Love Letters: Penelope Lake

You don’t expect your school friends to die at 19 years old.

Today would have been Penelope Lake’s 30th birthday. She died in 2011 of meningococcal disease.

When I say she was ‘special’, you’ll likely roll your eyes – that’s OK, I would too. Everyone who dies has something special about them, and those left behind share these qualities with reverence, as if to convince ourselves that the loss of this person was even sadder than it should have been, and that’s why we feel this way, still, ten years later. This eulogy will be no different.

I remember, age 16, sitting at lunch with Penelope upstairs in an English classroom. I had an orange in my lunchbox, so I had to peel it over the bin to stop the juice pooling on my desk or running down my wrists. As I walked back to my desk, citrus tang in the fuggy air, gossip flying over our heads as the latest Twilight novel was gleefully dissected, Penelope turned to me and said something along the lines of,

“Jemma, do you know what I like most about us?”

“We love the same kind of music?”

“Yes, and no. We can just sit here, quietly. We don’t feel the need to always be talking about something. I don’t always have something interesting to say, and neither do you.”

I could always rely on Penelope for the truth, even if I didn’t want to hear it.

“There’s not many people I can do nothing with,” she explained.

Penelope paused, and then said to no-one in particular, “Hey, you’re my do-nothing friend!”

Some might have taken offence; Penelope was deeming me too quiet, too awkward, or perhaps the most offensive of insults at high school: too boring.

No, it was less shallow and reactionary than that. What Penelope was paying me was one of the kindest compliments I’ve ever had – the ability to be in the same room as another without needing to entertain or engage. The comfort of a presence so warm and familiar, that nothing needs to be proven.

I wasn’t fast friends with Penelope – both of us were too cautious and sensible for that. It was our love of music that brought us together in fourth form, and this really solidified our friendship over our high school years.

As a teenager, you’re constantly balancing your fear of what others think with your deep desire to figure out who you are, what you love, and what you want to learn more about. If any of that is contradictory to what is mainstream or acceptable, you face a very tough road. Standing out is often a fast track to being bullied or being ignored.

It is a rare child that can pursue her own genuine interests without buckling under the wrath of the masses’ whispers and taunts, or the pain of social exclusion. But that was Penelope. She had a quiet maturity that most of us at school grew up respecting, even as we didn’t quite understand it. She was settled in herself. It was magnetic, and I warmed to her so strongly simply because I wanted to be like her.

When most of my decisions were made to suck me right into the middle of the ‘vortex of popularity’ so I didn’t stand out in any way, Penelope’s approach to life was the opposite.

Penelope wrote the most beautiful, haunting piano music. She walked into every Music period, and when the teacher wasn’t there, started playing ‘The Heart Asks for Pleasure First’, the theme song from The Piano.

She was incredibly fit, working her way up through school and university to become a black belt at kung fu. She taught the lessons on Kung Fu in Year 12 P.E. because the teacher didn’t know what she was doing.

One weekend, she suggested that we go and see Revolutionary Road at the cinemas. This was my first ‘grown up’ movie; it’s now the reason I will watch whatever Sam Mendes or Thomas Newman lend their talents to.

Penelope was not shy about sharing her beliefs. I remember one period in Year 12 our Religious Education teacher played us a clip from Rob Bell’s Nooma series. Nooma is a series of short video reflections made for bible study groups, encouraging spiritual reflection – essentially trendy mini-sermons. Penelope wasn’t having a bar of it, and questioned the teacher relentlessly about the assumptions this pastor made. I’d never seen anyone talk to Mr Edgecombe the way she did – she wasn’t disrespectful and she wasn’t angry, she was curious. Despite being steeped in Christianity myself, I was fascinated to witness the conversation. For this, and many other reasons besides, Penelope won the RE prize at that year’s prizegiving. It shows what immense respect they had for each other that this teacher was the one who took Penelope’s funeral just two years later.

Our final year of school was tough for me and Penelope. In our own way, we had both outgrown the cliques and gossip, the veneer of the usefulness of our education slowly slipping away over that summer beforehand. So we returned, frustrated by the confines; it felt like putting on a pair of shoes that were just a little too small.

I shrunk back into myself, leaning heavily on being a Music Prefect to give me some tiny semblance of status, and socialising more with friends outside of school than inside it. Penelope stuck to her guns. She excelled at every subject she’d chosen: Music, Drama, Chemistry, Biology and Mathematics, taking many of them at Scholarship level. She brought the same lunch every day: salami sticks, Tim Tams, red capsicum, and Nasi Goreng in an Olivani container. She used to twist the rubber bands in such a clever way to hold the lid on that I still use the method today. Her favourite tuck shop lunch was Fantastic Beef Noodles, no “gross little veggies” added (she went down to the tuckshop to complain so often that the team just put the hot water in everyone’s order and left us to do the rest). Whenever the All Blacks had played on the weekend, she’d burst into school to try and find someone to dissect each pass with; that conversation was usually had with a teacher, but she could always find a willing participant with which to discuss the many assets of Richie McCaw.

The announcement of Penelope’s sudden passing made it down to Christchurch very quickly. I’d only just made it back down South to start Semester One (again) after the Christchurch earthquakes, but as soon as I knew when the funeral was, I hopped on another plane back north.

To be honest, I don’t remember much about it. Re-reading the programme was odd. I don’t remember what anyone said, or the photos they showed, or the readings that were chosen. I do remember the haka she received from the kung fu team as her coffin was driven away. I still get shivers thinking about that.

I still have Penelope’s cellphone number in my phone. On the five-year anniversary of Penelope’s death, I called the only ‘Lake’ I could find in the suburb Penelope lived in Wellington in the phone book. By dumb luck, I found a relative. It was an awkward, stilted conversation, as only one where the thing you have in common is love for a dead person can be. And yet, the connection to someone else who remembered Penelope was a relief. I don’t really remember what I said, but I remember what I heard reflected back to me – the grief in the voice of a person who lost a ‘special’ young woman in their life, far too soon.

One evening last October, JCB and I were sitting in Three Fat Indians for dinner. A lady came and sat down with her date behind me. I stopped eating and stared at my plate.

She was wearing the same perfume the Penelope did. I hadn’t smelled that scent in nine years. I had to close my eyes.

It took me back to watching my best friend teach our class the most “useful” part of kung-fu for young women – self-defence.

It took me back to Monday mornings, when Penelope would arrive with different coloured hair to the week before, and she’d tell me all about how she picked that exact shade for this month.

It took me back to the beginning of every seventh-form music period, which begun with Penelope asking the teacher, “If we finish the lesson early, can we go over to Mojo for coffee?”. I could hear the squeals of delight, after months of being ground down, from the time Mr J actually said, “Yes”.

It took me back to the penultimate scene in Revolutionary Road where we realised what Rose had done for Frank, and what it cost her. Both of us had tears in our eyes.

It took me back to the first time a teacher called Penelope by her nickname (“Penny-loap”) and the whole class lost it in a fit of glee, Penelope herself roaring loudest of all. The nickname had official “stuck”.

It took me back to the electric blue dress Penelope picked for the seventh form ball; how she wore it with such confidence, not bowing to the pressure to bring a boy with her.

It took me straight back to lunchtimes in Hobby House, sitting comfortably side-by-side in silence, just listening to the inane gossip that plagues every seventh-form common room, not feeling the need to fill the space between us.

It took me back to the years I spent with Penelope in choir rehearsals. Of all the songs we learned over our three years in the Senior Chorale together, Fauré’s Agnus Dei from his Requiem was her absolute favourite. Our SSAA version was rehearsed with a piano but performed with an organ, so we only sung the proper version in concert three or four times. I remembered her saying to me that the song was the most beautiful she’d ever heard, and she wanted it played at her funeral. So, two years later, it was.

The Christmas before she passed away, Penelope made me a present. It’s one of the most special things I own now – a simple, delightful reminder of her quirky sense of humour, her love of music, and her care for the friends in her life.

There are so many things I wish I could say to her now, as I think back on what might have been in her life, the incredible things she would have achieved, the memories we would have made, and the lives she might have changed.

I’ve still yet to find another ‘do nothing’ friend, and that’s OK with me – maybe there’s only room for one.

Happy Birthday Penelope – we love you and we still miss you, so much.

2 Replies to “Love Letters: Penelope Lake”

  1. That made me tearful Jemma. I didn’t realise the closeness you had quietly and comfortably come to. No wonder you miss her. Those friends are special and never forgotten. Look after yourself at this reflective and sad time xx

    Sent from my iPhone


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