On sunny days, which is most days, the Blondes sit on the grass at the centre of the quadrangle with their legs stretched out and their skirts hiked up. They sit in a big group, sometimes as many as fifteen. They’re not all pretty, but the prettiest ones—Keely, Ashy, Caitlyn B—have a way of boosting the average, like shiny tens added to a sequence of sixes. Sometimes boys stand over them, or hover like flies. Most of the boys aren’t good-looking, but the Blondes don’t seem to mind.
If a Blonde chooses one of these boys to date, they can be seen wearing his jumper if it’s winter, or his trucker hat if it’s summer. When Keely and Cameron break up, he waits a while before going out with another girl, and Keely goes out with another boy. Again, no one seems to mind.
In class, the Blondes’ boys usually sit near the back. The Blondes sit near the front, or by a window so their hair shines. Some classes, like English, have only one Blonde—in which case, the Blonde (Ashy) sits with a non-Blonde, and is perfectly nice about it. Other classes, like Home Ec, have as many as four of them, and so they become the focal point of the room: the ones who speak, and to whom the teacher smiles at most.
Not all the Blondes are ‘sporty’—there are other girls who are better at sports; girls with ruddy, freckly faces, and hair that’s brown or red or even strawberry blonde. But the Blondes are sports fans. In football season, when misty rain edges them off the grass, they tuck their hair into blue-and-gold scarves and talk about weekend games with the boys. Or Mr Luger.
‘Loogie, didya see Yakka kicking a bag last Sunday?’
‘Loogie, where’s my five bucks? Toldya the Swans were gonna slaughter us.’
Like the boys, Mr Luger isn’t good-looking but acts like he is. He wears shorts and a polo shirt all year round. His hair is buzz cut, usually hidden by a blue Nike cap. He wears wraparound sunglasses, but when he takes them off his eyes are pale blue and extraordinarily far apart, a bit like a shark.
Mr Luger’s first name is Adam—Ashy asks one lesson, and he tells her, just like that. But everyone calls him ‘Loogie’, like a lump of phlegm.
‘Loogie, got something for ya!’ Tristan hocks and spits one day at the oval.
‘Got some on ya shirt, drongo,’ Mr Luger retorts, grinning back at the Blondes to make sure they heard him.
Mr Luger looks at Penelope during roll call, Wednesday, last period. Penelope looks at the ground. Mr Luger still doesn’t get the message.
‘She’s not here today,’ Penelope mumbles. The Blondes titter.
After Mr Luger has finished the roll and sent some boys to drag the volleyballs from the shed, Penelope creeps up and hands him a note. Her mum didn’t really write the note, but Penelope knows she wouldn’t object to the general idea of it.
‘Penelope … has … a … cold,’ Mr Luger reads aloud, then scans Penelope from behind his sunglasses. It’s obvious he’s suspicious, yet not sure enough about who she is to act on it. ‘But not sick enough to stay home?’
‘I’ve got a Maths test.’
‘Orright, then.’ Mr Luger shrugs. ‘Go sit where I can see ya.’
Penelope sits on the hill, beyond the range of the volleyball nets. She takes out her Maths textbook. If Eu-Ling were here, they’d study together, test each other on the answers. Now and then, Penelope hears a squeal, or a jeer. Once, she sees Cameron pitch a ball at one of the girls’ boobs. Another time, Ashy giggling and trying to steal Mr Luger’s cap. At the end of class, Mr Luger walks by carrying the bag of balls and trailed by Ashy, who’s wearing his cap.
‘Good luck with the test,’ he tells Penelope.
In English class, Mrs O’Malley wants them to write poetry. Tristan, Ashy’s ex, loudly groans, ‘Poetry sucks.’ Penelope feels bad for Mrs O’Malley, who has to deal with so many stupid boys every day.
Later, in Home Ec with Miss Roche, they’re making heat packs. Since the class is all girls, Miss Roche tells them heat packs can be used for period pain. All the Blondes look at each other from the sides of their eyes, but nobody makes any jokes. Later, Penelope stands back as the Blondes snatch up the boldest fake fur and leopard print.
‘You need to stitch it on the outer edge.’ Miss Roche places her hands over Penelope’s. ‘It’ll fray otherwise.’
Miss Roche has long, ovular fingernails with bright strips of white at the top. Her hair is chestnut-brown, swept up behind her ears and streaming down her back. Even so, Penelope wonders if she might’ve been blonde when she was in high school.
They’re doing badminton lessons at the local uni—not the sandstone one, but the place where you only need Cs to study there. Mr Luger mails permission slips to their homes, and Penelope’s mum reads hers with that pouty, shuttered look that means she doesn’t fully understand all the words.
‘What is bad-min-ton?’
‘It’s a sport.’ Penelope shrugs. ‘It’s stupid. Do I have to do it?’
Penelope’s mum drags on her cigarette. Dunhill Menthol, duty-free. She looks at Penelope’s thighs in her school skirt.
‘Yeah. You getting fat, lah.’
Eu-Ling also gets her permission slip signed. ‘Badminton is alright,’ she tells Penelope. ‘I used to play it with my cousins in HK.’
The indoor court is polished blue and smells like the inside of a shoebox. Mr Luger hands out lightweight racquets and balls with featherlike plastic tails, which he calls ‘shuttlecocks’. Everyone giggles.
‘Orright, orright.’ Mr Luger grins. ‘It’s a funny name.’
After that, he shows them how to position the shuttlecock over the racquet’s ‘sweet spot’. Everyone giggles again. He serves, high and graceful. Low and fast. He has good arms, Penelope guesses. It’s a shame about the shark eyes.
‘Hey, Loogie,’ Ashy chimes. ‘Can you show me my sweet spot again…?’
To play badminton, Eu-Ling ties her hair in a low ponytail. Her face takes on a determined look, which Penelope has seen on her during Maths tests but never at sport. Her serves are neat and quick.
‘Nice going…you,’ Mr Luger encourages, hands on hips. ‘Nice one.’
Eu-Ling doesn’t acknowledge him, just watches Penelope hunt for the shuttlecock. She raises it to the racquet and swings. It fails to go over the net.
Mr Luger frowns at Penelope.
‘Would’ve thought you’d be better at this.’
Penelope looks perplexed.
‘Ah, well…’ Mr Luger’s gaze drifts to Ashy, bending in her short shorts. ‘Because ya friend is?’
‘I didn’t know you were good at sports,’ Penelope says coldly on the bus back to school.
‘Just badminton.’ Eu-Ling shrugs.
‘Loogie, that’s my street! Can you drop me here?’ Ashy pleads, leaning over her seat and blinking her mascara-spiked lashes at Mr Luger in the mirror.
‘No can do, Ash.’
‘Loogie, can you drop us at the shops? I wanna buy some chips.’
‘Not a taxi service, mate.’ Mr Luger pulls into the school car park. ‘Anyways, rather drive me Land Rover. Brand new. She’s a bewdy.’
‘Tinted windows!’ Tristan spots it. ‘Phwoarr!’
Penelope’s mum’s friend, Wayan, owns a Subway. He gives jobs to Penelope’s mum and her mum’s other friend, Rina. Later, when Penelope expresses a desire for some new Keds, her dad says, ‘What the hell are “Ketts”?’ and her mum says, ‘Wayan give you job. You buy yourself.’
Penelope doesn’t like her Subway uniform. But she likes the way the sandwich ingredients are neatly lined up, and when she goes into the cubbyhouse cool of the fridge to refill them when they run out. She also likes working with her mum and Rina, which seems easier than working with kids her age. They talk a lot, sometimes in English, sometimes not. Once, a lady comes in, looks at Penelope’s mum and Rina talking as they clean the grills, then at Penelope. She sighs loudly and leaves.
‘Blood-dy woman,’ Penelope’s mum jeers. ‘Don’t want Asians making her sandwich or what?’
Mrs O’Malley is making an anthology of their poems. She chooses one poem by each student, no matter how bad it is, and staples each one into a little book with Year 10 Poetry in a curly font on the front. Penelope’s poem, ‘The Only Star’, is about a starfish that gets washed up on a lonely beach and slowly dies. It’s deep. She hopes others reading it will understand this without thinking she’s depressed.
Ashy writes a poem called ‘Alone With/out You’, about a blue-eyed boy. Penelope wonders if it’s about Tristan, whose poem ‘Poppies’ is surprisingly deep, too.
Young man, run, headlong
Like on the footy fields of yesterday
Run, young man,
The crowd is screaming your name
Into the fire
Penelope reads ‘Poppies’ alone in her bedroom that night. She imagines Tristan as a soldier at Gallipoli. She thinks how he might be good-looking if he had less pimples, if his hair was less red, his nose less snub. How these things make him unique; poetic, even. Tristan.
‘You. The good one.’ Mr Luger points at Eu-Ling, their next badminton lesson. ‘I’m gonna put you with Cait. You…’
‘Penelope,’ Penelope supplies.
‘Yep.’ Mr Luger nods. ‘Penny…you go with Ash.’
Penelope blinks in surprise. Ashy smiles faintly, tucks her straightened hair behind her ears. Frangipani earrings. She looks at Penelope’s Keds.
Ashy is better at badminton than Penelope, but not as good as Eu-Ling. She drops the shuttlecock just as often as she hits it. One time, Tristan laughs when she drops it and Ashy huffs, ‘Shut up! It’s too small.’
‘Hey, Loogie. Ashy says your shuttlecock is too small for her—’
‘SHUT UP, TRISTAN!’
Tristan grins—right at Penelope.
If Penelope’s life was an American teen movie, there would only be three Blondes. They would walk around school in skin-tight pastel outfits, write with fluffy pens, carry shiny purses, drive convertibles. They would play cruel pranks on girls like Penelope, like throwing dog food at them. Their boyfriends would be better looking. They would make her life hell.
Penelope decides she’ll compliment Tristan on his poem. In Mrs O’Malley’s class, when his friends aren’t paying attention. He will blush to the roots of his red hair and thank her, look into her eyes and realise what he’s always deep-down suspected—that she’s beautiful. He will compliment her poem, too. He will tell her, I have other poems, I’m embarrassed to show my friends, maybe you’d like to read them sometime? She will agree, and they will meet after school in secret, share their first kiss over poetry pages. He will be embarrassed to tell anyone, and she will cry. He will realise again that she’s beautiful. He will hold her hand at school and the Blondes will ask, Is that your new girlfriend? He will tell them, Yes, and they will think for a second, then say, Cool, I always liked her shoes. Penelope will hang out on the grass with Tristan and the Blondes sometimes, but not all the time; she has friends of her own. He will ask her to the next school dance, and she will save up her Subway money to buy a beautiful dress, low-cut at the back. At the dance, after exactly six months of dating, Tristan will ask her if she’s ready, and she’ll say, Yes. She will lose her virginity to him in a big soft bed, and there will be no regrets.
On Monday, Penelope is walking to her Maths class with Eu-Ling. She sees Tristan ahead, sitting with splayed legs by the lockers with Lachlan and Jake. Tristan looks at her and her heart jumps.
‘Three!’ says Lachlan.
‘Nah.’ Tristan smirks at Penelope. ‘Two-and-a-half.’
Another Asian girl, Year Eight or Nine, hurries past the boys.
‘Three-and-a-half!’ Jake shouts. The boys guffaw.
That night, Penelope tears up Tristan’s poem, crying tears of bitter disappointment.
‘Can I stay home tomorrow?’ Penelope asks her mum the next night.
‘I got my period.’
‘Use your leopard. What-you-call-it? Period pack.’
‘Please? I’ll help at Subway.’
Her mum looks at her like she’s an unripe mango.
‘You want Wayan get arrested for child labour?’
The next day, rather than getting on Mr Luger’s bus, Penelope ducks behind the demountables and walks to the strip mall. She buys a magazine from the newsagency, then looks at makeup at the pharmacy, then buys some chips and reads the magazine. You getting fat, lah, she thinks, looking at her thighs while she eats the chips. She doesn’t really care, though. The chips are steamy-hot, gritty with chicken salt. She flips a page, stretches her legs to catch the sun.
Penelope doesn’t think anything when she sees a blonde girl come into Subway that weekend; there are lots of blonde people in the world, not necessarily Blondes.
‘How can I help you?’ Penelope asks, in the happy voice she’s learned to use for customers.
‘Um…’ Ashy says. ‘One Veggie Delite, one Turkey. Foot-long.’
Ashy is wearing a pair of scrunchy white short shorts and a mint-coloured singlet. Even though Ashy’s skinny, the singlet is unflattering—so long it goes past the top of her shorts, and so tight there’s an awkward lump at her midriff. Penelope wonders if Ashy has a piercing, or one of those freakish outie bellybuttons.
‘Um, yeah.’ Ashy toys with her puka shell necklace. ‘Thanks.’
Ashy seems bored, shifting from hip to hip. Penelope sprinkles the ingredients quickly but generously. When the mayonnaise bottle farts, her face heats up.
‘Thanks.’ Ashy pays with a fifty. There are more fifties in the wallet; Penelope wonders how rich Ashy’s dad is.
‘Thanks,’ Ashy repeats, taking her change. She rushes out on her long legs, thongs flapping.
‘Oh,’ Penelope says. ‘You forgot your—’
But she can already see Ashy sidling into a shiny black Land Rover.
Penelope knows she should put the wallet in the Lost and Found, but when she opens it up and sees that shark-eyed stare, that stupid buzz cut, she feels such a crawling disgust that she chucks it. Later, when her mum isn’t looking, she fishes it out; there’s all that cash, after all. Then she puts it back and makes sure to cover it with the grossest rubbish, so when Ashy returns that afternoon, mascara smudged, she can just shrug and say, ‘Sorry. I’ll let you know if I find it.’
The Blondes don’t stop hanging out altogether. But there’s a point sometime after Mr Luger leaves the school, around the time they’re picking their subjects for Year 11, when the group gets smaller. Keely starts going out with Kelvin Wong. Tessa dyes her hair black. Ashy stays blonde, but her makeup gets more panda-like, and the puka shells and frangipanis are replaced by spikes and studs. She’s not at school the next year. Penelope hears she’s doing Hairdressing at TAFE.
Only three Blondes get into the sandstone university. Not that Penelope notices them: it’s a big place, and she spends most of her time in the labs, or the library, which has rows of vending machines. A couple of months into semester, Penelope’s mum commentates, ‘Boom-boom!’ while Penelope is walking to the freezer for ice cream.
The next day, Penelope joins the on-campus gym.
Penelope doesn’t like the gym—but, after hours hunched over her books, there’s something nice about the mindlessness of it. Sometimes she uses the Elliptical. Other times, rowing. Afterwards, she cools off in the pool.
The pool is good for thinking. She has an essay due; molecular biology. Even if she wasn’t thinking so hard, though, nobody bothers her in the pool. Normally.
‘Hey, you,’ the lifeguard repeats, loudly. ‘Ya know, there’s a slow lap lane?’
A red cap instead of the blue Nike. Same sunglasses, though; so reflective she can see the water dripping off her nose. There’s a nametag, too: Adam.
‘I’m fine,’ Penelope mumbles.
‘Ya sure?’ Mr Luger seems surprised. Then he grins like a shark. ‘Well. Onya for tryin!’
She’ll be a doctor someday. Or, if not that, a lab technician. This is what Penelope tells herself, hoisting her body out of the pool, watching him flirt with a chick in a purple sports bikini. Still, confronted with that hulking Land Rover in the car park, the hatred coats her throat so thickly there’s only one logical thing to do.
She checks over her shoulder, then hocks a loogie. Right in the middle of his tinted windshield.