Crows Nest continued to be just the worst. My only solace remained in line dancing classes, populated by the town’s supply of old ladies, including my grandmother. A friendless, gawky 14 year old grape-vining with a room full of CWA members: entire runs of British sitcoms have been produced with less bumbling awkwardness.
Meanwhile my mother, trying to keep her head above water in a fake-nonchalant “No No I’m Not On The Run From Dale, I Just Coincidentally Enjoy Moving Very Quickly To Wherever Dale Isn’t” sort of way, was trying to find a way to regain some agency over her life’s trajectory. She decided to get herself a degree, and was enrolled at CQU: the Central Queensland University. Meaning? We were moving to Rockhampton.
Except: well, I wasn’t. I decided to not move across the country again. I was going to spend the three weeks of school holidays in Brisbane, working for my Uncle Ken at his sign-writing company (SPOILER: The skills I picked up there were never, ever used again). Then I would go back to Crows Nest, move in with my grandparents again, and continue my schooling.
I know what you’re thinking. And no, I don’t know what the hell was wrong with me either. Staying at that school? Living with my grandparents? Voluntarily? Teenagers, man. They’re fucking idiots.
Thank goodness, then, for manual labour. For three weeks, I worked at Greenwood Signs, mostly scrubbing down old real estate signboards. Peel off the contact, scrape off the paint, patch up the screwholes, and repaint the boards white so they could be used again. I did this all day, every day, at one stage getting a sunburn so severe, at night my skin audibly hummed. It was physically intense work, and it put my pale, weak, indoor-specialist body through its paces.
“Did you work as hard as you could today?” my Uncle Ken would ask at the end of the day.
“Frrmfhm” I would reply from face-down on the floor.
“Well, I’m sure you worked harder than you’ve ever worked before, but I don’t reckon you worked as hard as you could“, he would smug, while I attempted to plot his murder. (I never followed through, I was too weak and puny. Uncle Ken is alive and well in 2015.)
It was tough, but it was exactly what I needed. It’s like the extreme physical workout over those three weeks cleared my mind. Firstly, I realised that on the list of things I wanted to be when I grew up, “signwriter” was at the bottom. Of a different list. On a piece of paper on the opposite side of town. More importantly, this realisation triggered a larger epiphany: I was free to choose what I did and did not want to do with my life. And I did not want to live in Crows Nest. I did not want to live with my grandparents. And I was free to choose not to. I chose, plans were rearranged, and I moved up to Pennycuick Street and started the new school term at Rockhampton High School, a full nine hours drive away from the place I hated most.
Rockhampton High School was, and remains, a complete riddle of a place. I had by this stage been to twenty schools before it, so I was kind of an expert in the process of starting a new school: I would keep to myself for safety, and would be summarily ignored by most of the student body. The resident dickheads would come for me straight away, and that was to be expected. I just had to stay low, stay quiet, and stay in the library: I knew the routine. If I was lucky, I’d end up on brief speaking terms with some of the kids I shared classes with, but it was kept very casual, partly because I would inevitably end up moving again before long, and partly because you never knew who to trust: A very common ploy among some of the more torture-happy bullies was to lure a kid into a false sense of security by “befriending” them, before pulling the rug out from under them at a later date in some cruel, calculated (and nearly always public) manner. I’d been caught out that way a couple of times, so this ruse no longer worked on me. I’d learnt to see it coming, and just to be extra careful, I never trusted anyone that came at me all smiles and friendliness.
So I was immediately on guard, hackles raised, eye to the nearest exit when, on only my second day, as I sat under a small tree doing a very good impression of an invisible person, Marguerita Smith bounced up to me.
“Eating lunch.” (Never give too much away. I would have been a great spy during my teen years.)
“Ugh, don’t be boring. Come with me.”And she grabbed me by the hand and pulled me over to another part of the yard where about ten students sat in a circle.
I knew I was being had. However, the problem with the Carrie-style false-friend ruse is that calling it out too quickly can be just as bad as falling for it. Letting on that you know their game straight away gives them months of ammunition, as they were “only trying to be nice” when you “turned into a freak”. It’s a win-win situation for your tormentor. So, like finding a leech on your leg, it’s safer to just let them fill up, because if you try to rip them off straight away you bleed more and their mouthparts stay embedded in your flesh—I’m sorry, I completely lost control of that metaphor. What I’m saying is I really had no choice but to go with Marguerita to her coven of monsters who were no doubt plotting something terrible. I was trapped, and had to, for the time being, be complicit in my own torture, at least up until the point where they played their evil hand.
That point never came.
On that day, Marguerita introduced me to the people who became the best friends I’d ever had.
Katrina, the prototype for the kind of independent, zero-fuck-giving alpha women to whom, in later years, I would always find myself drawn: who was rebellious but fiercely loyal; dominating but surprisingly gentle; prone to vulgar humour (my favourite kind) but always full of love.
Aimée, who we were sure was at least part elf; a creature of delicate hippie-ish whimsy who would eventually move in with my family for nearly two years, becoming the older sister I never had. Who—much to the disgust of the rest of us—entirely skipped her awkward teenage years, evolving from cute kid to fully grown fairy-woman with the speed of a mogwai that was fed after midnight.
Fabienne, who is today an elegant 34 year old woman, but who has been an elegant 34 year old woman since she was 15. Fabienne, who started calling me on my shit in 1995 and has never stopped: who would take my left arm hostage in Maths B so she could draw on it, sometimes filling most of my forearm with abstract doodling (she never took any notes because her pen was occupied on my arm, and I never took any notes because my arm was occupied by her pen: we both failed that maths class. Okay maybe she wasn’t always an elegant 34 year old woman).
Steven, who completely redefined what I thought “cool” was, and who served as proof that I could make friends with a guy, and not secretly fear being punched in the face (I assumed that’s what guys did). Steven showed me it was possible to be a non-sporty, bookish kind of boy and hold some level of popularity at the same time. Not that I was under any delusion that I had what it took to be popular; it was enough just to not have to be invisible.
Paul, whose pinkie finger I “accidentally” brushed with my pinkie finger while we sat together at the movies, which built—agonisingly slowly—to a full holding of hands by the end credits. The second boy I ever kissed (but the first boy I ever kissed with intent), and the first boy I actually “dated” for a short time, before I imploded in a fit of gay panic and ending it, cruelly citing it as “a phase I was over”. (The sharp regret of that callousness stings me to this day: but I paid the price, and then some, by struggling with my sexuality for the next eight years. I wouldn’t date another boy for fourteen years.)
Kristel, who gave me my first EVER kiss, which is the subject of the next story so you’re going to have to wait for a week for elaboration.
Those six people changed me in ways I didn’t even realise until, really, I wrote this story. There were other people too: Jodie, Stacey, Becca, Emma(s), Charmaine, and more. I loved them all. The group often grew and shrunk, plus there were peripheral members, but that core group remained solid. I was part of a clique: a clique of dorky semi-outcasts, but a clique nonetheless. We hung out at a pergola on the school grounds, and due to our semi-outcast status, nobody else came near the pergola. It became our safe space, and we became known as “The Pergola People”: at least, according to several statements written on toilet walls.
I was at Rocky High for 16 months, and they were the very best of all twelve of my schooling years. I have lost contact with many of these people, but I’m still in touch with three of them to this very day. But contact or not, every person I befriended at that school means so much to me.
They are the reason I learnt how to live. They kickstarted the adolescence I’d forgotten to have until that point. Because of them, I had, among other things, my first detention, my first existential crisis, my first kiss, my first sexual experience, my first failed school subject, my first taste of adulthood, and my first sense of real belonging. They taught me to be funny, to be fun, to embrace what I’m good at, and to enjoy myself.
I guess the bulk of the credit goes to Marguerita, for forcing me to join her group in the first place. Marguerita was one of the first people I lost contact with after I left Rockhampton, and I doubt we have much in common as adults. But I owe her so much. She saved me. Or rather, she created me. The person who writes this today would not exist if she hadn’t taken my hand. I would still be a dull, quiet, invisible goody-two shoes hiding in libraries. So much of who I am now can be traced back to a single catalyst: an act of kindness from Marguerita Smith.