When I cheat, deep down I always want to be caught out, the feeling of guilt consuming my thoughts. Except that this time I’m not doing it to win in rummy or get out of doing the house chores.
The first day in my new school is over and it was… fine. No spitting, no pushing, no calling me names. Only a boy with spiky blonde hair gave me a strange look as I introduced myself, wiping the palms of my hands on my skirt under the desk.
“Christine Laurence.” My voice sounded natural, maybe even a little cranky. I exhaled inside.
“Gemma Whitby,” said the girl next to me. I looked over and the corners of her full lips jerked up and down quickly. Big eyelashes framed her eyes. Her smooth skin and curves made her look like a statue. That was when I knew I wanted to be just like Gemma.
It’s after school and I wiggle the keys this way and that, making as much noise as I can, hoping that if the adults are in the lounge, they would leave, go upstairs to their bedroom, wherever, so I don’t have to introduce her yet. Gemma lingers around the hallway, “Can I have a juice?”
I take her by the hand and lead her to my room. It was a study just a month ago. I shut the door behind us and dump my bag on the bed. Gemma whistles gently.
“So, you really like Lady GaGa?”
“What? Yeah, I guess.” I’ve covered the scratches and stains on the walls with posters, all the ones Dad didn’t let me use around our old house. They clashed with his football calendars.
I get out my cigarette-rolling machine, hoping to impress Gemma, but she’s moving around the room, examining things like a cat. She opens and shuts the drawers one by one, picking out cardigans and putting them up against herself in the mirror. Mum said once that that was what it felt like to have a caesarean, like somebody was rummaging through your drawers. This feels just as personal. I quickly go through the list of possessions I wouldn’t want her to find and their whereabouts in my mind. The few pictures I’ve got of both my parents and I are hidden upstairs in Mum’s jewellery box. Gemma gets to the underwear drawer and my bottom jaw tightens.
“Ooooo, this’s very padded.” She pulls out a beige lacy bra and I swallow hard. “My mum says I’m too young to have this sort of stuff. Can you believe her? The old cow.”
I sit back against the wall on the cushion and try to tuck my feet under, but it feels unnatural, so I stretch my legs out in front of me. The smell of Gemma’s cherry menthol Airwaves hangs in the air. Her jelly flesh wobbles under the thin white top. I bet she’s never scoffed a whole tin of pickled beetroot to fake her period.
If I took one of her molecules and looked at it under a microscope, I would probably see a collection of geometrical shapes we’ve studied in school, revolving around the axis at regular intervals. (X-h)2+(y-k)2 =r2 – a flawless circle blossoming from a square that in turns blossoms from a triangle. Billions and billions of them developed completely of their accord to form the multi-celled complex organism that is her. She doesn’t worry about this process turning her into something else, something that perhaps she doesn’t want to be. I want to shake her, slap her, make her wake up and appreciated this gift she’d pulled out at life lottery, never considering the suffering of those who hadn’t been as lucky.
I wonder what I’d see if I cut off a tiny bit of me, used a speck of dry skin, a fallen out hair. The apparatus would appear out of focus and I’d adjust it until I understood that that was it, all there was to see – a non-cohesive lack of matter, a grey expanse that should have been filled with something, but wasn’t. Someone’s forgotten to put in a structure and now everything that’s right or wrong is mixed up and indistinguishable. Everyone else is carved out of marble and I’m an oil stain on the surface of the water – morphing, expanding, merging and submerging and sometimes disappearing completely.
“All your make up’s brand new.” Gemma says.
“Yeah, Mum got me loads when we moved.’
“Wow, she must really love you, like.’ Gemma uses her foot to turn over an old woolen jumper lying on the floor. It reminds me of the time I found my rabbit dead and I fidget. Mum clunks down the stairs. I throw my legs off the bed and sit properly, almost ladylike. She knocks and opens the door.
“You ok there, girls? Need anything?”
“You off to the shop?” Gemma asks. “Can I have some pick and mix? What do you want, Chris?”
“Nothing.” I shake my head.
“You’ve got to have something. You’re so skinny!”
“I’ll get you some jelly spiders,” Mum says and closes the door with a little smirk on her face. I know what she’ll say when Gemma’s gone.
“Looks like you’ve got yourself a best friend, haven’t you?”
Mum doesn’t say it, but I know she feels guilty too. She’s made me pancakes every Saturday morning for weeks, so now I expect them and sulk if she’s too tired. She works three shifts to make enough money, so that we can eventually move out on our own. These days she has to share the bed with her sister, the only other bedroom being occupied by me. Auntie Sheila’s bed is large and demonstratively messy, like Tracey Emin’s. They share a cigarette in the morning, still in their pyjamas, whilst flicking through the news channels. Auntie Sheila snorts in her sleep. The mole on her cheek looks like a fat bee and she smells of toilet spray. She walks around absentmindedly after Mum’s gone to work and stirs her tea banging the teaspoon on the walls of the mug, as if it’s a bell. A morning wake up bell. I don’t want to be like her when I’m old – stuck in a déjà vu, battling with myself about the things I’d got wrong when I was young, the things I should have done differently. This is why I had to leave.
Mum left because her and Dad met too young, stayed together too long and changed too much in the process. She said that if she met him now, at a work’s do or somewhere, she wouldn’t even think of talking to him for longer than two minutes. And of course the whole thing with how he treated me was ‘the last straw’.
I haven’t told Mum I no longer work at the corner shop. I started late and the only uniform they had left was boys’. It made me look rough. The owner was forever asking me to lug heavy boxes up the narrowest flight of stairs I’d ever seen. So one day, instead of going in for my shift, I went to the park and sat on a bench listening to people talk as they walked past. Now I go there every day. Phone conversations are the best, because people forget where they are and speak about the most intimate things, as if the handsets transport them into a parallel universe. I like the fact that others also have secrets.
I often leave my phone at home, partly because I don’t want to lie to Mum if she rings. I can’t, not now that our nucleus burst like an egg yolk and left splodges of sticky orange all the way back to Reading, where the wounding took place. Over there Dad is probably still sat on the tea stained sofa, rocking with his head in his hands, same as when we left him. Books with pages bruised from being thrown across the room must still lie on the dusty carpet. The stench of accusations still lingers, hurting your lungs when you breathe in. Of course he couldn’t understand. No one did except for Mum. So every time I came down to the dinner table, he’d wipe his mouth with a napkin and leave the meal half finished, moving further and further away until he was a spec on the horizon even when he was physically next to me. I know it’s a cliché to blame yourself for your parents break up. Trust me, this is not one of those cases.
Another favourite pastime of mine is sitting out on the balcony, watching the sky and the girls in the backyard below – Gemma’s other friends. They never look up. From here her boyish haircut looks even better. Her clothes are always sharp and she mixed colours well. I mimic the way she holds her cigarette, like she’s French. I once saw her waiting for a taxi outside her house, wearing heavy eyeliner under as well as over her eyes. I tried it out in front of the mirror. Slowly, carefully, pulling the pencil along the edges of my eyelids on the left, then trying to match it on the right. It took a few tries, but that’s the party look I’ve since adopted.
It’s been a month and I’ve even got two more girlfriends. They hold my hand on long walks, we try out makeup on each other and paint each other’s fingernails. We share parents’ divorce stories, spray deodorant in the loos to mask the smell of smoke and go through one litre ice cream tubs during sleepovers. It’s heaven… Until the boy with spiky blonde hair approaches us in the schoolyard and stands by Gemma and I.
I cut off half sentence. He’s got a wicked way about him, like he’s about to pull my skirt down.
“Hey, I think I know you,” he says, hands in his pockets, chewing a gum.
Lucy stops playing with her phone. Helen looks up from copying my homework. A switch goes off in my head and a new type of electricity floods my brain, making connections at a rate of one thousand per second between cells I forgot were there.
“I don’t know you. You must’ve made a mistake.” I try to sound cheerful, but my voice comes out too high-pitched. Gemma sighs in the periphery of my vision as if to say ‘walk on, she’s not interested.’
“Nope, I’ve definitely seen you before. You’re from Reading, right?”
He leans on the table with his elbows, his face so close to mine, I can join the freckles on his cheeks. He pries into my eyes, watches the fear dilate my pupils. He leans back with a smirk and for a second I think that he’s satisfied. I stupidly feel for the phone in my bag, as if that’s what’s saved me. But then the boy puts his hands back in his pockets and says louder:
“Hey. Why are you wearing girl’s clothes?”
With that he stamps on the seedling I’ve so carefully tendered to over the last two months, squashing it to the ground. Over the girls’ voices I can hear Dad, clearly like he’s here and they are not: “You are not a girl, hear me? I will not call you ‘her’!”