First day of term. A new school year. The playground bulged with excited, noisy children all renewing old ties and resentments. In the car park, ancient buses heaved into pre-designated bays, disgorging more masses to add to the hoards.
Her hair was long and shapeless; its flatness plastered around her small head, the long fringe trailing in her eyes, making her peer anxiously from beneath its protective curtain. Its colour was called mousey by adults, shit brown by other children, and she hated it. Its stark difference to the bright curls and glossy bobs of other girls, gave them another reason to mark her out as a target.
Although short, she was plump, another cause for anxiety. In a more innocent and forgiving age it would have been called puppy fat, such a label giving hope the condition would be grown out of. But here, now, she was simply called fat pig, bloater and pudding. Such terms gave no hope; only a failing sense of self-worth, and a despair that things would never change.
Her eyes darted furtively as she made it as far as the playground without confrontation. Like an agent behind enemy lines, she kept her head down, trying to blend in, desperate to become invisible.
The bus ride to school had passed uneventfully, the other children too busy with news and events of the long summer holiday to bother with a small, brown ghost hunched miserably in the corner. There was plenty of time; a whole new school year stretched ahead, and she’d been having nightmares at the thought.
The boasting, bragging voices rose until the bus was a solid wall of sound. She sank deeper into herself, wearing her loneliness like a protective cloak. No one bothered to talk to her. She was the most despised girl in school, and as such was avoided by others, lest they were contaminated with the curse of her unpopularity. The only exception was when she was being bullied, then it was open season.
Phyllis. That was her. Named after her grandmother by a mother who couldn’t be bothered to think of anything else. A mother who’d been shocked to find herself pregnant with an unplanned for, unwanted child. She spent the whole nine months in a state of denial, experiencing childbirth through a daze of drugs, then she gladly handed the baby over to a nanny, and scuttled with relief back into the arms of her passionately loved husband.
Phyllis loved her grandmother deeply. In the absence of any parental affection she was the only source of loving concern she’d ever known, but she wished she’d had another name, and that her mother had realised how important names are; how they label you to the rest of the world.
As Phyllis slunk furtively up the path, avoiding eye contact, gaze fixed determinedly on her feet, she wondered if things would be different this year. After all, they were older and more mature. With luck, her tormentors would have put aside such childish things and would leave her be.
A dim hope flickered. To be left alone was the most Phyllis ever allowed herself to dream about. Sometimes in her secret, most innermost thoughts, the notion of having a friend dared to form. During rare, wonderful dreams, she was surrounded by a gang of admiring and loving friends. She was the leader and was liked, perhaps even loved, but such fantasies were quickly dismissed.
Silly Philly couldn’t have friends. It wasn’t allowed. Even if there were those in school who didn’t hate her, or felt sorry for the way she was treated, self-preservation meant they’d never show their feelings. To do so could lead to them being treated the same way.
A group of older boys were congregated near the school’s entrance. Only five minutes into the new term and already ties were off, sleeves rolled up and shirts pulled out, all desperately trying to break free from the depersonalisation of school uniform, and not realising that in their identical alterations of it, they were imposing another uniform of sorts upon themselves.
A snicker of laughter arose as Phyllis passed. Her heart gave a thud of acknowledgement, but she kept on going. The older boys were not the ones she feared. They contented themselves with name calling, the odd sarcastic comment, but nothing physical and nothing that truly hurt. No, the girls were the worst. Seeming to have a natural gift for inflicting pain, for knowing just what to say or do to achieve maximum effect, Phyllis’s female peers took bitchiness to new levels.