‘You are fortunate,’ Mrs Pomello said on our first day, ‘to be enrolled at this school, to receive a Catholic education. This will instill in you Christian values.’
She gave a short speech about the responsibilities Catholic girls have to their parents, to their school, to themselves. Mostly this involved keeping our blazers on when we were out of school grounds, and making sure our dresses were long enough to be tucked under our knees when we knelt. Certain areas were out of bounds – the grassy verge by the train station, for example, where the Marcellin boys went to smoke.
[ ]At the station the Macleod girls, all exposed leg and jangly bracelets, chewed gum and curled their lips up at us. The boys at the station never glanced at me, but I was alarmed all the same by their stature, their jocularity, their hairy arms. I decided to walk home, even though it took me over an hour.
Every morning in homeroom we said the Hail Mary. Every Friday there was a mass. We had religious-education classes four times a week, and retreats once a semester. A picture of Mary looking meek and sheepish, her eyes swooping upwards, presided over the desk at reception.
On a retreat in year seven we were addressed by a group of missionary community workers. The group’s founder, a member of a Christian bikie gang, told us the best reason for celibacy before marriage was that when marital sex dwindles there’s nothing to reminisce about. He gave the example of his wife’s pregnancy – how it wasn’t beneficial to lie awake at night remembering other, more fulfilling, past loves. He was envious of friends who’d waited till marriage.
Later we were put into groups to brainstorm ideas for solving world poverty.
Ruby Collins, one of my year level’s suave and glamorous girls, put up her hand, giggling: ‘We did think of this one thing – to let the hungry eat the homeless.’ The assembly burst into laughter. The bikie gave slow, measured nods that made his beard brush against his belly.
My parents sent me to Our Lady of Mercy in 1993, mostly because so many girls from my primary school were going there; as if this might armour me. I’d started at this primary school in year six, when my parents moved to Melbourne. It was the school adjacent to our parish. A small school. A lovely school, said the parishioners.
In this small school I was conspicuous as the new girl. My peculiarities f lourished under scrutiny. I was inspected with careful distaste, then left alone. At lunchtimes I tried to keep moving, so as to appear purposeful; I walked the length of the basketball courts, circled the junior block, and drifted between the drink taps and the toilets.
I was one of the tallest girls in my class, but I hid this by keeping my head forward, covering my face with a swing of hair. After year six camp, Therese, another tall girl but one who carried her height boldly, with a crest of golden curls, took me aside in class. ‘Um, I don’t mean to be rude, Margaret, but do you wear a bra?’
‘No,’ I whispered.
‘Oh-kay. Because we all watched you getting changed at camp, and you, um… How do I put this? We noticed your boobs are huge.’
I ducked my head down further, my face fat with blood.
‘I don’t mean to be rude or anything…’ Therese said.
In bed that night I cupped my palms over my breasts. They were twin domes, bulging and monstrous.
I asked my mother to take me shopping. The training bra I chose was too small and cut red dents into the skin under my arms, but it flattened my breasts into my body. If I hunched my back my chest became concave, and if I wore baggier clothes it was like there was nothing there at all.
At school Therese ran a slow hand up my back. Her mouth writhed as she sought the eyes of her friends.
In high school it would be different, I decided. Bright redemption lay before me.
Cherries and Watermelons
The girls were different, for a start. There were so many of them and they were huge, with ripe, full curves. They had glossy, shellacked hair that they sprayed into immobility every morning by the lockers. ‘Orh mah gorrrrrd! ’ they bellowed into their compacts. ‘Orh mah gord, mayte! You let me out in public like this? You let the Marce-holes see me like this?’ They didn’t wear pull-on elastic bras like mine, but wired, harnessed ones that they fixed in place with a deft thumb f licked under the collar.
There was a mostly good-natured rivalry between the ‘skips’ and the ‘wogs’. Wogs rule, read the graffiti in the toilets. Skippy bogans suck. Yeah right Maria try the opposite.
I spent a lot of time reading the graffiti. Everyone, including the girls from my primary school, had swiftly melted into groups and I was left alone. I spent my lunch breaks reading on a lowered seat in a toilet cubicle. If anyone used the stall next to me I froze and stuffed the book into my bag. The partition walls ended a foot from the f loor and I feared someone might peer under and see me. I considered writing on the walls but I didn’t know what to say. Skippy chicks have cherry tits, the wog girls wrote.
Wogs have watermelons, the skippies wrote.
I looked at my cherry tits in bed at night. I wriggled my shoulders and they quivered in a slight but satisfying way above the childish arcs of my ribcage.
Some girls had older boyfriends, like Guilia Guiliana, who leant over me in class while I was nibbling on the end of my pencil.
‘Do you like to suck your pencil?’ she asked. ‘What else is nice to suck?’ I sat very still and told her I didn’t know.
‘A lollipop is nice to suck. Isn’t it, Margaret? Isn’t a lollipop nice to suck?’ Her voice was soft and slyly caressing. ‘But what else is nice to suck?’ I didn’t blush from prudery, but from helpless fury at being manipulated into feeding Guilia lines of dialogue that made her feel sinful and gratified. I knew all about oral sex from Cosmopolitan. I had decided, though, that it was something I would never try myself – it seemed unhygienic.
Guilia thrust her face into mine. I felt my cheeks flame, but I let my face go sullen and blank. ‘Uh,’ she grunted. ‘Uh uh uh. You’re dumb.’
I was relieved when she later left, to go to a school with boys.
We learned about our bodies first in year seven, as part of Religious Education. We were taught things such as how using a tampon wouldn’t mean that you were no longer a virgin. I wondered who would think this, until I saw some girls taking notes.
In year eight RE we were given diagrams of the male and female reproductive organs in cross section and had to label the different parts. Urethra (a distant galaxy); Vas Deferens (an ethically compromised South African scientist); Labia Majora (a Roman sentinel); Labia Minora (his son and heir). I got top marks, even though the diagrams looked nothing like the crumpled mass of flesh I’d winced at when trying to put in a tampon.
The RE teacher that year was Miss Dellabosca, who had a thickly made-up face pitted with acne scars. She lived with her parents and would continue to do so, she told us, until she got married. (No, she had no one special in mind.) She was 29. She was not planning to sleep with her husband before she married him because sex was a sacrament intended only for man and wife.
It was later – years later – that I thought back to that labelled sketch of the female anatomy: the frilly lettuce-like labia, the grasping hands of the fallopian tubes. They had marked everything except the clitoris.
I learned about the clitoris in Cosmopolitan. My friend Luciana and I f licked through the sealed section when I was sleeping over at her house – quietly, because her mother, who was devout, forbade this kind of magazine. We lay on Luciana’s bed, our heads close. When she leaned over to turn a page her hand brushed mine and my stomach swooped. The descriptions given were all very helpful and specific. I put them into practice later that night, while Luciana was asleep, and was startled by full-body convulsions that made my sleeping bag rustle in hissing bursts.
The Keys to the Car
These were some of the issues we covered in RE in year nine:
Homosexuality is a hormonal abnormality, although it is tolerable and deserves our pity and understanding (Miss Dellabosca said, wincing).
Sex is something that is undertaken by a husband and wife for the purposes of reproduction. (Oral sex was never mentioned.)
Abortion and euthanasia are murder.
Condoms go against the laws of God, nature and marriage.
We held well-supervised classroom debates on topical issues. For example, ‘Should condom vending machines be installed in high schools?’ The negative team quoted Miss Dellabosca in their topic sentence. ‘You don’t want to give the message: “You’re too young to drive, but here are the keys to the car.”’
This is Called a Seatbelt
RE wasn’t compulsory in senior years, but we still had masses, seminars and retreats. Mrs Pomello gave an address at a year ten assembly because a girl in year eight had fallen pregnant and dropped out of school. Rumours went around that she hadn’t wanted the boy to use a condom. Mrs Pomello said that condoms were ‘beside the point’. The keys to the car were mentioned again.
Ruby Collins put up her hand. ‘The “keys to the car” metaphor – how is that exactly, Mrs Pomello? I mean, it isn’t as though a condom is a passport to sex.’
‘Try telling Brian Lukas that! ’ someone in Ruby’s entourage said. The rest of them fell about laughing, but Ruby just smiled.
‘Isn’t supplying condoms to teenagers more like saying, “You may be too young to drive, but this is called a seatbelt. It will stop you dying”?’ Mrs Pomello breathed heavily into the microphone. ‘Prevention,’
she thundered, ‘is the best form of cure. As young women you owe it to yourselves to cherish the sacred vessel of your body.’
The Cautionary Tale of Kelly Macallen
At socials arranged with local Catholic boys’ schools, boys and girls paired off and stood stiffly together on the dance f loor. The boys were deferent here, not like at the bus stop. I was emboldened by the dark room and their cautious formalities. The tall ones sought me out; skinny boys usually, whose backs reared over me like question marks. We clamped our mouths to each others’ and coiled our tongues around inside. (Like mixing a cake, I’d remind myself, twirling the spoon rhythmically, clockwise then anti-clockwise. Sometimes I threw in some figure eights.) It was necessary, every now and then, for me to peel away and wipe my mouth on my shoulder. The boys didn’t swallow often enough, and their tongues were coated and slimy.
At the year ten social at Whitehall High, when Luciana and I were rinsing our mouths out over the sinks, Miss Holt – a brusque, grouchy woman who taught sewing – stormed over and grabbed Luciana by the shoulders. She was frogmarched to the bathroom door and then shoved aside. Miss Holt came back for me, pinching the fat on my arms with her hard seamstress fingers, and I stumbled after her. Just outside the door was a man I didn’t recognise – a teacher, I supposed, from Whitehall. He stared at me and shook his head without a word. Miss Holt let me go. ‘Get out of here then,’ she squawked at us both, and began to stamp up and down the cubicles, banging on each door in turn.
The next day we found out that a girl in our year, Kelly Macallen, had been fingered by one of the Whitehall boys. She had run into the toilets when the male teacher moved towards her. Luciana said she’d been suspended. I wanted to ask if she’d been fingered through her clothes (could you be fingered through your clothes?) but I wasn’t sure if my definition of fingering was the right one.
Kelly Macallen never came back to school because she found out that Mrs Pomello had mentioned her by name in a cautionary address to the younger year levels.
‘What happened to the boy?’ someone asked. Mrs Pomello waved the question away. They never saw his face, apparently, only the finger that Kelly Macallen let stray too close to her sacred vessel.
At the beginning of year 11 Luciana told me I was obsessive and demanded too much of her time. My displays of wretched misery failed to move her. I spent my lunchtimes reading in the library or, if the library was too crowded, in the parklands to the east of the school.
Some days I rode the train into the city. I didn’t mind the boys at the station anymore. They were more afraid of me than I was of them, it seemed, like they tell you about other loud or hairy creatures – bears, say, or spiders.
Career guidance counsellors prepared us for year twelve. ‘This is adulthood,’ they told us repeatedly. ‘You are not girls anymore. Decisions made now will inform your results, your university prospects and your future career.’
My parents’ parish friends had children who were moving smoothly through the prestige private school system. ‘And how is Margaret doing?’ they liked to ask.
‘You are wasting your talents and your chances,’ my parents told me. These bleak facts bore down on me. I began to wag more school than I attended.
I was sent to the school counsellor, who asked me why I was doing so badly. Inspired by an amalgam of Mrs Pomello’s cautionary tales, I improvised a hasty lie: I had a boyfriend who wanted me to perform oral sex on him, I said, and the idea of this made me feel sick and I couldn’t eat or concentrate on my studies. The counsellor’s bountiful sympathy shamed me to sudden tears, but she gave me an extension on my assignments and promised not to tell my parents about my attendance record.
I did have boyfriends, now and then, but all we did was kiss. When boys moved towards me, I noticed, their faces twitched as if something were fluttering under the skin, and their eyelids flickered. They were also known to blush, to stumble, to turn away with a lurch mid-embrace and rearrange the waistband of their jeans.
In my final year of school I had an older boyfriend with a car, a rusty but hotted-up Alfa Romeo, and I would sneak out of class to meet him. He had a misspent youth, he informed me seriously, but I made him want to be a better person. He was nearly 19 but had dropped out of school three years ago to work in a factory in his home town. Now he sold bongs at the Vic Market. He commented a lot on the gulf between us, which either gratified or irritated me, but he thought I looked cute in my school uniform, which I’d hemmed well above regulation length. I dyed my hair a metallic blue-black and had it cut in a sharp bob that concealed rows of earrings. I thought I looked sharp, wise and hard, especially when I studied my reflection in the Alfa’s side mirror.
My boyfriend shared a bedroom in a crowded sharehouse, so we spent most of our time in his car, driving or parking. Sex hurt at first – it was like putting in a tampon – but it didn’t last long and he seemed pleased with it anyway. I never felt that crescendo but I’d watch it rising in him in staggered jolts, as he bared his teeth in a silent snarl. And I liked the solemn importance of it; the way the sweat sprang to his skin, and also the exuberant nature of semen, which came in quantities they hadn’t warned us about in RE.
‘Margaret, would you like me to give you … oral pleasure?’ he asked once, gravely but proudly. I sat in the passenger seat, trying not to giggle or flinch, while he knelt under the dashboard, delicately bobbing his head like a cat lapping milk.
To fix my mind on something other than the squirmy dampness of the feeling, I tried to make the noises women in movies made at these times. My boyfriend raised his head, smirked, and wiped his mouth. We shared a cigarette and he drove me back to school so I could get signed off on the afternoon roll call.
In homeroom, as the others surged in around me, I wondered if there was a smell on me, of smoke and sin. But if there was it was lost in the other odours of hairspray, sweat and flower-sweet cologne. Burnt dust, whiteboard ink, orange peel, hot skin.