‘A Letter to the photo I never wanted taken.’ (published in ‘Sincerely’ – Woman of Letters compilation by Penguin Publishing)

A traditional school photograph, me with my two black eyes, alongside my brother and his sexually ambiguous haircut (I can say that because we’re related). This photo once represented my scamp-like nature. When people looked at it they would often remark, ‘Oh my, how did you get those two black eyes?’ And I would laugh and say, ‘Oh, that’s just a result of my scamp-like behaviour, of course.’And then we’d all laugh, and their general delight in me would flow on further throughout the night and well into the morning.

It was a photo that sparked conversation. It was a photo that ignited a thirst to know more in all who came across it, in all who wanted answers to questions. It was a photo that made people laugh. It was a photo that made people cry, especially when they found out that my parents had managed to retain custody of me after the incident in question. I was just another child who had fallen through the cracks, who the authorities hadn’t managed to save. The guilt they would feel from just glancing at this photo, which I sent them every Christmas for the next twenty-five years, would fill them with so much despair, they would eventually give up on life, have their wills rewritten to make me their sole heir, and have ‘do not resuscitate’ bracelets made up, followed by a full page ad in the Saturday Age that just read, ‘Sorry, Lou.’

Of course, I was unaware of all of this guilt the authorities were feeling until Today Tonight landed on my doorstep, asking me to comment. I feigned disbelief and yet also offered the appropriate amount of gratitude, and they asked to see the photo and I at first said no but then they just insisted, and I still said no, and they asked again in adamant voices, and I told them, ‘No, this photo isn’t for you, it’s already done enough damage,’ but then they saw the twinkle in my eye, and I opened the door and said, ‘Go on, in you come, and don’t forget to wipe your feet,’ and they scurried in, the reporter remarking as he pushed past me, ‘You’re such a little scamp,’ and I said, ‘You don’t know the half of it, and feel free to help yourself to a Scotch Finger biscuit.’

But all of that feels like a lifetime ago. Because now, every time I look at this photo, I only see betrayal and lies, and I wish, now, that it had never been taken. It is a photo that hides an unimaginable depth of betrayal, secrets kept from me for over twenty-five years by those closest to me.

Betrayal doesn’t just happen; betrayal is the result of long-maintained untruths that have somehow become facts over time. And so I will present to you the events I believed that photographed captured, and then the truth of the events and the truth of the betrayal.

In 1987, my best friend was Tamara Minogue, the prettiest and most popular girl at Blah Blah School. We shared mutual interests, insofar as she hated me and I hated myself. We would often play four square at lunchtime – ‘we’ being the gang I was an associate member of, having not achieved full membership as result of no one wanting me to achieve it.

Even Georgia White, who was born on a leap year, was a full member, and she wasn’t even two years old yet (because she was eight and born on a leap year – Google it if you’re struggling). For whatever reasons, I constantly found myself falling short of their requirements for full membership. Not even a well-timed hand job would work, partially due to the fact none of the gang members had penises, but mostly because I didn’t know what one was.

On this day, as we played, I found myself dominating the field. I won’t lie to you – it felt good. Real good. My palm was like an iron fist, only flatter. The ball smashed down on each victory. Dunce: SMASH! Jack: SMASH! Queen: SMASH! King: SMASH! I was a fucking champion, and I wasn’t afraid to shout it from the rooftops!

I’m pretty good at this, Tamara. In fact, I’m better than you today. Wanna feel the touch of a champion? High five!’ Needless to say, Tamara left me hanging, and I was told in no uncertain terms that my company was no longer required, and that perhaps I would find more suitable friends at the other end of the playground. Of course, as we were only eight, the conversation went more along the lines of:

No one likes you, Louise.’

Yeah, go away.’

You smell like wog.’

Fuck off, you cunt.’

Or something like that. It was so long ago. You can hardly ask me to recall specifics.

Abandoned, rejected and isolated, with nowhere to call to home, I ventured to the other end of the playground. It was a wasteland, filled with boys who picked their nose and ate their snot; a place for little girls with itchy vaginas who got their periods on slides, vegetarians, a guy we suspected was Asian, chronic farters and boys fascinated with their penises. As I scratched my vagina, I thought, Perhaps these are my people. Maybe they’ll truly accept me. But to be accepted here I would have to convince the overlords – Fat and Skinny. You’ll never guess how they got their nicknames.

Fat and Skinny ruled from a fort that overlooked the playground with their army of My Child dolls. I’d never owned a My Child doll, only a Cabbage Patch doll.

Lucy was her name, but she was rarely spoken of. She was short and fat, and had freckles and red hair – I took one look at her and knew I could never love her. But I was forced to adopt her. Forced into motherhood. I tried to make it work, gave it the best shot I could, but do you know how hard it is to bring a kid home to play after school when you’ve got kid of your own? God forbid it’s someone you really like, and then one day you walk in on him and the doll, and you’re all like, ‘I don’t understand!’ and he’s all like, ‘She gets me,’ and I’m all like, ‘But she’s a doll,’ and he’s all like, ‘Exactly, Lou, exactly.’ No one knows what happened to Lucy after that, but, as a mother, I can theorise that maybe the little skank found herself getting into a heated argument where she was knocked down onto the hardwood floor in the kitchen and her body was stuffed into someone’s limited edition Blossom-branded sleeping bag under their bed while the assailant waited for their parents to go to bed, at which time they took the body and tied it to the back of their bike and rode it down to the park, whereupon they stuffed her body along with the sleeping bag into a barbecue and doused it all with petrol, then setting Lucy on fire, while they finally felt human again. At best I can only theorise, but I do know that’s the day my heart turned to stone and it’s why I’ve never really been able to get close to another human being. (And breathe, Lou, breathe.)

Anyway. As I climbed the 6-foot jungle gym/ fort to Fat and Skinny’s lair, a black crow landed in front of me – looking back now, this was possibly an omen, an omen screaming, ‘Stay away, little Lou, stay away!’ But all I remember thinking at the time is, ‘Oh, a black bird! How pretty! I love black birds, and black birds clearly love me!’

Reaching the top of the fort, I came face to face with Fat, a chubby blonde girl who always appeared clammy or lightly moistened. She stared at me through eyes that revealed a future of hepatitis, diabetes and glaucoma. ‘Welcome, Lou. Would you like a biscuit?’ said Fat, handing me a Salada. I was too polite to point out that a Salada wasn’t a real biscuit, so I just took it.

A second voice crept up behind me: ‘We’ve been watching you.’ It was Skinny, a mouse-like girl who liked to gnaw on things – and people, if the scarring on Fat’s arm was anything to go by.

You’re the small girl whose friends don’t like her. We know all about you.’

I’m in the same class as you guys.’

Class means nothing here on top of the fort,’ declared Skinny, clearly the more dominant in their girl-on-girl struggle to be on top.

So, Louise,’ said Skinny, ‘have you ever done a backflip off a fort before?’

Um, yeah, totally, like, all the time. If there’s a fort, I’m flipping off it.’

I was clearly lying, but my need for gang acceptance was too strong, or my self-esteem too low.

We thought so. From the first moment we saw you, we both knew, and I think I speak for Fat on this as well, that you were a girl with a daredevil spirit.’

Some people describe me as a bit of a scamp,’ I interjected.

Yes, that’s exactly what we thought. You’re a bit of a scamp. And you know what we said we were missing in this gang?’

A bit of a scamp?’ I asked

Exactly. Our gang needs a bit of scamp, and you, Lou, might be just that bit of a scamp we’re looking for – that is, if you can prove your worth.’

I stepped to the edge of the fort. I’m not sure what it was – maybe it was the fact that I’d finally found some friends who had unbridled faith in me, maybe it was the crowd that had gathered at the bottom of the fort, the faces of the disenfranchised looking up at me: David with his penis in hand, the Asian kid who years later we’d discover was really just a New Zealander, the fourteen-year-old girl who was still in grade three due to foetal alcohol poisoning. Suddenly I realised that yes, I could flip, I could do it. I grabbed the metal bar with both my hands and felt a tap of support on my back from Fat or Skinny, and I flipped/plunged to my death.

But something strange happened as I hurtled through the air that day, all 32 kilos of me. My best friend Tamara, dressed as Bette Midler, appeared beside me and spoke words of such wisdom, chanting the lyrics of ‘Wind Beneath My Wings’.

And then everything went black.

They’re not sure how long I lay unconscious on the tanbark after my 6-foot fall (or ‘moment of freedom’), but it couldn’t have been more than ten minutes. Then, somehow, I managed to drag my battered and broken body to the teachers’ lounge. Doctors say that after some head traumas, the human body can appear to function as normal before the haemorrhaging kicks in.

Not two weeks after the best failed backflip in the history of our school, photos were taken, and this is how this photo came to be – a memory from my day of empowerment, a day when maybe I didn’t make into Fat and Skinny’s gang, but at least I tried and that’s all that matters. This photo reflected the scamp in all of us. That is, until a few months ago.

Mum and I were talking about photos, the way that mothers and daughters often do. I was reflecting on this particular school photo in a moment of nostalgia and started to recount the story of my quest for greatness in the school playground one afternoon, when suddenly my mother sobered up and interjected.

You didn’t fall,’ she stated.

You were pushed. They tried to kill you.’

I said nothing for a moment, trying to take it all in.

It was always suspected,’ she continued, ‘but no one could never prove it. They found a Salada not far from where your body landed.’

That doesn’t mean anything,’ I spat back, angry and confused.

The teacher’s report said they lured you onto the fort with biscuits – they’d been trying to get a kid up there for days to push off. You must’ve just blocked it out.’

I wanted answers! ‘Why didn’t anyone tell me?’

There never seemed like a good time. We thought maybe when you graduated from primary school, but then you got cystic acne. And then we thought maybe in high school, but there was still the acne, and you got your period and breasts on the same day. That, coupled with your unwanted hair problem, your distinct lack of interest in cock, which led us to believe you might be a lesbian, and your penchant for wearing Jack Daniels promotional t-shirts, Blundstone boots and elasticised Kmart trousers – well, there never seemed to be a good time to bring it up, you know, without the possibility you might kill yourself. And Lou, this was in the days before funeral insurance.’

So look at this photo, everyone. Look at it carefully, because it’s no longer a photo of a scamp-like girl and her effeminate younger brother – it’s the photo of an attempted murder victim and her effeminate younger brother.

It is a photo of betrayal, for, in the words of Arthur Miller, better known as the man who married Marilyn Monroe, ‘Betrayal is the only truth that sticks.’ Sticks like my face, covered with my blood and mucus, did that day in 1987 to tanbark below the fort.

Lou

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