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News story: Best Enemies

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From my time as a contributor to the Sydney Morning Herald’s Spectrum.

Elizabeth Uhlmann and her friend were inseparable in
year 5. Then things got ugly.

We didn’t start out as mortal enemies. As childhood best friends, Karen* and I were an unlikely pairing.

Ten-year-old Karen was a paradox — a foul-mouthed wild child with a frilly pink bedroom; a playground rough-nut who sat on any child occupying ‘her’ seat on the school bus but who collected miniature plastic Smurfs like there was no tomorrow.

I was a bookish child with an anachronistic interest in the Beatles and a Lady Diana haircut. Together, we were thrown into that melting pot of humanity that is year 5, and became ‘besties’ for a year-and-a-half, before morphing into mortal enemies.

Those 18 months passed agreeably enough. Karen taught me everything she knew about school standover tactics — although I found it difficult to reside on anyone’s lap for more than a few seconds before I felt the need to apologise. Prisoner addicts, we whiled away many a maths lesson talking about what we would do if we ever had our heads jammed in an ironing press. That is, when we weren’t mooning over our frizzy-haired 1970s refugee of a soccer coach and thinking up appropriately salty insults for school bus seat-takers.

All was well in our rosy world of Mean Girl ‘bestie’ beastliness — until the Hand of God (directed by what I now suspect was the Hand of My Mother) moved Karen and me into separate classes.

Naturally, we were devastated. We railed against a system that could not see how important it was that twin souls like ours remained entwined for eternity. Or at least until year 7. In primary school, a best friend in another class is equivalent to a long-distance relationship. Once you no longer share an eraser and second-hand chewy, you and your erstwhile bestie may as well be living in different time zones.

I think it was about then that the trouble started. I can’t remember exactly what happened. Perhaps I got myself a shiny new best friend. Anyhow, towards the end of year 6, our Catholic primary school was a preteen nation divided.

A deep and unwavering line was drawn in the emotional sand between Camps Karen and Uhlmann. Insult-trading rapidly overtook sandwich-swapping as the primary economic force of the schoolyard. Before you could say end-of-term, Karen transformed from Childhood Chum to Teen Nemesis.

And then came the wacky world of secondary education. Karen’s high school M.O. was to trail me from friendship group to friendship group. Then, with a dedication worthy of a superspook, she’d sniff out and steal each potential new best friend of mine, creating an army of nasty girls who whittled away their educations thinking of fresh and exciting ways to torture the big-nosed booklearner.

Bemused by these machinations, I worked on the theory that the best revenge is success. I sought out those girls with brains larger than that of the miniature foxie and together we became inured to the ways of the slow-witted Karen.

To this day, I can’t be sure why old Karen couldn’t just walk away from our star-crossed friendship and craft a life of her own, rather than spending her high school years trying to pilfer from mine. Perhaps it is a testament to the irrefutable intensity of those early female friendships. Passions burn high but on only two settings — blind adoration in the good times and murderous contempt in the bad. I’m sure nothing’s changed.

One thing I have to say, though: In the years since I walked through those iron gates for the last time, the names and faces of many old school chums have steadily faded. But I’ve never forgotten Karen.

I hear Karen is a primary school teacher now. I wonder how she goes with the new generation of mean girls. I imagine they’re no match for a seasoned pro such as her good self.

* Not her real name.