my part, if I do say so myself. It was a solid half-hour walk each way to the gym, and Phil would train for an hour, so I was committing two hours. (I was planning, however, to do my homework in the observation room at the gym, so it wouldn’t be entirely wasted).
Mum looked at me consideringly, then smiled. “That’s kind, Frankie, but I’ll take her in the car. I need to talk to her coach today about the state championships anyway. Besides, you need to tidy your room. Remember, Vicky and I are camping out with you for the next two nights. Auntie Dido will be here around 9 o’clock tonight.” She sighed.
“Oh yes,” I said gloomily. “Auntie Dido.” Sigh.
Auntie Dido was my Mum’s aunt, so technically my great-aunt, but let me tell you, there is nothing in the least bit great about her. She’s in her early seventies somewhere but acts much older in a lot of ways. She lives in Adelaide but comes to Melbourne five or six times a year to see her army of medical specialists, at which time she always expects to stay with us, and to occupy Mum and Dad’s lovely big room with its en suite and beautiful herb garden walled courtyard (where Mum sits to edit sometimes while Vicky plays endless games of tea party with her dollies). Auntie Dido has a range of health issues, both minor and major, and I suppose that’s part of what makes her so crabby all the time. It must suck to be sick. (Well, I remember. Having leukaemia at 7 was pretty sucky and all. But I am healthy now, thankfully).
Sick or not, Auntie Dido was a difficult guest. Nothing was ever good enough for her, and she sniped constantly at my Mum about the State of the House, the Behaviour of the Children, the Inadequacies of Doctors, the Dreadfulness of Melbourne, and anything else she could find to whine about. My Mum always dreaded her visits, although she tried to pretend she didn’t. It was easier if Dad was here when she came; he buffered Mum a bit, and drove Dido to her medical appointments (reluctantly, but he did it). Still, they used to argue about it. Dad thought Mum shouldn’t have to put up with Dido’s filthy rudeness. Mum thought Dad didn’t understand the obligation she felt. They were both right, which meant the argument never ended.
When Auntie Dido came to stay, Mum, Dad (if he was home) and Vicky vacated their room and moved to mine, which was the biggest of the other bedrooms and had a double bed and plenty of room for Vicky’s cot. If Dad was home, I slept in with Phil in her room, on a mattress on her floor. If he wasn’t, though, Mum and I just shared my bed. Thankfully, neither of us snores.
So this meant that I had some cleaning to do, and quick smart too. “OK,” I agreed. “I’ll move Vicky’s cot, too.”
“Thank you,” Mum said, and gave me a tired smile. “I think the living area is pretty OK and I’ve made a lasagne for dinner, all you need to do is put the oven on at 5 o’clock and put it in. When I get back with Phil at 5:30, I’ll make the salad and we can eat at 6.” With that, she hurried off to collect Phil and Vicky. Within three minutes, the car doors were slamming, and they were on their way.
Seb was doing homework in his room, so I had the main house to myself, a rare and enjoyable event. The kitchen, usually fairly orderly anyway (my Mum hates to cook in a messy kitchen), sparkled with the extra attention it always got pre-Auntie Dido. I put the kettle on and went into the living area, which looked great – everything neat and packed away (not its usual state, I have to say). I decided to give myself a breather before starting work on my room, and sank down into my red chair, opening my notebook.
Right, to review, I thought. First up, the Miranda case.
The things I knew about Miranda Ganz were:
- Her full name and her maiden name - Her age (she’d now be 31) - Her place of birth (Bulgaria) - Her profession (modelling) - The date and place of her marriage to Ivan Ganz - That she didn’t speak much English - That she liked, no, loved, children
This was more than I’d known yesterday, which was encouraging, but none of it got me much closer to finding out why she’d left. At this stage of the case, sometimes a bit of speculation can be useful. I opened a fresh page and wrote – What Happened To Miranda? Possibilities – and started a list.
First up, sadly but inevitably, was DEATH. If Miranda had died soon after she left Ivan and Penny, that would explain why she never came back or got in touch. There were a few problems with that explanation, though. If her death had been a “normal” one, it should have been registered, and Ivan notified. If he knew she was dead, why wouldn’t he have told Penny that? The other possibility was a nasty one – that she had been killed, and her death concealed. Ivan wouldn’t have notified the police to look for her if she had already left him, because he wouldn’t know she was missing.
A chill went through me as another thought struck me: Assuming she did leave. I quickly shelved this one, though. I don’t underestimate myself, but even I boggled at the notion of trying to find out if Ivan had killed his wife then lied about what happened to her for 11 years. Besides, from the little Penny had said, it seemed that maybe there was more evidence to be found that would show that Miranda had left under her own steam.
Second option on my list, therefore, was AMNESIA / MENTAL DISTURBANCE / POSS. COMMITTAL? FALSE NAME? If Miranda had suffered some kind of severe mental problem, maybe one that meant she couldn’t identify herself, it was possible that she simply didn’t know or wasn’t able to contact Ivan and Penny. One thing that fitted well about this option was that it explained neatly why a woman who loved children so devotedly could leave her own baby behind. If she was not herself, that was the answer to that.
Third option was harder to define, but I wrote it as PRESSING / COMPELLING REASON, POSS. PROTECTIVE IN NATURE. By this, I was talking about Miranda leaving because she felt that to stay would endanger her family in some way, or else because she had a strong pull factor to protect someone else. This was a bit far-fetched in some ways, but, remember, Miranda wasn’t Australian-born, which meant there might be factors at work in her past that no-one knew about.
Fourth option, which I was coming to consider unlikely given what Mrs Genovese had said, was simply NOT WANTING DOMESTIC LIFE / LACK OF ATTACHMENT. It happens, sadly; total long-term silence is pretty rare, but sometimes, a parent just bails on the family. It didn’t seem all that likely that Miranda had done this, but you never can tell.
I reviewed my list, frowning. None of the options I’d listed felt like a stand-out at this stage. What I needed to do next, I decided, was some talking. Ideally I needed to find more people who had known Miranda; I made a note, CHECK NEIGHBOURS BACK STREETS and HEALTH NURSE? (I knew that our local Maternal & Child Health Nurse, the professionals who do the well-baby checks on kids in Melbourne, had been in her job 15 years, so in theory that meant she’d met Miranda at Penny’s check-ups). I also noted, although this was obviously harder, that I should CHECK PPL M WORKED WITH – mind you, I wasn’t sure how I was going to get an entree to the modelling world, but I’d think of something. Probably a first step, now I thought about it, would be to find out which agency Miranda had worked for. I wrote AGENCY? MRS G – ASK on my list.
So here's the thing. It creeps up on you accumulates, so you're not even aware of when you cross the line from just tired into dangerously exhausted from a state where a few good nights (if you should ever get them) will see you right, to a state of living underwater moving through time and space like a dream made of molasses thick and heavy and pellucid colours brighter, noises harsher than they should be every last nerve attuned to the necessity for wakefulness every last cell forgetting how to sleep how to relinquish consciousness to the dark because the dragging-back-from-the-deep is too painful too hard to do over and over and over and
the dog is barking again. it's 3am he's disturbed by the shadows of half-seen cats in the gibbous moonlight it's almost a given, at this season. he is unsettled by the weather, the movement of snakes and possums and night-time things shushing him a nightly task. before he wakes the toddler, oh but she's woken. it's too late her second nursing of the night begins rocking on the green leather chair in her quiet room humming without tune as she feeds, her face calm, her eyes closed.
a return to bed, with a 5-year-old for company a bad dream deposited her there just on the midnight hour where she sighs and snuggles and kicks and spreads herself across the bed, star-shaped, like some importunate plant.
a return to bed, yes. but sleep is harder. it is hot none of the other creatures of this household are peacefully sleeping, all are tossing, turning, half-crying out and so you lie. awaiting the next need, lying wakeful body buzzing with adrenalin and fatigue, and willing sleep to come comeoncomeoncomeon
and you're reminded of one of your children's books about a toy elephant who cannot get to sleep and like Harry, you wonder what if sleep never comes at all?
and when it does, it's shallow dream-ridden, twitchy, easily rousable no peacefulness in this bed
and then it's dawn, and the toddler wakes and the day is afoot again.
The highlight of this week's play was the first of our Christmas events - a visit to the Fairytale Park in Anakie for my sister-in-law's company Christmas picnic.
We had never been to the Fairytale Park before, although I had long heard good things about it. Set on a steep granite outcrop in the middle of farming fields in rural Victoria, close to Geelong, the Fairytale Park is a very pleasant series of animatronic displays representing various (mostly Brothers Grimm / Germanic) fairy stories.
Animatronics can be done well or badly, of course - the Ned Kelly Museum that we visited in July would be a good example of "badly", to my mind - but someone has put a lot of thought into the design and layout of this park,and the circuit moves you along very nicely from one story to the next. The girls were all fascinated, peering in at the beautiful little tableaux and retelling the stories to each other as we walked.
Their favourites? The magic cave (featuring Aladdin, Ali Baba and a snake charmer), the Gingerbread house, Sleeping Beauty's castle at the summit of the rock, and the Three Little Pigs house.
Visiting the fairytale park has sparked a ravenous renewed interest in fairytales, which we've been reading, and they've been playing, ever since.
It was clear from the moment we walked in the door that this was going to be a Jonah day at our house. You know about Jonah days? From Anne of Green Gables, which are among my Mum and Phil’s favourite books of all time? Jonah days are days when just every little thing is wrong, nothing and no-one behaves, and it feels like the universe is against you.
Of course, my mood was already sour from the events of the day, and Seb, who’d had another asthma attack later on in the afternoon, was riding the wave of six puffs of Ventolin, which always made him jumpy and irritable. Phil was distracted, as she always is on Tuesdays, worrying that she’d be late to gymnastics training. (She never is; my Mum drives the logistics of Phil’s gym schedule with grim determination). Seb and I had been bickering most of the way home, which, unlike usual, hadn’t petered out to peace by the time we got home, but rather was ramping up to a full-blown spat. I was in the act of pulling a dreadful face at him as we came in through the kitchen door, to be met by the sound of Vicky in full toddler flight.
“NNNNOOOO! Don’ wanna cwean bum, Mummy! No yukky orf!” she screamed as she darted under my legs, half-tripping me and causing me to fall heavily into Seb, who turned around and immediately clouted me on the arm. “Vicky tripped me, you little toad!” I yelled at the top of my lungs (a very loud place, you’ll recall) and I lunged for him, all the frustration of my highly frustrating day boiling over. Phil, usually so quiet, suddenly screeched, “VICK-EE! My BAG!” and took off after the now-giggling toddler, who, I noticed, had Phil’s gym bag clutched in her sticky hands and was emptying its contents onto the kitchen floor gleefully.
All in all, it must have looked like a scene from the Three Stooges in there, with people tripping over each other, Seb putting his foot in the garbage bag that Mum had tied up ready to be taken out, Vicky up-ending a cup of apple juice into the cutlery drawer, and Phil’s gym paraphernalia spread from one end of the long, narrow room to the other. And as for the noise? Well. Four Lovedays in full flight is something to hear. (If you don’t value your hearing, that is).
The swing door to the big living area shot open and Mum stood in it, with a face like thunder. “WILL you all BE QUIET, RIGHT THIS MINUTE!” she bellowed. My Mum doesn’t like to yell, but sometimes she does; it’s only human, after all. I will say this, when she yells, she’s louder than any of us, so it at least has the effect of cutting through.
Phil stopped her screeching at once and went up to my Mum with tears in her eyes. “Vicky has ruined my gym stuff," she wailed, throwing herself at Mum. “Look, my leotards are both covered in ... something ...” Seb and I, who had quietened down but were still devotedly pushing at each other, were sufficiently diverted to stop and look at the leotard in Phil’s hand, which was dripping something brown, gooey and sticky onto the floor.
“Chocolate sauce?” I guessed, although I couldn’t smell the sweet scent of chocolate in the air.
“No, it’s Worcestershire,” said Seb, sniffing. He has a good nose for odours. “That’s in the high cupboard. How on earth did she even get it down?” He looked at Vicky, standing up on her chubby legs on her toddler steps at the sink, with respect. She blew a raspberry at him and went off into gales of laughter.
Mum sighed deeply. I could see her counting slowly to 10 in her head. When she spoke, her voice was pretty terse, but she was in control of herself.
“I’m sorry about your leotards, Phil. I’ll wash them tonight and I’m sure the sauce will come off, but you’ll have to wear leggings and a t-shirt to training today.” Phil, who likes everything to be Just So, opened her mouth to protest, but Mum cut her off with a look and said sharply, “There really isn’t any point arguing with me, Phillida. We have to leave in 20 minutes unless you want to be late, so hurry up and change.” Uh-oh, we’re full-naming, I thought. Bet Mum’s had a pig of a day.
I grabbed Vicky off her steps and carried her to her change mat, ignoring her wriggles and screams. The thing about being tall, broad and strong is that I’m a match even for a determined toddler. And I knew how to change a nappy. Didn’t like it, and to be honest rarely did it, but I knew how to do it, and I figured Mum was owed a free one about now.
I plopped Vicky down on the change mat in Mum’s bedroom, holding her in place with my arm as she began her usual contortions to get free. “I no wanna!” she shrieked. “Fenky! Let Vicky goooooo!” Then she kicked me, hard, in the stomach.
I yelled. “VICKY, WOULD YOU STOP IT AND HOLD STILL AND DO NOT KICK ME!”
Surprised into silence, Vicky lay as still and quiet as a baby doll while I got rid of the full nappy (toddler poop. loooovely) and put on a fresh one. As I was bagging up the dirty nappy, she got up and wandered around the room. I noticed, as Vicky stroked it, that the fancy quilt was back on Mum and Dad’s bed, which was neatly made, and that the room had an underlying smell of lavender. (Of course, right at that moment, it mostly smelled of poop, but I’m talking about background aroma.)
I mentally hit myself on the forehead. Of course. Auntie Dido!
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.
This week has featured a great deal of interest in transportation from all of my girls. My eldest's school was visited by a helicopter about 10 days ago, and all the kids got to have a look inside, which sparked my 7-year-old's interest in all things that fly. "In defiance of gravity, Mummy!" as she gravely announced to me ;-) A self-directed project has resulted, with Miss 7 producing a booklet on "Helicopters and Other Non-Plane Flying Things" (which, alas, I am not allowed to photograph, although she is fine with me mentioning it).
This has coincided with the almost-2-year-old's discovery of, and instant passionate love affair with, our small electric Thomas the Tank Engine train set. All my girls have enjoyed the Thomas set, and have enjoyed building on the experience by using blocks, plastic animals and toy cars to create towns around the tracks. It's been fun watching the older girls, who are 5 and 7, play quite sophisticated stories with the trains as the centre, while Miss Toddler loves nothing more than to sit amongst Thomas and Percy as they race around the tracks.
Perhaps in an not unrelated development, the toddler has also found a new favourite book - The ABC Book of Cars, Trains, Boats and Planes. Her most favourite of all? "COPP-TA, MUMMY!"
They have all been loving their transport this week, while Mummy has been buried in NaNoWriMo, Christmas preparations, and work, but not too busy to zoom a few cars around on the floor every now and then!
(This is the beginning of Chapter 4, so follows on directly from the previous entry).
Like a class of robots, we got up and started filing out the door, too shocked to even talk to each other. The silence was deafening. I got to my locker on autopilot and pulled out my lunchbox, extracting a blueberry muffin and an apple.
“Good to see you’re watching that waistline, Frank,” said Troy, but I could tell it was just out of habit; his heart wasn’t in it, so I didn’t even bother to reply. I just swung out of the door, looking for Jen and Egg, and, naturally, completely forgetting that I needed to find Penny.
Jen and Egg were waiting on the broad wooden seat built around the tall eucalypt by the fence. Egg was eating a huge slice of bacon frittata and talking nonstop, small bits of food flying out of the corners of his mouth as he did so. One, I saw, had landed on his collar, which made him look like a bird with a very bad stomach-ache had pooped on him. Egg is the world’s messiest eater; actually, he might be the world’s messiest human.
Jen wasn’t eating anything edible, but she was clearly very worried because she had worked a corner of one of her long blonde braids free and was chewing on it, listening to Egg’s stream of chatter but never taking her eyes off the doorway. As soon as she saw me, she shot to her feet and called, “FRANK-EE...” As if I was going to miss them!
Jamming my apple into my mouth, I hustled over to them, flopping down on the seat beside Egg. “So, you worked it out, then,” I said, crunching the apple morosely.
Jen ejected the wet hair from her mouth and said, “Frankie, what in hell in going on?” By which it was clear exactly how thrown Jen was by all this. Jen does not swear. At all, ever, even mild words like crap and hell that most of us let fly pretty casually. Her family’s pretty strict on it, and Jen, also, is a word nerd of truly epic proportions; she considers it lazy language, and can always think of a far more inventive way to say something fails to please her than my usual, “Oh crap!”
I took the final bite from my apple and pitched it effortlessly into the bin behind me. I am a very good shot with projectiles of any kind; just ask my brother Seb, he’ll tell you.
“Jen, you heard it,” I said. “According to Mr O, our class produced 18 identical test papers, and 5 different ones. The presumption is obvious, that at least some of not all of the 18 identical ones resulted from cheating.” I paused, flicking my gaze around the yard, noticing similar huddles of grade 5 students dotting the various seats, play equipment and trees. Of course, the news was already on the move beyond our own grade, too; in fact, I thought, it won’t be long until...
“Frankie!” My brother Seb stood in front of me, face flushed, out of breath. His black-framed glasses, too big for his thin face, slid down his nose and he pushed them back irritably. He needs a haircut again, I noticed irrelevantly, as a lock of thick red hair fell into his eyes. (Seb’s fantastic ability to grow hair at the rate other people digest food was legendary in our family. My Dad often said he must wash it in Maxicrop or something).
“Seb, take your Ventolin,” I advised, hearing the slight wheeze in his voice. “Nothing to be gained by having a big asthma attack, is there?” Seb glared at me but did what I said, pulling his puffer from his pocket and delivering two quick doses. “Now,” he said, arms folded, “is it true? Has your whole class been accused of cheating? Including you?”
“Well, that’s half right,” noted Egg drily. “Not bad odds for the rumour mill.” “What?” Seb snarled. My little brother is a stresshead, and he and talkative, socially inept Egg do not get along at the best of times. (This wasn’t the best of times). Jen intervened. “Most of the class has been accused of cheating on the inter-school maths test, Seb. 18 of the test papers were identical. Five of us were singled out as having different papers and so weren’t accused of cheating.”
Seb looked at me. “So, you haven’t been, then?” I sighed. “No, that’s the half-right part, I’m afraid,” I told him. “Jen and Egg are OK, but my paper was one of the 18 duplicates. I’m in it up to my neck.”
Seb narrowed his eyes. “Well, obviously it’s BS,” he said flatly. “What’re you gonna do about it?”
Unexpectedly, I was moved. Until that very instant, it hasn’t occurred to me there was anything to be done, or more particularly, anything to be done by me. This was, now that I thought about it, pretty silly. I mean, I started from the position of knowing – KNOWING – that I hadn’t cheated, and that therefore, there must be some kind of scam involved. Plus, I am a detective. I detect things. Uncovering the whys and hows of a cheating scandal should be right up my alley. And to think it had taken a stubborn 9 year old with instinctive faith in me, whose hair was about to invade his glasses (again), to remind me of these two facts.
I took a big bite of my blueberry muffin, and chewed it thoughtfully. “Something, for sure,” I said. “Probably starting with working out how the switcheroo – if that’s how it was done – happened.”
Seb nodded. Egg and Jen looked interested too. Jen said, “A first step would be to look at the papers.”
“If you can,” said Seb. “They might not let you.”
Egg laughed, decorating Seb with frittata crumbs, which made Seb look as mad as thunder. “MIGHT not?” he said. “Come on. Those papers are with the department now, and given what’s happened, you are never going to get them back. Ever.” “Probably true,” I conceded calmly. “However, that’s not the end of the game, people. Not by a long shot.”
“I think,” said Jen slowly, “that Mr O might help you. I’m not sure he believed in it as a result. I mean, that so many cheated.”
I thought she was probably right about that. “Well, I will talk to him,” I said, “stay back at lunch dismissal. In the meantime, let’s pool our memories of the test itself. See if anything strikes us as odd in the way we sat it, how the papers were collected, or anything.” I pulled out my case notebook, which always travelled with me, and opened it.
Maths ate the morning, as it usually does. The thing about me and maths is that I can do it and do it really well when I concentrate. It’s not my native language, like it is for Jen, but when I choose to apply myself, it happens. I decided to push Penny’s problem to the back of my mind for the morning and get on with my work. Mr O, without ever raising his voice or seeming to get the tiniest bit stressed, worked us hard all morning, adjusting problems to suit people’s different levels, helping here, suggesting there, keeping an eye. He really is a good teacher, even if, as my Dad says, he looks so relaxed that he’s falling over most of the time.
There was one strange thing, though. Halfway through the morning, Miss Bell, the secretary to our principal, Ms Radeski, came into the classroom and had a murmured conversation with Mr O at his desk. Mr O stood up then, looking worried, and quietly announced that he needed to go see Ms Radeski for a few minutes, and that Miss Bell would supervise us while he was gone. Cheery Miss Bell settled herself in Mr O’s seat and pulled out her ever-present skein of knitting (currently, something fluffy in hot pink).
“Gonna get a caning for those sandals, I bet,” said Travis Li, sotto voce, to widespread sniggering. Ms Radeski’s dislike of Mr O’s unkempt appearance was no great secret. Although I thought Travis might be right, I nonetheless shot him my best Death Glare. Mr O was the best teacher I’d ever had, and if I have a strong suit in life, it’s loyalty.
I wasn’t even really aware of how long Mr O was gone, absorbed in my work as I was. He must have come back at some point, because when I looked up to find a fresh pencil, comfortable Miss Bell and her pink knitting were gone, and Mr O was back in his seat.
With our heads stuck in fractions, the recess bell came as a bit of a shock. I finished my last problem, put down my pencil, and waited for Mr O to dismiss the class, which usually happens straight away.
Today something was different, though. Instead of dismissing us with his usual, “Have fun, 5-O”, Mr O sat down on his desk and looked at us steadily. He actually looks ... upset, I realised with great surprise. I don’t think I’d ever seen Mr O look upset before.
“5-O, just before you go, I need to tell you that unfortunately, we appear to have had an incident of cheating in this class.” (This is the point at which, if this was a 1950s school story, we would all gasp in horror and exclaim “NO! Never! I say, old chap!” Being, however, a 21st century ragtag public school class from an up and coming, but still pretty working-class, Melbourne neighbourhood, we just sat there and waited.)
Mr O sighed. “Yes, the inter-school maths competition that we did so well in last month ... It seems that all but five of our papers, from this class, were identical.” He paused. “Identically good, that is. Hence our great result.”
I was, I will admit, a little shocked. Not at the notion that someone was cheating; no, at the idea that all but 5 of us were cheating. It’s like Murder on the Orient Express, I thought, sneaking glances at my deskmate, Egg (who looked horrified) and across the room at Jen. A conspiracy of cheating.
Mr O referred to a paper on his desk. “So, look, the following 5 students, whose papers were different, you guys can go out to recess now. Jennifer Rogers...” Jen got up and scurried out the door, looking stunned.
“Paul DaSilva, Harriet Backhouse...” The two Special Ed kids got up and left, the frown on Harriet’s face indicating that she had no idea what had just happened. “Ethan Samora...” Egg got up, looked at me, and left. I waited, expectant, for my name to be called. After all, I knew I hadn’t cheated on that test.
Mr O said, “Christie Lang.” And my mouth dropped open. What the...? I thought, as Mr O shifted on his desk, his eyes sad. I mean, I know I didn’t cheat. I know I didn’t! So what the everloving heck is going on here?
I looked around at the rest of the class, all 18 of us still awaiting release, and saw a sea of faces that mirrored my own amazement. In fact, no-one had that half-furtive, half-cocky look that usually goes with breaking school rules. Not even Troy and his posse, who, if I was going to make a stab at likely cheats just off the cuff, would’ve been my choice every time. Oh, the posse didn’t have the scared-rabbit look that some of the other kids had, but they sure didn’t look guilty, either. Troy looked astounded, actually, and maybe a little bit irked that someone had apparently pulled off such a major con without his knowledge or involvement. Well, not to say pulled it off, of course. The evidence of the spectacular failure to cheat undetectably was sitting right in front of us, looking glum.
Mr O was speaking, I realised. I dragged my attention back to him.
“So, class,” said Mr O heavily, “we’re not sure what happened here, or how it happened, but the department is cancelling all of your results on the quiz, and obviously that means the school doesn’t win the district prize the way we thought.” He sighed. “The department asked us to investigate the matter and find the culprits, but I’ve talked to Ms Radeski, and we don’t think that will achieve anything much. So instead, I just want to say, if any of you feels that you want to come tell me what happened, and why, I’d be willing to listen.”
We stared at him, in a state of mass disbelief. You could have heard a pin drop in that room. (Probably that’s why everyone jumped a mile when Teresa Gallio, who’s a bundle of nerves at the best of times, knocked her pencil case off her desk with a nervous jerk of her elbow.)
Mr O sighed again, like he hadn’t really expected anything else. “OK, 5-O,” he said. “Off you go to recess now. Oh, also. Ms Radeski will be writing to all your parents to explain why the competition scores have been cancelled.” He gave a tired half-grin. “Although I expect most of you will be giving the news in person tonight.” He stood up from his desk, his lanky frame as awkward as ever. “Off you go,” he repeated, more gently this time.
(For parts 1, 2 and 3 of my NaNoWriMo novel, see the previous posts, which together constitute chapter 1.)
NB: I've been advised by a friend in publishing to not post all of the novel in progress, especially not in an unbroken sequence, so although I seriously doubt it's good enough for anyone to bother ripping off, I'm going to take her advice. This exercpt, therefore, is from Chapter 3, rather than Chapter 2. The omitted chapter contained some details of Frankie's family life and more information about Penny Ganz's missing mother. Chapter 3 opens the following day in the schoolyard.
We were, as usual, barely on time for school the next morning. Rounding the corner to the sound of the first bell ringing, Seb, Phil and I immediately scattered, racing off to our respective class queues just before the teachers came out to walk us in. Breathless, I scooted into place behind my friend, Jen, who muttered, “You cut it so fine, Frankie,” as she shuffled up a little further to make room for me. “Yeah, yeah...” I replied, giving her my best who-me grin.
Our teacher, Mr Orringe, came strolling out of the office block, his scuffed brown sandals flapping loudly in the cool morning air. As usual, Mr O looked like he had woken up about 7 minutes ago, rolled out of bed, and thrown on the first thing that came to hand on his meander to school. Today he was sporting a pair of khaki cotton pants, creased in such a way that made it obvious they’d never seen an iron; a red and white striped shirt, minus two buttons; and a scruffy black bomber jacket, which he wore every day, regardless of weather. His mouse-brown hair was getting long around his ears again and was standing up in places. His mild brown eyes showed no fear, though. He never looked stressed about his absence of kempt, never seemed even aware of the sniggers and comments of the kids and some of the parents about his perpetual state of disarray. Mr O was very relaxed about life, and teaching, and, indeed, personal grooming.
“Right, then, 5-O”, he said calmly, “let’s get this show on the road.” Obedient as a row of ducklings following mama duck, we puttered along after him, walking past the bright yellow wattle and the glorious full-flower bottle-brush (my favourite plant at the school) into our classroom block. As always, I half-smiled at the startling and cheery mural that decorated the outer wall of our building – a blue sky, a bluer sea, a bobbing red sailboat, a multitude of shining, darting fishes. The artist had painted it all with energy and colour and delight, and it showed.
Being so late, I hadn’t seen Penny that morning – her class lined up in a different area of the yard. As I shoved my bag into my locker, I decided that I really needed to try to catch her at recess.
“Jen,” I said, catching her lunchbox as it slid from her stuffed locker to the floor (a job I do every day, as Jen’s locker is always over-filled with science paraphernalia), “where does Penny Ganz hang out these days? At breaks, I mean?” Jen pushed her green glasses back up her nose and looked at me suspiciously. “How do you think I would know, Frankie? I spend most of my breaks with you, or with the Science Club, right?”
“Yeah, I just thought maybe you would,” I said, grabbing my maths book for the first lesson of the day. Just then Troy Peel came past, looking as pleasant as usual (which is to say, not pleasant at all).
“How’s it hanging, Frank?” he said, nudging his maths book into my abdomen. “All of it, I mean?” He sniggered, and his toadies, Travis Li and Jayden Furquani, imitated him, elbowing each other in their amusement at Troy Baiting the Fattie.
I gave Troy my best pitying grin. I do a fairly good line in those. “Very well, Troy, very well indeed.” I stretched luxuriously, which made my school jumper pull up for second, exposing an inch of my belly. “Great to have padding against the cold, I find. Wouldn’t you agree? No, wait, sorry, I forgot ... you’re thin.” I smiled kindly. “Oh well...”
Troy, as usual, was equal parts peeved at being called on his garbage in front of his mates, and disconcerted, not knowing what to say next. My exterior of so-don’t-care confused him. The thought seemed to travel visibly across his mind: How could I not care that I was fat? Why wasn’t I embarrassed? And why did I, obviously lower than his good self on the totem pole, feel I had the right to answer back?
Troy opened his mouth to amplify his witticism, but before he had a chance, Mr O came out into the corridor. “Come on, Frankie, Troy, you others,” he said mildly. “Maths waits for no one, you know.” He stood by the door, shepherding us into the room.
(This is the end of chapter 1. Parts 1 and 2 are in the previous two posts. I'm actually up to Chapter 6 now and have just hit 15,000 words, which I am amazed about. Hope it continues!)
Phil pushed open the door, the blue chipped tea tray balancing on her hip as she held Vicky’s chocolate-coated paw with the other hand. “Apple juice, Frankie,” she said breathlessly, “and cookies. Anzacs, I think. I brought two each.” She stopped talking and looked curiously at Penny. “Do you need anything else?”
“No, thanks, Phil,” I said “we’re good.” I moved over to my desk and put a dash in a column on my desk pad. Phil nodded happily and backed out, her flyaway strawberry blonde hair escaping her plait, tugging the reluctant Vicky with her.
“What was that you noted down?” asked Penny curiously, taking a swallow of her juice. She was much more relaxed now, I noted; maybe she was almost ready to tell me why she was here. “Oh, that?” I said. “That’s Phil’s pay tally. I give her 25 cents every time she brings drinks for me and my friends. Or clients. It’s kind of a family affair,” I went on, “this ... you know. My brother Seb helps out sometimes, too.” “But not Vicky?” smiled Penny, biting into her cookie. Like all my Mum’s baked goods, it was delicious.
“Not yet,” I agreed, “but she’ll be running it all one day, I’m sure.” I finished off my first cookie and brushed the crumbs off my lap. Time to get down to it; it wouldn’t be long before I’d be called inside to help with the dinner. “So, Penny...?” She took a breath, and said, “So, Frankie, I want to know how much it would cost for you to find out for me why my Mum left when I was a baby and never came back.” She bit into her cookie again and leaned back, clearly relieved to have finally got it out.
I wasn’t expecting that.
Clearly I wasn’t, because I blurted out the first stupid thing that came into my head, which was, “But Penny, what are you talking about? I know your Mum! She’s there every day at school to pick you up! You know, blonde lady, very trendy...” I trailed off as Penny regarded me with laughter-filled eyes. She was enjoying this now that she’d gotten over the first hurdle of actually spilling it out. People often do, I’ve found.
“Yes, my STEPmother does come up to get me and Charlie,” Penny agreed, “mostly because Charlie’s only 6 and still quite clingy. I call her Mum, because she married my Dad when I was three, and really, Yvonne is wonderful, I do love her lots. Not at all an evil stepmother,” she continued, slurping some juice. (Slurping! Penny Ganz, slurping! I am clearly a bad influence).
“My birth mother, though ... she left us, when I was 7 months old. At least, that’s what my Dad has always told me. He says there just wasn’t a reason, she was unhappy so she left.” Penny sighed, serious again.
“I just don’t ... Even if she was unhappy, didn’t like being a mother, wouldn’t she have contacted me later? Or tried to? Did she really not care at all about me, about how I was doing?” The hurt in Penny’s voice was painful to hear. Without thinking, I reached out my hand to her. She took my hand and squeezed it tight for a moment, and we sat in silence. I think I might have cried, had the mood not been broken by Vicky, who burst in the door, covered in yellow paint, and flung herself on me.
“FENKY!” shrieked Vicky, winding her chubby arms around my neck. “VICKY NO WAN’ BARF!”
I untangled her arms and regarded her sternly as Phil, her face flushed, appeared at the doorway. “Oh, Vicky,” said Phil in her soft, gentle voice. (Phil is so-not-me in that regard). “You need to have a bath. Mum’s run it, it’s all ready,” she appealed to me, her soft hazel eyes worried. “She just won’t come.”
I put my littlest sister off my knee and spoke directly to her. “Vicky,” I said, in my Almost As Good As Mum’s No Nonsense Voice. “You. Need. A. Bath. NOW. If you go with Phil like a good girl, I will come up in 5 minutes and blow bubbles for you, OK?” Vicky grinned, her green eyes alight with triumph. (They always are. Vicky always wins). “Oh-TAY, Fenky!” she agreed, and charged out the door towards the house, Phil following in her wake.
Penny, who had watched this scene with amusement, was fully in possession of herself now. In a normal voice, she said, “Well, Frankie, what do you think? Could you do anything?”
I thought. It was eleven years ago, and it involved adults, whose motivations, frankly, are always strange and often impossible to work out. All the same, I thought there might be one or two things I could do.
“Penny,” I said, “I’ll be honest. I’m not sure if I’ll be able to find out much for you. How about if we agree that I’ll try for a week. You can pay me back for anything I have to pay for, plus $20. If after a week we agree to keep going, we’ll talk then about more fees.”
Penny considered. “That sounds fair,” she agreed, as she got up to go. At the door, she turned, put her hand on my arm, and said “Thank you, Frankie.”
“Don’t thank me yet,” I advised, feeling a warm glow nonetheless. She really was nice.
And then she was gone, and I headed up to the house. I had bubbles to blow, after all.
(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?”
As you might recall, I am attempting NaNoWriMo this year, and it's going to claim almost all of my available attention. In lieu of regular blog activities, therefore, I am going to post extracts of my novel in progress, which is a middle-grade girl-detective story, It's off to a flying start - 2 November and I'm sitting on 6,000 words - it's just flying off my fingers at the moment (long may it continue!)
So here is the introduction to my attempt at a middle-grade novel - Frankie Loveday, Girl Detective. Feedback is most welcome and invited!
You know, the worst thing about being a detective and being a girl is being called a Girl Detective.
I don’t know why it bothers me. I mean, it’s just a description, right? I am, in fact, and actually, a girl, and by some freaks of coincidence, I seem to have ended up as a detective. Kind of, anyway. It’s just, I don’t know, it feels a bit like I’m being taken down a peg when people say it that way. Like they want to point out that I am FIRST a girl, and THEN a “detective”, with what my Mum calls “sarcastic curly quotes” around the detective part. Like, well, she’s as much of a detective as you could expect a girl to be. Which isn’t that much.
When my brother Seb helps me out with cases, people don’t call him a Boy Detective, do they? Well, usually they call him You Know, That Little Kid With the Glasses, Frankie’s Brother? Which annoys him to no end, truth be told. It’s what comes of being the assistant, I tell him. And two years younger, and a full head shorter, and quieter, better-behaved and not, um, plus-sized like me. People just notice him less. This can be good thing, I tell him. Especially in our line of work. Blending in to the background is a real advantage when you need to check stuff out on the QT, which is a lot of the time. He can go places, hear things, that I’d never hear, because people just don’t notice he’s there. Think of it as like your superpower, I tell him. You are Mr Invisible. He never looks all that convinced.
Me, I don’t blend. At all, ever, really. When you’re 11 years old, taller than all the boys in your class, possessed of what my Dad calls “a magnificent head of mahogany ringlets” (for which read, Frizzy Bright Red Hair and Lots of It), and fat, standing out is pretty much a given. Of course, the fact that I am also a loudmouth, extremely smart, and not particularly bothered what the cool kids think assists in the non-blending-in, too. I am never invisible.
Maybe I’m over-thinking it all, though. I have a tendency to do that. After all, there are lots of strong, fantastic girl detectives around, right? Trixie Belden, Nancy Drew, and so forth. (Truth be told, I’m not too much of a Nancy fan, even though we share the blessing / curse of red hair. She’s so much more put-together than me, pretty much Miss Perfect, which, hello? So Not Me. Trixie, though, I like. She mucks things up all the time, but she’s brave and she keeps on trying and she gets there in the end. That I can work with).
So, all right, I guess I can cope with it.
Hi. I’m Frankie Loveday, Girl Detective. Pleased to meet you.