"Look what she's eating!"
They spoke in English but she could understand a little.
The two girls eyed her from afar, inspecting the contents of her half-opened lunch box. Her lunch, it seemed, had aroused their curiosity. But she knew this packed lunch was only an extension of who she was. They'd examined her lunch because it was the only way they could safely observe or judge her - the stranger. Or at least that's what it felt like.
Her ears burnt from shame. She glanced down at the box on her lap with dismay. Was it really so odd? So different?
A packet of Pac Man chips
A mini Snickers
Two ham and beetroot sandwhiches
A muesli bar
An orange juice poppa.
It seemed like a normal lunch. She began to chew self-consciously, tucking her folded legs under her blue school uniform and looking away to avoid the uninvited stares. It was odd how something as universal as eating fell under scrutiny when one was a stranger. A stranger.
Later, after much contemplation, she started to believe that maybe there had been a little too much food in there. After all, those other girls she'd met in class always used to complain about their fat thighs, their fat calves. They'd eat half as much as her and were much thinner. By the end of the year, she would have drastically reduced the food she ate for lunch. By then, she would only pack two crackers with cheese and a muesli bar. But for now, she went home and just told her mum, in French,
"Mum, can you please only make me one sandwhich tomorrow. Also I don't want a muesli bar."
Her mum was confused.
It was 1986. She'd just immigrated to Australia about a month ago and Grade 6 was a confusing world where one could see but not understand. English words became obsessions and every day was a new word.
They changed her name too. Because on the first day, the teacher had quickly told her that her real name was a boy's name.
"I had been expecting a boy," he reproached. "We'd best change your name so that the other school kids do not get confused."
Her auntie translated it all. At first it sounded like fun.
"What would you like to be called?"
"How about Laure? It's close enough to Laurence."
"It's too difficult to pronounce in English," protested the carrot-haired school teacher.
"What about Laura?" suggested her aunt.
Laura it was. In a matter of minutes, an identity can be changed. It's so easy. You just have to adapt.
They called her Laura. She'd just turned 11. She was anxious and ashamed in those first 6 months. And she had a secret back then.
Because she long ached to try those cream buns with their pink coconut icing, the ones they sold every day at the tuckshop. But she'd held back, terrified about what would happen. She'd remembered how those girls had stared at her in the playground when she ate, and the way it had made her feel.
And then one day, it started. When no one was looking, she would hide. She would buy a coconut iced bun at recess and creep inside the toilets. There, she'd find an empty cubicle, lock the door and enjoy the bun, away from sight.
It would happen many times.
It was odd how something as universal as eating could become a source of shame when one was a stranger. A stranger.