This is a true story of a young girl with a big nemesis and even bigger dreams (even though Medium has tagged it in Fiction. But I don’t blame them; my mother’s behaviour is pretty unbelievable.)
June 15th 1999. Prize Day.
I’m sitting in a pew in a colossal church in South London. Me and my classmates are agitated, anxious to find out who will be named House Captain. We’ve been waiting for this for 9 months, a long time in the lives of 10 year olds.
That night I dreamt I’d won. I’d woken up in a sweat, heart beating, chest tight with yearning. The moment I realised it was a dream my spirits sank, then soared as I realised: it’s today. There’s still a chance, a real chance, that I will defeat her once and for all. My enemy, my nemesis, my primary school Everest: Alice McPerker.
Mrs Peacock stands on stage and shuffles some papers. Jesus looms behind her, pinned stark-bollock naked to the cross. “Now I will announce the House Captains for next year.”
My heart stops. I look around at my mum. She’s sitting at the back of the church, unblinking, stoic. I turn to face Mrs Peacock.
I was four when I made my first nemesis. It was the first day of reception and I was sitting on one of those miniature chairs which at the time I thought was a normal size. She was playing with some building blocks.
Our teacher, Miss Day, absolutely gigantic in my opinion, was calling the register.
Alice Austin? She said.
Yes I squeaked.
Yes they all answered and so on until
Excuse me I thought to myself Excuse me there must be some kind of mistake.
I didn’t think it was earthly possible for two people to have the same name. Did anyone run this past my mum? What are the legal implications? Has there been some kind of administrative error? I looked around for answers and that’s when our eyes locked.
Her arm was raised mid-air, blue building block in hand on its way to complete a frankly pathetic-looking house. I was sitting on my tiny chair, dark curly-haired head lowered, brow-furrowed, glaring at the culprit like a bull about to charge. She stared back for a split second and then continued to build her house. Our eyes had met only for a moment but it was enough time to come to a silent agreement. Henceforth, we would be enemies.
Reader — hi. How are you? Good. Now listen: you’re about to learn some unsavoury truths. I take full responsibility for some but I think you’ll agree that much of this is the fault of my insane mother Denise Austin; the adult woman who takes pettiness to the very next level.
You see, me picking Alice McPerker as my first nemesis wasn’t the best idea. It soon transpired, after about three weeks of head-lowering and brow-furrowing, fury virtually steaming off the top of my tiny head, that Alice McPerker was significantly more charismatic than me. To this day it blows my mind that this four-year-old, a toddler essentially, managed to charm the absolute shit out of everyone she crossed paths with.
Alice McPerker had dirty blonde hair past her shoulders, large green eyes and a button nose that bordered on snout-like. She was chubbier than the other children in Class R2. Two deep dimples would form on her round cheeks when she spoke and her giggle formed deep in her chest and overflowed out. It was more of a gurgle, really, and it was utterly delightful. If aimed at you, it was as though you shared a fantastical secret that no one else would ever understand.
I didn’t have the same pulsating charisma as AMcP. I was what is commonly known in the South London social hierarchical system as A Little Neek. For the duration of mine and AMcP’s co-existence (age 4–11) I was a full-time nerd with ginormous teeth.
So in one corner we have an adorable blonde-haired green eyed dimpled dictator and in the other we have a freckled, curly-haired, dark eyed, sabre-toothed goody goody. If you need a visual aide try putting a brown curly wig on the sloth from Ice Age.
Alice McPerker had the entire class in the palm of her hand at all times. She was sharper than the other kids, intelligent, yet she could get even the simplest of classmates on-side with a look, a nudge and her ultimate trump card — the gurgle. It sort of bubbled up and out and her nose would wrinkle up and the dimples would report for duty and everyone, even the teacher, would be putty in her hands.
AMcP wasn’t a good dude. I knew it from day one. From the time I was able to read The Books of Narnia I saw myself as Aslan and her as The White Witch — the conspiratory giggle was dished out like Turkish Delight. But, if I’m really honest with myself, all I really wanted was for everyone to just get along.
Alice could turn the charm on like a tap but more often than not she would use her powers for evil. She’d form an instantaneous army of loyal followers and then pick apart an unsuspecting member of R2 for no reason. One day she reduced poor Olivia Palmford to tears for bringing a Barbie into school. Another time she made the entire class roll up balls of blue tac and throw them at the back of Inigo’s head from different angles over a prolonged period of time. It confused him so much he’d pound his tiny fists on the desk and battle-cry in rage until the teacher sent him out of class.
But out of everyone in the class she disliked me the most. Where she would pick up and drop other kids as and when she felt like it, I was permanently sidelined. Alice would leave me out of as much as she possibly could. She’d form groups to play wild and complex playground games and tell me I couldn’t join in. The other kids were so keen to be part of her gang that it made sense for everyone to dislike me too. That way they’d earn points with her.
“You’ve always had a sunny nature,” my mum says. “You were a happy kid, always smiling.” But from a young age AMcP introduced hurt to my little heart.
Because of Alice McPerker I do not have an upper lip frenulum — the bit of skin between your upper lip and teeth reserved for smiley piercings.
It was a clear autumn day. I was in Year 2, six then, a summer baby so always the youngest in my year. I’d taken to spending more time alone to avoid feeling left out — I figured I’d leave myself out before anyone could do it for me.
I was collecting acorns in the playground reserved for the smaller kids. Alice and four of her followers were playing a skipping and hopping game nearby that was coming increasingly close to my acorn collection point. Suddenly they were skipping and hopping very close to my face. I’d bent down to pick up an acorn and didn’t have time to stand from my crouching position. Next thing I’m lying on the floor, blood and acorns everywhere.
My mum came to collect me from school and I guess that’s when it started. That day Denise Austin said goodbye to rational thinking, and I said goodbye to my upper lip frenulum.
The following is a timeline of my priorities throughout Primary School: From the age of 4–6 all I really cared about was making damn sure that my colouring stayed within the prescribed lines. I also liked to tell anyone that would listen that I thought my mum was actually The Queen.
From the age of 6–8 it mattered very much that the teachers liked me and I would do everything in my power to ensure it. I’d bring them apples which they didn’t want, I’d recite poetry at them while they plugged up their ears and I got into the habit of staying inside during break time — that precious quiet time for marking books and smoking roll-ups — I’d stay inside and chatter incessantly at them while alphabetising the book shelf. I’d tidy up as the other children played. I’d follow them around and tidy up after them like a tiny little footman. AMcP would assemble an army to ping Blu Tac balls at Inigo and I’d frantically rush around after them, muttering under my breath as I hand-picked their missiles out the itchy brown school carpet.
From the age of 8–10 I ventured outside during break time to get involved in the ragingly competitive, dog-eat-dog world of Pogs which, inexplicably, I was extremely good at. I made many an enemy with my startling ability to flip over those graphic cardboard circles with a deft crack from a neon green slammer. Twice a day I’d emerge to rob the kids blind in what can best be described as an Apogalypse. I’d leave Year 6’s and Reception kids alike wailing in my wake as I’d scuttle off the playground, folding my loot into my blue-checked school dress, stowing it in my pigeon hole like a tiny, well-spoken pirate. Needless to say, these twice daily Pog pillages did very little for my popularity.
My very favourite thing, though — and this is the sign of a True Neek — my very favourite thing was to show new kids around school. As a new kid you know you’re face-to-face with an absolute Eugene when your guide volunteers to show you around school. The reason for this is three-fold:
- The Neek wants to get to the new kid before they have time to understand the social hierarchy. Because as soon as they do said Neek will be swiftly dumped, destined to recite poetry at teachers for another school year
- The Neek has way too much spare time and energy if they’re volunteering to guide new people around school, i.e. no proper mates
- The Neek has no awareness of what it means to be ‘too keen’.
So I’d always volunteer to show the new kid around school. I’d turn on my own big-toothed version of charm in an attempt to lock them in to my bookish little world. I’d use my brief window of air-time to put forth my Aslan/White Witch argument and build a slow and subtle smear campaign against AMcP. This invariably piqued their curiosity and made them much more interested in being her mate than mine.
Here’s what would happen: I’d be playing Pogs or marbles with New Mate in a shed in the playground (best to keep New Mate out of sight from any potential poachers), when AMcP would walk over, hands in pockets, probably whistling, 3–5 followers standing in goose-like formation behind her. She’d stop by our shed, poke her head in and tell New Mate she thought their hair/pogs/marbles were cool. ‘Wanna play with us?’ She’d say.
New Mate would scramble out the shed surprisingly quickly for someone who clearly had no spine and that would be it. See ya later.
So you see, picking AMcP as a nemesis wasn’t the best idea.
Just so we’re all on the same page here, let’s have a re-cap:
Alice Austin: neek/quite irritating/good heart
Alice McPerker: charismatic ring-leader/uses powers for evil/black soul
And then we have my mother.
A word on Denise Austin. Small, mad, curly brown hair, Jewish. From the day my frenulum got kicked out my head she became protective bordering on maniacal. So fiercely in fact that to this day it remains an inconvenience. For example only a small percentage of my friends are actually allowed to set foot in our house. If anyone I know so much as looks at me the wrong way my mum banishes them from our home — even if they don’t live in England. In 2011 she banned someone who lives in Melbourne — always has, always will — from coming to our house in London. So perhaps you can imagine how strongly she felt about Alice McPerker, a girl who often made me feel ostracised and isolated, who would leave me out of every playground game and make me cry at least once a week. Denise Austin’s fury was laced with venom.
Before I tell you the rest just listen. I didn’t care about what AMcP looked like or how much she weighed. All I wanted was to be accepted in the social hierarchy of the year group. I wanted the boys to show me respect instead of making cruel jokes. I wanted the girls to realise that I’m actually a bit of a legend. That’s all I wanted. But I was doing a bad job of it. By Year 4 I was rock bottom of the social hierarchy, forever destined to be picked last on sports teams and to spend break time alone. While boys were literally bribing girls with Pokemon Cards to ‘go out with them’, one boy sat down in the playground and openly cried because AMcP had started a vicious rumour that he was going out with me.
My mum, as competitive as she was protective, couldn’t bear to see her only daughter losing this battle so very miserably. She wanted to arm me with some weaponry.
So in summer ’97 she handed me a loaded gun.
It was a hot evening. I was 7 and my mum was 39. We were having dinner at the kitchen table. I was snivelling over something AMcP had said or done that day. My mum sat nursing a cup of tea while I ate my potatoes. She looked up at me and made a small choking noise, as if about to speak, and then looked down again.
“What is it mum?” I said.
“Oh nothing, nothing.” She said. A sly look had come onto her face.
“What is it mum???”
“Well. You could always… Oh forget it Ali. Eat your peas.”
“No tell me mum! What could I do?”
“Well…” She looked at me from the corner of her eye. She’d been waiting for this moment for a long time.
“Well… You could just start calling her… Alice McPorker?”
I know what you’re thinking. I could have said ‘No mum. You are 39 years old and clearly mental.’ I could have carried on, bottom of the pile, miserable, lonely. But I was 7 years old. And it was just too good.
I was tactical about introducing Alice McPorker into the Year 4 consciousness. I didn’t just bang it out mid-conversation. I’d whisper it during nap time. I noted it down on bits of paper and dropped them on the floor. I wrote it faintly on the chalkboard. I tagged a desk. And slowly, slowly it happened. She became Alice McPorker. No one knew where it came from. All of a sudden, it just was.
Alice’s power wasn’t largely impacted by this — but it did weaken her. It was like I’d put bunny ears on Hitler. The nickname stuck like wet spaghetti on a wall. She was a bully, sure. But she wasn’t invincible anymore. We could bully her back.
Year 5. A vital transitional period in the life of the primary school child. The year where we come face to face with our own mortality. Where we must consider leaving the safety of those four walls and the familiar faces of the teachers we’ve known our whole lives. In year 5 we must prepare to take the next step up the ladder of life. No longer do we fit into those tiny chairs. Normal size chairs are for us! And soon — soon — we will rule the school.
The year groups at Northcote Primary School were divided into Houses. We were assigned our Houses at age 4 so over the years we became wildly patriotic about them. We’d compete with animalistic vigour at Sports Days or Swimming Galas, hellbent on beating our opponents to preserve the honour of the House we represented.
My school had four houses, each named after a famous explorer. Scott House (Sir Frances), Armstrong House (Neil), Cousteau House (Jaques) and Hillary House (Sir Edmund).
I was in Hillary House along with — yes you guessed it — Alice McPorker.
Another significant member of Hillary House: Hannah Stewart. An angelic, olive-skinned child with a middle parting, khaki brown hair and mismatched eyes — one brown and one green. Everyone marvelled at them until AMcP spread a rumour that it was because Hannah’s a witch. (See! Even Hannah couldn’t escape her evil. You’re the witch Alice!!! You’re the witch.)
Hannah was good at everything. She was sick at ballet, could do cartwheels, superb stenciller and would give the rounders ball such an almighty twat whenever we played she could’ve lapped the posts twice if she felt like it. Often a slender wrist or ankle would be wrapped up in a bandage — dainty people are prone to sprains I guessed — but when her wrist was fully functioning her handwriting was flawless. Tom Evans once bribed Hannah with a Charizard to go out with him and the angel of heaven said ‘no.’ Not even for a Charizard! That really blew my mind.
Hannah had this kind of precious, other-worldly vibe that I, as someone who was considered mostly offensive, very much admired. This admiration manifested in one very creepy moment in Year 4. We were queuing up to hand in our homework and Hannah was standing in front of me facing the teacher. Without thinking and for absolutely no reason at all I stood up on my tip toes and lightly kissed the top of her head. She turned around to look at me and both her brown eye and her green eye seemed to say: what the fuck?
Anyway, so Hannah was in Hillary House and so was one of my Old New Mates, Elizabeth Fry. Despite having no spine Liz was also good at sports and although she had an ugly, jagged scar across her forehead, a pointed nose and mean eyes, the boys in our year all fancied her.
The significance of these girls in Hillary House is this: One girl and one boy from each house would be named House Captain at school prize giving at the end of Year 5.
House Captain was considered by all to be the ultimate accolade. It meant that you were in the top eight best people in the entire year. It meant that you were liked, responsible, popular, bright, well-rounded. It meant that the teachers (the teachers chose the House Captains) thought of you as A Good Egg.
So you can imagine that to be named House Captain of Hillary House represented the fulfilment of all of my lifelong dreams. Especially as it would mean a full frontal victory over AMcP. I wanted to be House Captain of Hillary House very very much.
My mum tried to keep her emotional investment under wraps. She didn’t want to put any pressure on me, but her longing for me to be House Captain would come out in bursts of demonic competitiveness. “Ali.” her eyes lit up as we trundled through a garden centre one Saturday. “Ali. Just imagine. Imagine if you win house captain.” As she spoke she looked into the distance, spider plant in one hand, purple watering can in the other but the garden center was far away. Her expression was as if she’d just delivered an inspirational speech to the masses. I could see it in her eyes and I felt it too. We had a dream. Then she snapped out of it and shook her head and we carried on walking and she said “not that it really matters… excuse me where can I find the Rhododendrons?”
No one in my year considered me to even be in the running for House Captain. I was so firmly not in the cool gang, I was such a little neek with ginormous teeth and a violent penchant for Pogs that no one even thought to consider me as a threat.
AMcP, Liz, Hannah and lots of boys would sit together at break time, discussing who would be House Captain and how happy they would be for each other, whatever the outcome. I’d stalk up and down next to the bookshelf, too distracted to alpheticise properly, and I’d dream of the looks on their faces the moment they realised that I’d conquered them all.
My optimism wasn’t completely unfounded. I’d long suspected that I was a secret favourite amongst the teachers. Over the years they’d wised up to AMcP’s mean little ways. What seemed impressive from a four year old just seemed spiteful from a nine year old.
I, however, the big-toothed beanbag dweller, was kind to everyone and quite frankly hilarious. Unfortunately my jokes didn’t get any laughs from my peers — they did not get my sense of humour — but the teachers were tuned in to my special brand of bants. In my lifetime I received two House Points for jokes. I’d say something so outlandishly witty that my teachers simply had to reward me for it.
House Point 1: When asked to think of ways to remember North South East West my hand shot up and I went straight in with Naughty Elizabeth Snogged William. The class exploded. Uproar. Mr Edwards gave me a high five and Elizabeth burst into tears. William was labelled a hero for the rest of the school year.
House Point 2: Josh Winkman asked the class if anyone had seen his P.E kit.
‘Yeah it’s really nice!’ I said smiling. Mr Day bent double with laughter and had to steady himself on his desk. One point to Hillary House. Dry til I die.
Don’t get me wrong. Many teachers loyally flew the flag for team McPorker. My mum went mad at one TA who sent me to the back of the queue for complaining that AMcP had pushed in front of me. But a small niche could see past the curly hair and the big teeth to the legend that lay behind. And they knew that AMcP was the absolute worst.
So I considered myself somewhat of a dark horse in the running to be House Captain. A flame of hope was alight in my heart throughout Year 5. The teachers, after all, were the ones who made the decision. So while Alice McPorker, Elizabeth Fry, and Hannah Whose Head I Weirdly Kissed chattered amongst themselves making big plans for their House Captainship, I’d sit on my bean bag, seemingly nose deep in The Amber Spyglass, one beady brown eye on them thinking: You wait.
Just. You. Wait.
June 15th 1999. Prize Day.
My classmates and I sit in the pews of the colossal church in South London. The day is structured so the little ones get their prizes first, meaning we must sit through two hours of fluff until the real shit goes down.
The energy in our pew is electric. The girls and boys who believe they will be named House Captains sit next to each other so they can hold hands as their names are read out. I, of course, am not included in this group. I sit a row behind, right on the edge, so I can get a good view of the stage and of their faces in the event of… But I daren’t think of it.
The tight feeling I’d woken up with in my chest is still there. I need this. All these years, believing I am Aslan and she is The White Witch. No one agreeing with me, no one getting my jokes, no one realising I’m a legend. I need this.
Mrs Peacock stands on stage. Light streams in through the opaque stained glass windows. I focus on the gargantuan organ to her left. My fists are clenched. Mrs Peacock shuffles some papers.
“Now I will announce the House Captains for Year 6.” Jesus looms behind her. Mrs Peacock clears her throat.
“House Captains are examples of model students. We select our House Captains based on their integrity, their potential to lead, their consistently good grades and their kindness towards others.”
Jesus and I exchange glances. Get on with it please Mrs Peacock.
“I shall begin. House Captains for Cousteau House are: Josh Daniels.” He punches the air. “Kate Williams.” She flushes scarlet and stands abruptly to follow Josh on stage and collect their yellow badges of honour.
“Scott House. Inigo Cole. Sarah Field.” The pair trot up in a daze to collect their blue badges. They high five as they walk off stage.
My heart. Thump thump thump thump. My nails dig into my hands.
“The House Captains for Hillary House are…”
Thump Thump Thump.
“Ben Fisher. And”
A bellow from the back of the hall. I turn to see my mum standing on a pew, one arm punching the air like Alexander The Great on a bolting horse.
My head snaps back to the front of the room and, listen, just listen to this: Alice McPorker has stood up.
She slowly turns around to look at me as I rise from my seat. Our eyes meet. I grin. A half-mad, wild-eyed grin of pure exultation. My eyes radiate with euphoria while hers darken as she realises that it’s not her. She is not the Alice who has been named House Captain.
Her followers whisper to each other as I walk from my pew. I click up onto the stage in my smart navy shoes and I look at my mum who’s now got both feet back on the ground and both arms in the air, mouth and eyes wide like a striker silently celebrating a winning goal.
I float across the stage towards Mrs Peacock. She shakes my hand and bends down to give me my shiny red House Captain badge. Her mouth says: “Very well done Alice.” And her eyes say: “You’re an absolute legend.”
Disclaimer: This essay is based on true events and real people although all names have been changed. The author acknowledges that these events are her own perception and sincerely apologises if any reader recognises themselves and finds the portrayal to be unflattering. The author has absolutely no intention of offending any of the subjects in this essay.
…Except Denise Austin, who quite frankly should be ashamed of herself.
For more of Alice’s non-fiction writing visit No Filter Zine.