It could quite reasonably be said that Penelope Finch was preordained to be a pariah. After her mother died giving birth to her, she was solely raised, rather haphazardly, by her father, Gareth Finch. Gary was a burly, eccentric Glaswegian archaeologist who immigrated to South Africa with his wife when he was offered a senior lectureship position at the University of Pretoria. It was an opportunity that would afford him the privilege of space and financial security to conduct his research in the lush and sunnier silence of the Sub-Saharan Highveld, right next to The Cradle of Humankind.
Slowly after the most momentous day of Gary’s existence when the two most significant events of his life fatefully coincided, namely the birth of his first and only child and the death of his first and only love, he forfeited is normative views towards reason and began to curse the scientific pursuit of order against the arbitrary savagery of the universe. Years of whisky and bitterness had warped him down into a gargoyle; something snarled and rotting atop a mossy facade of nostalgia. His happiness became but one of the prehistoric artefacts he handled with powerless, intoxicated observation like a child watches a kite stolen by the sky and wonders what his joy would’ve been if it wasn’t so short-lived. If only he had held on tighter to the kite-strings now made invisible by the wind, mocking his tears as they tickle the horizon, he’d still be holding the bright apotheosis of his boyhood in his hands instead of watching it float irrevocably away.
In the virtual absence of adequate parental authority, Penelope grew up with the eerie autonomy of an orphan knowing she’s solely responsible for her own wellbeing. In the mornings before school, it would be her prerogative to decide whether to wake up, bathe, brush her teeth, change, eat and walk to school, a catholic preparatory school down the road called St. Augustine’s, named after the Roman bishop and philosopher. Naturally, this ill timed liberty had adverse effects on her overall health and hygiene. She was a brisk gaited, yellow toothed spectacle of sun-scuffed shoes and pit-stained shirts, and she was as secretively wrinkled and thin as a whisper. And customarily as she clumsily shuffled through the pretentious passages of that school, she was shadowed by a hurtful halo of surreptitious commentary all pertaining to the unsavoury state of her appearance.
St. Augustine’s was known as the best preparatory school in Pretoria. Nestled in the picturesque terrarium of the eastern suburbs, as sedated and serene as its scenery, the school acted as an incubator for premature empires. It was one of the last standing monuments of Catholicism in a widely Anglican community of wealthy white South Africans. As a result, it was where most of the Iberian, Mediterranean and Italian immigrant elite sent their eager spawn to gestate in ostentatious education merely as a formality- a preface to inevitable inheritance. It was also where a handful of the harbingers of our new democracy enrolled the post-liberation products of their labour so that they too could enjoy the wholesomeness of a carefree Caucasian childhood, albeit only vicariously.
The overwhelming majority of its scholars, however, were Afrikaner and Anglo-Saxon children whose parents were attracted to the charming aesthetic of cosmetic liberalism. To add to the culture clashed anachronism of the school, its founders and facilitators were of predominantly English, Welsh, Northern Irish and Scottish descent and dogmatically devoted to Edwardian principles of obedience and discipline. The architecture of the school was a reflection of that anachronism. Its buildings were vine-wrapped baroque coliseums of face brick and cobblestone interrupted by ill-fitting juts of modernism. Altogether it was something of a monstrosity. Something scarred with the particular brand or ugliness resulting from far too much disorderly and deliberate beauty. It had all the fragility of a frantically fabricated paradise, a makeshift mirage built on more ambitions than truths. Above all St. Augustine’s was a school built on the single most salient facet of the Catholic religion: Hierarchy.
Within the walls of St. Augustine’s, the hierarchies were all the more conspicuous and binding than outside of them. The vice-principal was dwarfed by the deified figure of the principal. The teachers were terrified of the vice-principal. The students were scared of the teachers. Regular prefects were petrified of the head-prefects, regular grade sevens feared the prefects, and all the lower grades lived in fear of the grade sevens. The pervasive halo of fear that floated over the school was largely based on the Old Testament, a document drearily quoted by its principal every Monday morning, his voice echoing a cruel monotone of caution against the hazardous nature of exhalation (every molecule of reality was pure before it entered our human bodies).
For the remainder of Monday and on every other day, the biblical vernacular was Japanese video games and American teen movies. The social hierarchy of the school itself was, at most a parody, at least a re- enactment, of those movies.
At the summit of the school’s hierarchical pyramid was the popular crowd comprised mostly of Portuguese, Greek and Italian kids with glossy rich gel slicked fringes and bronzed olive skins. They all had a frivolous, insubordinate beauty about them. They couldn’t care less about academic excellence. They drank, smoked, screwed and swore like little compact eighties action film protagonists. Their parents were laissez-faire and had holiday villas overseas. Their hairy, leather-clad dad’s dropped them off in the mornings in danger-red roadsters. Their moms were bronzed ornaments of post-adolescent sexiness and gold bangled generosity. These kids were everything that all of the other students at St. Augustine’s only dreamed they could be.
At the rung right beneath that of the popular squad were the predominantly English and Asian academically successful sycophants and addicts of achievement. These were the annoyingly inspiring acolytes of accolade, also known as the Duck scholars, sports team captains and routine recipients of myriad medals, trophies, badges and colours for their conquests of excellence seemingly founded on the merits of making everyone else in the school feel existentially inadequate.
Underneath the overachievers was the muddled miscellaneous batch of hard-to-categorize kids of heterogeneous ethnicity. They were the children who didn’t do well enough academically to be deemed geeks yet in the same breath didn’t perform poorly enough or were good looking enough to qualify as cool. They were the personified definition of mediocrity- unexceptional even at being unexceptional. Theirs’ were the forgettable mesh of faces filling the background of life at the school, the expendable extras of the parodied teen movie. But even they were not at the bottom pillar of the school’s social pyramid. That sad damning habitat was exclusively reserved for the most antagonizing character in the school: Penelope Finch.
What made Penelope so intolerable to the body politic of the school was an innate repulsiveness she exuded from the moment her scathing image pierced its gates late in the mornings to when it left dishevelled by play-less afternoons. She was an overall assault on the senses. The nail-on-chalkboard shrillness of her voice combined with the inexplicable harshness of her ancestral accent (inexplicable since she was born and raised in Pretoria) made for a scolding aural concoction. In addition to this she was just as hard on the nose as she was on the ears and from equidistant measures of proximity. She always seemed to radiate with the fragrance of baked beans and sour milk.
Her behaviour only made matters worse. She was what many experts in the field of developmental psychology would regard as a child genius especially when it came to mathematics and the natural sciences. In fact it was only her voluntary dismissal of her other subjects which prevented her from being perhaps the best scholar at St. Augustine’s. However, she relentlessly managed to enrage the teachers with her series of seemingly premeditated acts of terrorism on the general principles of etiquette and proprietary of the school.
One time in grade two for ‘Show and Tell’, she brought her pet python Plato to the classroom and proceeded to feed it a live rat that she candidly fished from a dancing sack of equally alive rats hanging from her talon-like hand. Naturally, the result was absolute and unanimous awe and nausea from the unsuspecting audience of screaming eight year olds. Penelope’s defence was that she could think of nothing more interesting to show than the process of digestion in action. And on another similarly horrifying occasion in grade five, she came dressed as Adolf Hitler to the school’s annual Halloween pool party. When she was reprimanded in the vice-principal’s office on the precipice of expulsion, her justification was that she couldn’t think of any mythical or fictional character as spooky as the factual villainy of Hitler.
As the stories of her infamous incidents added up, Penelope Finch became somewhat of a mythical villain herself. The break field was brimming with the cruelty of youthful rumours that she was a witch and had the power to transmute little boys and girls into rats at the snap of a finger after which, they all became breakfast for Plato. And there were murmurs that she didn’t actually have parents so she lived in the sewerage system of the school only to emerge from the portal of the permanently ‘Out of Order’ toilet every morning with just enough time for the sunrise to dry her amphibious body before school. This adequately explained her unbearable stench and amicable familiarity with species of the vermin variety.
The interesting thing about most of the vile and insensitive myths about Penelope is that they were spawned, not by the popular kids and certainly not by their overachieving counterparts. The majority of the quips and stigmas about Penelope came from the forgettable mesh caste of children. They used her as the defenceless trampoline for their own downtrodden egos. For as long as she permanently remained the bottom trope of the social food-chain at St. Augustine’s, they could always find solace in the fact that they were at least superior to someone. Thus she became the living meniscus of irreparable social stature at the school and her name was reduced to a punch line in juvenile jeers and teasing wars between the children. One would say ‘Penelope is your girlfriend’ or ‘Penelope is your sister’ as a sure-fire passage to affirmation and soothing showers of laughter from the crowd.
The unrelenting avalanche of abhorrence constantly crashing down on Penelope Finch should’ve been enough to obliterate the threshold of even the most self-assured soul. But what exacerbated the hate the school he ld in its heart for her was that to everyone’s disbelief, it genuinely didn’t seem to faze her at all. She wasn’t merely putting on a brave face for the sake of survival. In fact she always seemed to be thriving in spite of all the hostility she received on a daily basis. She had this taunting superiority to it all, like the collective brutality of their disapproval couldn’t mean less to her than a speck of dust. Her impenetrable pompousness put a price upon her head, a collaborative challenge to see who would be the first to make her break. So the bullying not only continued but escalated. The barrage of insults, now hurled blatantly in her face, gained in ferocity by the day. And still she hadn’t broken. Why wasn’t she breaking? Any one in their right mind would have shattered into pitiful pools of tears by now. What made her so special?
This was the topic of discussion during a break time congregation of a few members of the forgettable mesh. The discussion, lead by Tinus Coetzee and attended by Caleb Goldman, Nondumiso Nkosi and Simon Grant, concluded that the four of them would be the perfect candidates to achieve the coveted gargantuan task of breaking Penelope.
— After all, preached Tinus, who better to break her than people who’ve been broken before by the cool kids at some point in our time at Saint A’s? Only we would know which buttons to push. The jocks wouldn’t have a clue because they’ve never been on the receiving end of the disses.
The forgettable faces nodded in unison.
— And if we’re the ones who do this, guys, we’ll become legends- the dudes who made Penelope the witch cry like a bitch, added Nondumiso, followed by a cackles of boyish approval.
— Exactly, exclaimed Tinus before he continued. But guys, I’m warning you, it’s not going to be pretty. If we’re going to get that witch to cry we’re going to have to get really personal.
Simon interjected with his quintessential cynicism —I’m telling you guys that chick is an android, nothing you do or say will get to her.
— Yeah remember when Marco threw that piss balloon in her face and she just carried on walking around all day reeking of piss, added Caleb,
— Yeah that bitch is immune to embarrassment, deduced Nondumiso.
— She’s still human guys and every human has a breaking point. I’ve got a secret weapon that no one’s ever used on her before and is guaranteed to have her balling her ugly eyes out, proclaimed Tinus with an enigmatic certainty in his tone.
— What is it? The rest of the group eagerly enquired.
— It’s a secret. First you have to declare now whether you’re in or out and if you’re in, we all meet here as soon as the bell rings for the beginning of break tomorrow, so run if you have to, and I’ll fill you in on the rest of the plan then.
Conceding to Tinus’ ultimatum, the four boys stacked their fists in a tower of solidarity and blind agreement to his mysterious plan and agreed to meet at break the next day to execute it.
That evening each the boys wrestled with the decision in the warmth of their beds. The guilt of being responsible for the angst of anyone (even Penelope), although significant, was grossly overpowered by the prospective heroism at stake if the feat was to be achieved. They all consoled their restless consciences with the notion that Penelope’s tears would only be temporary but their potential legendary status could alter the course of their lives forever. Their epic would be passed down from old-boys to freshman for generations to come. From then on, they’d be known as the boys who broke Penelope.
That night as they basked in the potential glory of their intended exploits, each of them considered different spoils ahead of tomorrow’s war against St. Augustine’s witch of weirdness. Tinus thought of how he won’t be called a ‘spaz’ anymore due to the nervous ticks he was afflicted with ever since a botched dental operation he had as a small child. Nondumiso revelled in the thought of how he won’t be the outcast black kid anymore, and how teachers would stop mispronouncing his name and girls wouldn’t be ashamed to hold hands with him at break on account of the pesky plague of his race. Simon thought about how he wouldn’t be Fatso-Si anymore and Marco et al. would replace the oink noises they currently use to address him with warm salutes of fellowship to their newfound colleague in the bullying industry. Caleb fantasized about the prospect of no longer being referred to as ‘Gay-leb’ by the cool kids. The adhesive nickname all started when a Taylor Swift CD fell out of his bag during Phys-Ed and he only ever slightly liked the one song but the name had been the source of perforation for his fragile pubescent masculinity ever since. This was the last curtain call for them all. They had reached the final year of primary school and the only names they had made for themselves were scathing labels of defamation. Tomorrow, at break, they would have a last chance at greatness, and if that greatness could only be attained at the expense of someone else, that someone may as well be Penelope Finch.
The following day the boys arrived at their prearranged meeting place to find Tinus waiting for them, eager to explain his strategy for defeating Penelope.
— Everyone has a weakness, Tinus announced. Penelope’s weakness is that her mom died in the hospital when she was born. That’s why her dad is drunk and dirty and sad all the time. My plan is that we go up to her and tell her that we know the real reason her mother died, because she couldn’t stand holding a baby so ugly knowing it belonged to her, so she held her breath until she didn’t have to see Penelope’s face any longer.
— Aw man! That’s savage. But isn’t it going a bit too far? What if we get in trouble? Nondumiso asked. — Then it’ll be her word against ours and no one likes her, rebuts Tinus.
— So when and where do we do this? Caleb enquires.
Tinus puffs up his chest and wears an oversized expression of solemnity before he delivers his confident response. — Today, after school, in front of the tuck shop.
The group bow their heads as if in prayer, a mixture of mirth and tension tethers them to the moment. Their hairless faces synchronized in grimaces of macho diabolism. Whether or not they were ready for this determined the measure of their readiness for the momentous venture into genuine boyhood and the similarly noble acts of terror it entails.
— It’s on. I can’t wait, said Simon.
—This is going to be so funny, Nondumiso predicted.
—That bitch won’t know what hit her, declared Tinus just before the bell would bring an end to their break-time machinations.
It was afterschool and the rest of the boys assembled into an offensive formation behind Tinus who was ready with the weaponry of his words and thus they all marched towards the tuck shop. When they arrived she was chewing on a guava icy as usual and about to leave when Tinus screamed her name causing everyone’s heads including hers to turn
— Penelope! She glared at him with impenetrable eyes of curiosity.
— Yes Tinus? How can I help you?
It was at this juncture that the rest of the group began to tremble and slink away behind the tall frame of Tinus, as if to distance themselves from the conspiracy at the last minute. But the look of malevolent conviction in Tinus’s face told them it was too late for regrets now, the guillotine was in midflight and its victim could no longer be pardoned or pleaded for to the executioner. — We know how your mom died Penelope. She held her breath after smelling you and drowned in her vomit and tears after looking at you.
After Tinus said this everyone froze for a moment to stare at Penelope, watch her quintessential composure dissolve into an expression recognisably scared and broken. Impossible tears began to stream down Penelope’s freckled and sweat-stained face. Tinus guffawed victoriously and wore a bully- borrowed expression of apathy and pride. It was a trembling unconvincing performance but nevertheless an effective one. The whole audience joined in pointing and laughing at Penelope as she wept. It was as hysterical and unrelenting as when a mob stomps on a body long after it’s died, as if to tie a ribbon of mechanical certainty around the frenzied inadvertency of their initial crime. Penelope, discarded her icy, wiped hear tears and ran toward the gate.
The next day at St. Augustine’s Penelope’s image never came tardily through its front gates and the story of what the boys had done to her had spread infectiously through the fie ld at break. Marco and his friends came to congratulate them with laughter and handshakes of camaraderie which felt like a hard-earned coronation to them all. Girls came and conspicuously spoke to them. All of their social woes were apparently vaporized overnight just as they had all hoped.
Penelope never did return to St. Augustine’s. A few weeks after the incident a rumour spread she had moved back to Scotland with her dad after neither of them could handle the adversity of living in South Africa any longer.
As for the boys, their popularity only lasted for a fortnight until the sobering news of Penelope’s emigration became a hideous reminder of how far they had gone to achieve it. And on the last day of school when everyone was celebrating valediction by writing heartfelt messages of farewell on the shirts of their classmates, no one had anything memorable or sincere to say on theirs. Just the generic ‘Good luck’s and ‘It was nice knowing you’s. A popular inscription was ‘Always grow but never change’ but no one wrote that on the shirts of Tinus, Nondumiso, Caleb or Simon. Perhaps it’s because everyone secretly wanted them to change or more plausibly because no one cared what they did as long as they never attempted so desperately to be remembered again. Because now when everyone looked at them, they couldn’t help but see the awful image of Penelope’s tearful retreat towards oblivion and a part of them was reminded of their own deeds that assisted in catalyzing and reinforcing a culture that brands kids as popular or unpopular according to a rubric of superficial, inhuman criteria. The unison of cruelty that conspired in Penelope’s crucifixion was the taunting blank space on all of the jovial epilogues and hand drawn memorials of happy primary school experiences. But deep inside they were all in consensus that what was done to Penelope, as mean as at it was, was a necessary evil. Like all beings in this world, Penelope Finch had to learn and accept her preordained position in the ecosystem. After all, in the absence of conformity there is only chaos.
To this very day, if you go to St. Augustine’s, walk through its vine-wrapped gates and into its verdant sports field and past the pavilion towards the tuck shop. If you look carefully at the ground you can still find that pink-tinged patch of sand whereupon Penelope threw her guava icy and cried before she ran and no one tried to stop her because in their hearts they were all sprinting closely behind. In their hearts they were running as fast and as far their growing feet could take them. Away from St. Augustine’s, away from Pretoria, far away from all the demeaning vicissitudes of fear that form a privileged upbringing in a context where privilege is the most wicked quality one could possess. They all ran away that day and like Penelope, they never returned.
Edward Kgosidintsi is a 29 year old South African writer currently based in Gaborone, Botswana. He’s been working as an arts and culture writer and critic for four years with a focus on the excavation and exposure of the African avant-garde. He’s also co-written two plays and recently wrote and directed his first documentary. After his parents divorced when he was three, he was raised by his mother who worked as a senior civil servant and was deployed all over the nation in various positions during the early transformation phase of South Africa’s democracy. Through this he got to experience kaleidoscopic glimpses of the South African narrative, staying in nearly all its major provinces and cities. The stories he writes are an assemblage of those fragmented glimpses. No story feels complete and the characters never reach any profound resolutions. Instead he seeks to give the reader a panoramic snapshot of the contemporary South African narrative riddled with its contradictory notions of inclusion and exclusion, invasion and embrace, alienation and belonging.
Related country: South Africa