Your feedback invited – especially if you’re teenage/young adult, or a parent or teacher of/writer for this age group, or just fancy commenting on what I hope you’ll find a lightweight, amusing read! Yes, I enjoyed my first foray into children’s fiction, Henry Wowler & the Mirror-Cat, so much I followed it up with a Christmas Dickens skit, Henry Wowler & the Cat of Christmas Past (which will go into the sequel to HW&MC). I enjoyed that so much I tried a young adult fantasy last year, Santa Claus is Coming to Town, fell in love with all the characters, (especially my hot Santa!), and came up with plots for at least two more episodes to blog for Christmas ’22 and ’23, which I may eventually publish as a novella, ‘Christmas with the Joneses.’ Meanwhile these felt like such easy, natural ‘voices’ to write in that I wanted to carry on playing with youthful characters grappling with growing up, drawing on some of the fun, farcical and frightful episodes I remember from my own schooldays and young adulthood – and the result is Blood Magic, a vaguely supernatural, silly, sinister story now 50 pages long and counting.
I plan to do something with it – enter for competitions, self-publish as an e-book, whatever – but because this is a new genre to me, I’d welcome any comments/constructive criticism. Do you like it? Would you recommend or buy it for a teen/young adult? Is it chick-lit, or does it appeal to male readers too? (Hubcap likes it, but he likes all my writing so that’s nothing to go by). Please let me know what you think of the opening – does it grab you enough to want to read on? I look forward to hearing your thoughts!
WARNING: contains one F-word, some implied bad language/ milder swears, and drug references. No sex or violence (nor will there be).
BLOOD MAGIC: A NOVEL FOR YOUNG ADULTS
This is what happened – started to happen, I should say – the September when I was fourteen. I wrote a lot of it down at the time, even some of the conversations, in my secret diaries, the sort Mum always gave me for Christmas, with the tiny padlock I never locked because I always lost the key… although since Mamalou taught me how to remember, it’s still pretty clear in my head even ten years later. When I say clear, I don’t mean it makes sense. It never has. So I’m hoping that writing it down will help me understand, show me how much is accident, coincidence, paranoid over-thinking, and how much is – was – real, deliberate, long foreseen and planned. Hoping it’ll answer some questions. Do I wish I’d never met them, that none of it had happened, that I’d just come to terms with losing Fi and bumbled through my humdrum teens until I finally worked out what I wanted to do with my life? Was the price I paid worth it?
But it probably won’t. It’ll probably carry on dangling, a loose ending like Daphne du Maurier’s My Cousin Rachel, which I read that autumn, (along with Rebecca and Jamaica Inn), curled up in a mustardy armchair or lying in a hammock on the sun-deck at Hidden House, under the grapevine. Did they, or didn’t they? Does it matter now, either way? Or has she done for me at last, Raven, my torment? I’ll probably never know… and you’ll have to make up your own mind.
Chapter 1: A Day of Firsts
‘Come on, Year 10, calm down now.’ The Bald Eagle pushed up his specs and peered down his beak at us, mock stern. It was the first time our whole – well, nearly whole – class had been together for six weeks, and everyone was still high and buzzing. Except me. For the first time, I had no-one to buzz with. No-one to nudge or pass notes to, no ear to whisper in, no-one to giggle with. My stomach felt cold, empty as the space between me and Libby, my nearest neighbour. I reached for my bag and put it on Fi’s chair to see if it made me feel better. It didn’t, but I left it there anyway.
I remember these tiny details so well because that first day of term started so badly. For the first time ever, I really didn’t want to go back. I mean, really really. Not just the usual, ‘OMG, school today, what a drag,’ feeling everyone gets. No, once I was past that, I loved autumn term – harvest festivals, panto rehearsals, carol concerts, all the fun seasonal stuff. Plus we’d be in our usual nice home-room with its view of trees and playing fields, and I’d have my usual good seat, far right, third row back, next to the window – with the added attraction of Mr Benjamin Bradley Theobald for our class teacher. Everybody liked Baldy Beak. He took us for Eng Lang, Lit and Drama – my favourites – and but for his nose and specs, looked enough like a taller, thinner Vin Diesel for Fi to have a major crush on him. He used to say that big noses ran in his family, and that ‘mockers with lesser proboscises’ just envied its magnificent size. He even wore jokey ties for us: green with a Disney Pinocchio, sky-blue with tiny bald eagles, a red Rudolph for the Christmas party complete with flashing nose. And it wasn’t just the usual wobbles about going up a year, and how I’d cope with extra homework and revision and mock exams on top of the average spotty hell of adolescence, or the usual rude awakening when the alarm goes off and that sinking feeling when you realise that no, summer wasn’t endless after all and yes, it really is time to get up and go to school.
No. Today, as well as all that, I had dread. A big doomy dread I’d been running away from ever since I found out, but now it had caught me up. Today would be the first time I’d pass the McDonald house on my way to Goldthorpe Senior Academy without stopping to call for Fi, my desk-mate and bestie since Year 7. The first time, (unless she’d been off with a cold or something), I’d walk the whole way there and back without her. The first time I’d do homework alone, instead of in her room or mine, with a glass of milk and two biscuits each, (always the ration, no matter how we begged), to fuel us till dinner. It made me feel sick, and I felt even worse when I opened my wardrobe.
Mum loved the GSA uniform – white shirt, V-neck sweater, trousers or kilt, plain black lace-ups – because it was smart, sensible, and lasted forever unless you outgrew it. It was carefully gender-neutral, although except for the last day of term when Danny Thomas wore his sister’s for a dare, the only lads who opted for kilts were Rob and Stewie Lennox in Year 12. The Terrible Twins had hi-vis hair and freckles, their dad drove a tiny old car, blue with a white St Andrews cross on the roof and Scottish Independence stickers all over, and they wore kilts year-round with thick white socks and garters. But being megastars on the school rugby team, they were used to cold knees, and being built like brick sheds, no one said boo to them about it). And best of all from Dad’s point of view, you could buy it on a ‘Dress Your Kid for 50 Quid’ special offer from the local supermarket.
I hated it, though. It might’ve been OK in navy or grey instead of mouldy maroon with yellow stripes for the optional tie and scarf from GSA Online, (supposed to be ‘gold’ for Goldthorpe but looked more like dry blood and pus), and if I had less of what Mum optimistically called ‘puppy fat.’ As it was- well, the crackly-new, next-size-up shirt fitted fine, but last year’s trousers were so snug they made my bum and hips look huge. I swapped them for my old kilt with the let-down hem, a baggy jumper to hide my muffin-top, and a blazer I had to leave unbuttoned. I blamed Ben and Jerry. And Papa John and the Colonel-
‘Eloise Morton?’ Baldy’s voice cut into my thoughts. ‘Hello? Earth to Eloise – do you read me?’
My face went hot as I raised my hand. ’Yes, sir.’
A split-second later, he moved on to the lad sitting behind. ‘Luke Myers?’
Hot needles jabbed my heart. I stared down at my desk, biting my lip, trying not to cry. Fiona McDonald, gone from the register. Erased. Deleted. As if she never existed. It was horrible, just like this morning’s journey to school had been. For the first time, I hadn’t crossed the main road at my usual place, just turned left and walked past very fast on the opposite side, looking the other way, until her house was far behind. Then I walked very slowly, checking my phone again. Still no text. Weird. But before I could look for anything else, the battery died – with all the upset I’d forgotten to charge it. I carried on walking slowly anyway. I didn’t want to get there early, didn’t want to talk to anyone. They were sure to ask about Fi, and I might start crying again-
‘There!’ Baldy ticked the last name. ‘All present and correct – for the moment.’ His eyes twinkled, then fell on Fi’s chair. The smile fell off his face. ‘Though I must say, things won’t be the same around here without Fi McD, and I know we’re all going to miss her very much.’ He raised an eyebrow at me. ‘Eloise, are you able to give us any update?’
I should’ve known. Public Speaking was very big at GSA. Readings in assembly, class announcements, speech days, school radio, Debate Group, you name it, we did it – everyone, in turns, no excuses. It was meant to ‘build confidence, prepare students for oral exams, university and job interviews, the world of work, and many other challenges of adult life,’ according to the GSA website. I didn’t mind. I quite enjoyed it, actually – apart from two things. As always, the first started heating my feet the moment I stood up, and by the time I reached the front, I was glowing to my hairline. Which made the second thing happen. I didn’t know which I hated most, the sympathetic looks, stifled smiles, sniggers, or silly comments, I just knew they made it worse until I practically burst into flames.
Still, I stood tall, took a deep breath, and told the back wall, ‘Yes, we text every day. But Britain’s five hours ahead of Canada, so we can only really talk after Fi’s Sunday brunch, which is just after our Sunday lunch. Her new house looks nice, they’ve got a big garden with pine trees and a swimming pool and a hot tub, but school starts earlier than here so she had to go back last week. She says it’s OK though, and Montreal’s pretty cool, and, um, her dad likes his new job. And she sends love to everyone, especially Caro and Libby – but especially not to Jake Adams.’ I enjoyed the giggles and seeing him go bright red for a change. Fi hadn’t really said that. I just made it up because I knew he secretly fancied her, and because he sat on the front row, and he was always grinning and holding his hands out to warm them on me when teacher wasn’t looking, and I wanted to pay him back.
‘Oh yes, and they’re coming over to spend Christmas with her gran,’ saying it aloud made me smile, and I felt my face cool a degree. ‘So she says to please still buy her presents, but only small things that won’t make her suitcase too heavy.’ Then I dried up. I couldn’t talk about Fi being homesick, and hating everything, especially her parents for making her go, and saving up for a one-way ticket so she could come home to live with us the minute she hit sixteen in exactly 398- no, 397 days. (I hadn’t asked Mum and Dad yet, but they loved Fi so I was sure they wouldn’t mind, like I wouldn’t mind sharing my room).
Luckily the Eagle swooped in before the silence got uncomfortable. ‘Thanks, Eloise. Now,’ he waved me back to my desk, ‘before we get down to business with the timetable, I have an important announcement to make, and I hope you’ll be as glad to hear it as I was. Yes, folks – we’re about to get a new addition to Year 10, a student who’s recently moved up here-’
My stomach went boing like it does when I see Joshua Brown. I didn’t hear what Baldy said next. Like everyone else, I was too busy listening to the clicking footsteps and rapid-fire voice of Principal ‘Batty’ Bates fast approaching. I got butterflies inside and goosepimples outside as two dark shapes passed the panel of wobbly glass in the corridor wall, pulling our heads with them like balloons on strings. Even though we were all looking at the door, I still jumped when the loud KNOCK-KNOCK came. Then it swept open and Prince Batty swept in, black academic gown billowing round her sharp black suit, and so tall with her killer heels and high-piled grey bun that she had to duck. (She dressed like that to intimidate difficult parents – it worked on mine, they were petrified of her – but to us and the teachers, she was a total pussycat).
‘Good morning! Good morning, 10 BT!’ she beamed. ‘How nice – how very nice to see you all back again, looking so fresh-faced and expectant! I trust Mr Theobald’s briefed you about our good news? Splendid, splendid! Then let me present the person you’ve been waiting for so quietly- come along, come along, my dear.’ Pushing the door wider, she ushered someone in. ‘Time to meet your new classmates.’
I didn’t realise I was holding my breath until I let it out. The new girl was tallish, with a black wavy bob, spot-free pale skin, pink cheeks, and a neat nose dotted with freckles. She was wearing the same clothes as me, but the rotten plum colour suited her, and her slim-but-curvy figure made it look more designer suit than superstore school-wear. She stood very still, hands clasped in front, eyes fixed politely on Batty gushing on about lovely warm Goldthorpe welcomes, being kind and helpful to the newcomer blah blah blah.
‘I speak for the entire staff when I say that we’re thrilled – absolutely thrilled! – to have Fiona McDonald’s place filled so soon by another student of Oxbridge calibre, who comes to us with such glowing reports from a highly-regarded London Girls’ Grammar School-’
My stomach sank. I knew what was coming. Little Miss Perfect was going to sit at Fi’s desk, on Fi’s chair, and I was going to hate her. But as the Prince burbled on, ‘-so she’s sure to keep you all on your toes, and I’m sure she’ll have lots of fascinating stories to share about her travels too, and her exciting life in our capital city,’ I saw her look down and blush. Prettily, of course, just a shade deeper pink on the cheeks. Her lips went tight and white, though. And her knuckles, gripping and twisting a small silver ring on her right hand. And I realised she was completely furious, and that maybe I wasn’t going to hate her quite so much.
‘Now, if you’ll excuse me, I must dash. So without further ado, I’ll leave you in Mr Theobald’s capable hands,’ Dr B patted her shoulder, ‘and let you introduce yourself to the class in the time-honoured way.’ With a nod to him and, ‘Enjoy your day,’ to the rest of us, she ducked out.
As the door closed, Baldy said to the new girl, ‘Well, that rather puts you on the spot! Are you OK with it – good to go?’
She nodded. ‘Yes, sir.’ Moving to centre front, she struck a pose like a TV presenter, (her posh school must’ve taught PS as well, unless she’d just had a crash course from Batty), and launched into Module 1, ‘Getting To Know Me/You.’
‘Hi, everybody. I’m Raven Moon-Childe.’ She pronounced her surname as two words, not Moonchild like I would if it was mine, in a nice voice, the sort that says ‘barth’ and ‘parth’ instead of ‘bath’ and ‘path,’ but without sounding too stuck-up. ‘I’m very happy to be here, I prefer small towns to big cities, and I’d rather go to a mixed school than girls-only.’ Raven smiled at the lads hanging on her every word, Josh Brown at the front with his mouth hanging open, I mean, literally. I felt sick, if not as sick as Chardonnay Jenkins, (his latest squeeze/class hottie since Year 8, when her boobs inflated to 34 C), who looked like she was sucking a wasp.
‘I know you’d rather have your friend here than me.’ Raven met my eyes. Hers were an oddly dark blue, almost navy, with the sort of long, thick lashes that don’t need falsies or mascara, and tidy natural brows. ‘But I can’t help being glad to get a place at Goldthorpe, it looks like a great school, and I’ll do my best to fit in. My favourite subjects are languages and geography, and my least favourite are algebra and calculus. I like athletics and swimming and gym, but I’m rubbish at team sports and anything involving balls,’ she paused for the predictable sniggers, ‘so don’t ask me to play tennis, either.
‘I can play guitar though, and I love all sorts of music, particularly folk, jazz and world, and all sorts of animals, particularly cats. The qualities I prize most in people are kindness, honesty and a good sense of humour, and the faults I despise most are cruelty, greed, and selfishness. My greatest fear is that humans will wreck the planet for every other species, and my greatest ambition is to do something about it. So I’d like to study earth science and politics, and be an ambassador for some big organisation like Greenpeace. Or,’ Raven grinned, showing lovely straight white teeth, not like my ugly metal mouthful, ‘become Britain’s first Green Prime Minister.
‘My favourite place on Earth is at home with Mum in our new house, and the people I’d most like to have round for dinner are Greta Thunberg, Jeremy Corbyn, and Sir David Attenborough. And you, of course.’ She grinned again round the whole room. ‘I’m fifteen next Sunday, Mum’s throwing me a big birthday party, and you’re all invited to come.’
‘Yay!’ Jake Adams did a drum-roll on his desk. ‘Party time!’
Suddenly everyone was clapping, me included. Raven transformed on the spot into a Hollywood starlet, eyelashes fluttering, hands clasped to her chest then flung wide, bowing low, milking it. You could practically see the spotlight and hear the crowd roar. Then everyone laughed, while Baldy gave her the eagle eye.
‘Well done, Raven. I can see you’d be an asset to Westminster… and you certainly would be to my drama group. Right then, go sit yourself down.’ He gestured to the only free chair. ‘I know I can trust Eloise to take good care of you, and we need to crack on.’
As she neared the desk Raven met my eyes, the corner of her mouth pulling down in a tiny grimace. She pointed. ‘May I?’
‘Oh, yeah, sorry.’ I grabbed my bag and hung it on the back of my own chair. She took hers – a battered brown leather thing that looked older than my dad – off her shoulder, hung it on the back of Fi’s, and sat down in a waft of something gorgeous that made my stomach boing again.
‘Thanks, Eloise,’ she whispered, smiling. ‘Cool name.’
I smiled too. ‘Not as cool as Raven Moonchild.’
‘It’s Moon-hyphen-Childe,’ she hissed back, frowning ever so slightly.
Nice one, Ellie. Piss off your new deskie in one easy sentence, why don’t you? ‘Sorry,’ I muttered, instantly scarlet. I couldn’t say more because Baldy was calling up the Year 10 master timetable and unlocking the stationery cupboard. (I’d nearly fainted in Year 7 when I first saw a six-day timetable and thought we had to come to school on Saturdays. Then when I discovered how they work, I liked the way it mixes the weeks up and stops you getting so bored, although Mum was forever moaning that she couldn’t keep track of when to wash and iron my sports kit).
‘OK, 10 BT, you know the drill,’ he said. ‘Let’s get that well-oiled machine into gear!’
The front row – Linsey Ackland, Jake Adams, Josh Brown, Tamsin Bryant, (lucky cow), Janey Collins, Tom Cooper, Caz Drury and Zack Edmonds – filed up one by one for stuff to hand out and began working up and down the aisles without jostling past or bumping into each other, and putting things down properly, no tossing or slapping, finishing with their own desks then one by one, sitting back down. The rest of us started filling in Name/Class No. labels with new black biros and sticking them on new white General ring-binders, (which we’d have plastered with graffiti and more interesting stickers by half-term).
Raven leaned close to whisper a rush of goosebumps down my neck. ‘Wow! Great timing. It’s like watching a ceilidh.’
‘Mm.’ I’d seen and done it a thousand times, so I wasn’t that impressed. I just inhaled and felt giddy, partly from relief that she couldn’t be that cross or she wouldn’t be speaking, and partly from her woody, earthy – almost mouldy – herby, heady scent. ‘What is that smell?’ I blurted aloud. ‘Is it you, or your clothes?’ Another nice one – if we were being graded on Making Polite Conversation, I’d be heading for a big fat F.
Luckily no-one else heard – like us, they were busily buzzing, popping binders open and shut, stuffing plastic pockets with rough-work paper, and loading them in between coloured card separators. And Raven only said, ‘Both,’ as if she didn’t mind at all, then reached into her ugly bag, brought out a little brown bottle and showed me the label. Clarity, I read, in pretty, curly handwriting with little flowers inked around.
‘Hold out your wrist.’ I did. She unscrewed the black pipette lid and dripped on an oily drop. ‘Now rub them together, warm it up.’
I rubbed hard, buried my nose in between and sniffed deep. ‘Ooh… mmm… it’s gorgeous.’
‘Yes, it’s my favourite – frankincense, sandalwood, patchouli, bergamot and clary sage.’ Raven put the top back on and held the bottle out to me. ‘You can keep it if you like.’
‘Yes, seriously. We’ve got tons at home. Mum’s big into aromatherapy, making her own perfumes and soap and stuff.’
‘Oh. Well then, um, thanks very much.’ I slipped Clarity into my desk, feeling guilty now for hating Raven on sight when she was turning out to be so nice. I tried being nice in return and said, ‘I love your ring. It’s really striking.’ It had struck me because we weren’t allowed to wear jewellery at school, only plain gold or silver studs if you had pierced ears (I didn’t), because of Health & Safety. And this was a proper signet ring, round and flat with a keyhole shape where her finger showed through. It reminded me vaguely of something… just as Raven herself reminded me vaguely of someone. ‘I’m surprised they let you keep it on, though.’
Peering closer, I spotted two engraved capital Ms, and suddenly it clicked. It wasn’t a keyhole, it was a logo, a child’s head and shoulders silhouetted against a full moon. I gasped, ‘Moonchild Music!’ One of my favourite singers was on that label. ‘Oh my God! You’re not related to Gray Childe, are you?’ That was who she reminded me of – his face had been all over the news. ‘Is he your dad?’
Raven’s eyes bugged wide. ‘SSHHH!’ she hissed through clenched teeth, twisting the ring, turning the Moonchild’s face into her palm.
Oh my God. Not again. ‘Why?’ I asked weakly. ‘What’s the matter? What did I say?’
She shook her head. ‘I can’t tell you. Not here. Not now.’
Not that we had time to talk. Baldy got us filling in timetables, with the core subjects we did together – English Lang/Lit, Maths (ugh), French, Art, Gen Studs, Rel Studs, and Sport – already printed on, for us to add our GCSE options round with our new felt-tips, a different colour for each subject. I felt a bit disappointed to see Raven pick out blue for Bio, cherry for Chem, and pink for Phys. I was using dark green for Geog, light green for Germ, and brown for Hist, (I suppose they couldn’t find a colour beginning with H), because I hadn’t a clue what I wanted to do when I left GSA, I just knew that it wouldn’t be science. But I was pleased Day 1 gave us double Lit first (yay!) here in our homeroom, then break, then French till lunch in the Language Lab next door – a nice, easy way to slide into term. And Raven was pleased when Row 2 started handing round our lavender Lit binders for Period 1, plus stuff to stuff them with, and well-thumbed copies of our Set Novel (Classics).
She pounced on it. ‘Far From the Madding Crowd? Awesome!’
My eyebrows shot up. ‘You’ve read it?’
‘Oh yes. And seen the film versions. Mum’s a total Thomas Hardy freak, we read the most famous ones together while she was dragging me and Dad round ‘Hardy’s Wessex.’ At least, she dragged Dad. I thought it was ace. We went to Stonehenge – that crops up in Tess – and Salisbury and Winchester, and all sorts of other lovely old places where the stories are set. Anyway, there’s a chapter,’ she began leafing through, ‘where the anti-hero’s showing off to the heroine, trying to seduce her with his sword- yes, page 238, ‘Hollow Amid the Ferns.’ It’s pretty sexy for late nineteenth century, you should read it-’
‘Ahem!’ Mr Theobald interrupted. I went bright red, realising the whole class had gone quiet, listening, waiting, but Baldy seemed more amused than cross. ‘All in good time, Raven! Meanwhile, since you’re such a Hardy fan, after I’ve given the intro you can start us off reading aloud from Chapter 1.’
This was Baldy’s way. He never called us alphabetically, and you never knew if he’d stop you after a paragraph or a page, so you had to follow the reader and not go to sleep because you could be next any second. But at least we could read from our desks instead of the front, which meant I went less red and cooled down quicker. And Gabriel Oak sounded like a good guy, if a bit of a boring hero, (which I guessed he must be because he’s the first person mentioned, which usually means someone’s important).
When we’d all taken a turn and the chapter was finished, Baldy put our homework questions up on the screen for us to copy into our binders. Then it was our row’s turn to go to the stationery cupboard. He must’ve seen her panicky face because he said to Raven, ‘Don’t worry, you’ll manage. Just tag on behind Eloise, take your time, and mind you don’t fall over anyone.’
He gave me a stack of Set Plays: William Shakespeare, Henry IV Part 1. I groaned inside. That sounded seriously heavy. But when we sat down again, Raven looked happy, so I said, ‘Don’t tell me you’ve read this as well. No-one reads Shakespeare for fun.’
She giggled. ‘I know what you mean. But the history plays are quite fun, actually. They’ve got bits of real history in them – what people thought at the time, anyway, or what Shakespeare thought Queen Elizabeth wanted to hear – and some truly awesome speeches. We did H4 1 and 2 last year at the Grammar, and there’s a part- brr!’ Raven broke off, rubbing her arms. ‘I come out in goosepimples just thinking about it, I love it so much I learned it by heart-’
Baldy, who’d been handing round Glossary sheets to explain the weird words, went back to the front and clapped his hands. ‘Right, folks – time for a dash of your favourite Billy Shakespoke.’ There was a chorus of groans and barfing sounds, mainly from the boys. ‘Oh, come on. You know you love it really. And to get us in the mood, would anyone care to perform a party piece from our last foray into Elizabethan theatre? Perhaps Daniel could show us his Bottom.’
Danny Thomas (class clown) muddled through a speech from our Year 9 end-of-term production Midsummer Night’s Dream – he’s a pain at times, but he can be very funny. (I’d quite enjoyed Dream because I only had to be prompter, so I could hide in the wings where it didn’t matter if I stayed bright red the whole way through). Then Raven’s left hand neighbour, Fi’s and my friend Libby Lyons, did a snip of Titania, Queen of the Fairies, with Jake Adams as her King Oberon.
‘Well done!’ said Baldy. ‘OK, let’s leave comedy now and turn to history. Raven, I gather you read Henry IV at your previous school,’ he must’ve been earwigging, ‘and there’s a part you’re particularly fond of. Would you like to share it with the class?’
‘Oh. Um, yes, sir.’ Raven took Henry with her to the front, leafing through for the place. ‘It’s this bit where the nobles are talking about the Prince of Wales and his household coming, ‘All furnish’d, all in arms, all plumed like estridges-’ She held the book open for show, but I could tell she was reciting, not reading; and when she came to, ‘I saw young Harry with his beaver on, his cuisses on his thighs, gallantly armed, rise from the ground like feather’d Mercury,’ her face was glowing with hero-worship and she had such love and admiration in her voice that suddenly I saw him too, armour shining in the sun, vaulting lightly onto his snorting horse, making it prance and wheel around to show off what a good rider he was, and felt myself come out in goosepimples and get a proud, painful lump in my throat because he was my Prince Hal too, riding bravely off to war, and I wanted to find out what happened to him, whether he survived, and I got quite excited and thought that maybe Shakespeare wasn’t so bad after all.
No-one said much after that because we had to listen to Baldy explain the plot, and who Henry IV was, and that in Shakespeare’s time old people still talked about him because they’d lost grandfathers and great-grandfathers fighting for or against him. Then he checked to see if we’d understood, (Raven never put her hand up, but if he asked her something, she always knew the answer).
Then the bell went, and as soon as he said we could go, she jumped up. ‘Please can you show me where the loos are. Eloise? I’m bursting for a pee.’
I hurried her off to the nearest before it filled up with Year 11s trying to smoke out of the window, but she stopped me at the door. ‘I don’t really want to go. I just wanted to escape before- oh, you know, people started Getting To Know Me, asking questions I don’t feel like answering.’ She smiled. ‘So go on then, show me some ropes. What do you normally do at break-time?’
Right on cue, my stomach grumbled. I’d felt too sick to eat any breakfast and I was suddenly starving. So I took her to the tuck counter in the canteen and was reaching for my usual mega-Mars Bar when Raven said, ‘You don’t want to eat that.’
I went bright red. ‘Why not?’
‘Because you’re fat enough already.’ That was what I expected to hear, or something like. Instead, Raven gave me a Look.
‘Seriously? Because it’s poison! Non-recyclable plastic full of palm oil and nasty chemicals – I mean, have you ever actually read the label?’ She shuddered. ‘Ugh. I wouldn’t eat it if you paid me. I’d rather have a banana. They’re much healthier.’
‘Mm. I suppose.’ Reluctantly, I picked a ripe one and a pack of prawn cocktail Pringles.
‘Nah, you don’t want those, either.’ She took the tube from me and put it back. ‘I’ve got something you’ll like better, I promise.’
Not feeling very happy with Raven, I led her out into the little quad where we ate our packed lunches on nice days, because today was my favourite sort of September, apple-crisp, the trees impossibly bright gold and burnt-orange against a brilliant blue sky, with odd leaves drifting down in ones and twos and an exciting pungent whiff from the caretaker’s bonfire, one of my all-time favourite smells. (Although that might’ve been Year 12 sneaking a spliff in the bike-sheds hardly anyone used any more, at least not for bikes). She headed for the table under the birch tree which nobody liked because of pigeons, dumped her bag down among the white splats and unbuckled the flap. Sitting opposite wolfing my banana, I saw a name inked inside in faded blue, not hers, and read it upside down: M-L Moulin.
‘Help yourself.’ Raven unpacked two brown paper bags and a stainless-steel flask. ‘Mum always gives me way too much.’
Dubious, I peeped into the bag with the grease-spots. Hmm. Funny-coloured crisps. ‘What are these?’
‘Peppered carrot, sweet potato, parsnip and beetroot.’ Raven scrunched into a purply-red one. ‘Yum! They’re the best.’
I found I preferred parsnip; but they were all gorgeous, sweet, crunchy with sea-salt and black pepper, and now I was glad I hadn’t wasted my money on Pringles. The other bag was full of dried figs, prunes, raisins, and apple rings, which were good too. So was the yoghurty, minty drink she called lassi, and as we sipped it in turns she asked,
‘What did you think I was going to say to you in the canteen? Your face went all stiff,’ (tactfully, she didn’t mention its colour), ‘like you expected me to bite you.’
I went bright red. Looking down, I was about to say, ‘Oh, nothing.’ Then I looked up again into her eyes, soft with concern, and suddenly it seemed pointless to hold back. So I told her exactly what, and why. ‘I knew the second you walked in that you’d be put next to me and I’d be OFF again, same as with Fi-’
‘Off again?’ Raven frowned – prettily, of course. ‘What do you mean, off?’
‘Obligatory Fat Friend. Because she was so cute. You know, blonde, petite,’ I drew Fi in the air, half a head shorter than me and half as wide, ‘or UFF. You can guess what that stands for. It’s what some of the older lads used to call us. As in, ‘Lookout, guys, here comes Fi McD… and She’s OFF!’ Or Laurel and Hardy. Or Little and Large.’
Raven’s face sort of froze. Then she scowled. That wasn’t pretty at all, her eyes went so black and cold I felt almost frightened. ‘That’s horrible.’ She reached across and squeezed my hand, and I noticed the Moonchild had worked its way back to the right place. ‘Well, they’ll never say it round me, Ellie. Trust me on that.’
‘Thanks, Raven.’ I squeezed back gratefully, though I wasn’t sure how she could stop them. Then I blurted again. ‘I’m really glad now you’ve come, I thought it was going to be awful having someone else in Fi’s place but it’s actually really nice having a new deskie, much better than sitting on my own. And I’m sorry I upset you asking about your dad, it was stupid of me, and for getting your name wrong and thinking you’d be a snobby stuck-up swot.’
‘It’s OK. I’m not upset, and I don’t blame you. Teachers can be so clueless. Talking about you as if you’re not there, bigging you up, boasting about you – it drives you insane.’ (I wouldn’t know, I never had the problem). ‘They think they’re encouraging people but they’re not, it’s obnoxious and embarrassing and stupid because it just sets you up to be hated. I mean, when Doctor Bates was yapping on, you didn’t think ‘ooh, lucky us, a clever newbie from a top London school, must try really hard to keep up with her,’ did you?’
‘No,’ I giggled. ‘I hated you.’
‘There you go. But you can’t exactly tell teachers to fuck off, can you?’ Sly little dimples appeared in her cheeks. ‘Not unless you want to get expelled.’
I gasped, not just from the F-word. ‘Oh my God! You’ve been expelled?’
‘Yep. From my poxy boarding school.’
‘Oh my God, Raven! How did it happen? What did you say?’
‘Well, we’d just come back from Christmas vac – and I really didn’t want to, but Dad made me because he’d upfronted a full year’s fees to get me into the stupid place – and in assembly the Head hauls me up on stage and starts giving it this,’ she made her hand look like a quacking beak, ‘about me getting a special prize for getting 100% in French for the whole of my first term, and what a shining example I was blah blah bleurgh. And I mutter, ‘This is such bullshit.’ And he says, ‘What did you say?’ So I say it again louder, and he tells me to go straight to his office, and I tell him to go eff himself. I didn’t just say ‘eff,’ obviously. Then I tell the school they’re a bunch of spoilt, shallow, worthless wankers who can all go eff themselves too, and the Porsches they rode in on.’ Raven grinned. ‘It was sweet, totally worth getting ragged out by Dad when he came to pick me up. And Mum thought it was hilarious. Dad was even angrier when they only refunded half his money because Spring Term had already started. Serve him right, I never wanted to go there in the first place. Ha, ha, karma.’ Grinning, she waved the Moonchild at me. ‘It’s why I’m wearing this. I forgot to take it off before hockey – God, I hate team sports! – and some fool cracked my finger with her stick, and now I can’t get it over the knuckle. And it was Mum’s wedding ring, so I’m not having it cut off – the finger or the ring.’
Then the bell went BRRRRRRING! and my stomach went boing because we’d have to walk to the Language Lab past the old Sixth Form Block where the Year 13 to 14s lived, join the maroon streams pouring into and out of various doors, and I’d be OFF again. Only something weird happened instead. Of course, everyone stared at Raven because her face was strange as well as stunning – I saw the Lennox Lads actually stop dead, twin ginger heads swivelling to watch her go by – and everyone stared at me because I was with her. And we got smiles and waves from people I knew in other classes, and odd smirks and sniggers, and bitchy looks from some of the older girls, but no-one said a word except ‘Hey, Ellie!’
It was even weirder when we went inside. The corridor babble rose and fell, voices hushing as we passed, chattering log jams parting as if an invisible bubble was forcing them gently aside. I glanced sidelong at Raven, walking tall, confident, radiating authority, acknowledging the stares with tiny nods as if she was the Queen. ‘What’s happening- what are you doing?’ I hissed from the corner of my mouth. ‘Are you playing Prince Batty?’
‘No, I’m Prince Hal.’ She favoured a fit Year 11 with a small smile. ‘And you’re Hotspur. So act like him – swagger!’
I giggled, feeling silly. ‘I can’t. I don’t know how.’
‘Then copy me.’ Raven put an arm round my round shoulders, pulled them square, and spoke in the other Prince’s voice. ‘Just fake it till you make it, my dear. Fake it till you make it!’
In French, re-christened Corbelle by Mlle Joubert because it made conversation easier when our names sounded French, (mine didn’t need to change, apart from adding accents), Raven had to introduce herself again. She kept it simple: ‘Mon nom est Corbelle, j’ai quatorze ans, j’ai les cheveux noirs et les yeux bleus, j’aime bien les animaux et la musique, j’habite chez Maman à la Maison Cachée’ and so on.
Then we all had to plug ourselves in. I enjoyed French Language, though I wasn’t so keen on the Lab; hearing my own voice in my ears embarrassed me, much more than speaking in normal class, and most of all when the Joob listened in and tried to get me to say my Rs properly. She told us that this year we were Going To France, with modules on Getting Around: Buying Tickets, Booking Rooms, Ordering Meals, Buying In Shops etc, and that today we’d be Visiting Paris. Slides flashed up showing Places To Go, while the narrators Jacques and Jacqueline took turns telling us about them, and we repeated their words floating white across the screen. I couldn’t tell how Raven was getting on until the bell went and we heard, ‘OK, allez déjeuner, tout le monde! Au revoir,’ in our ears. Then as everyone started chattering and grabbing bags and filing out, I saw the Joob beckon her over and my stomach went boing. Usually, this wasn’t good.
‘We’re off for lunch, El,’ said Libby, as I dawdled with my pencil-case. ‘You coming?’
‘Um- no,’ I said. ‘I ought to wait for Raven.’
Libby and Caro made faces at each other. ‘Well, we’re not waiting,’ said Libby. ‘We’re starving.’
‘Yeah,’ said Caro. ‘Leave her. She can find her own parth to the carnteen if she’s so bloody clever.’
‘Um.’ I dithered. ‘Yeah, but Baldy told me to take care of her, so perhaps I’d better-’
‘Feh – whatever. Just don’t blame us if the table’s full when you get there. C’mon, Lib,’ Caro said. ‘Let Miss Goody Two-Shoes wait for Miss Poshy-Pants.’
I trailed behind as they giggled out, then hung round the Lab door to earwig. If Raven was getting told off, it was in French too fast and blurry for me to understand, with a weird accent that made Oui sound like Oo-weh. I could only catch odd words, Rive Gauche, apartement, arrondissement, and wondered if they were swapping addresses. Then they parted with French kisses (on both cheeks, I mean); and as she came out, waved off by a beaming Mlle Joubert, Raven shrugged at me.
‘So shoot me, I’m bilingual,’ she said as we set off down the corridor. ‘Mum’s French, I was born in Paris, my grandies still live on the Left Bank, and I’ve been going on hols there forever. Which is why getting 100% in French is no big deal for me, which is why I went ballistic in that assembly because the Head knew perfectly well, Dad had banged on about it enough trying to get me in there. You won’t tell anyone though.’ Raven’s eyes were serious. ‘You know why. Just like you won’t tell anyone about Gray Childe. Will you, Ellie?’ I shook my head, liking her more and more for not being a show-off, and feeling sorry for her because of her dad. ‘Where are we going, anyway?’ she added as we passed the Assembly Hall and Sports Block. ‘I thought the canteen was back there.’
‘It is. But I need to go out to the shop,’ (the tuck counter was closed at lunchtime to try and make us eat a proper meal), I forgot my sandwiches and it was too late to sign up for school dinners.’ Then I remembered what she’d said about honesty. ‘Um- actually, I didn’t forget. I just felt too rubbish this morning to even think about food.’ I didn’t now, though, and my mouth watered as I tried to decide whether I most wanted something from the chippy or a Cornish pastie and chocolate Swiss roll from the baker’s next door. Then I suddenly felt sick again, because when I slipped my hand into my blazer pocket all I could feel was a 50p left over from last time I wore it, not the fiver Mum had left on the little hall table where we keep the keys, where I could pick it up on my way out. Oh, great. I dug in every other pocket, slowed down to look in my bag. No joy. Cup of soup from the drinks machine, then. ‘Um- sorry, Raven, we’ll have to go back, I actually have forgotten my lunch money.’
She shrugged. ‘No worries, we can share my pack-up. Let’s go and have a picnic on the playing field.’
We cut between the hard tennis courts and came out onto the fields, which have trees and tall hedges all round to keep in wild balls and screen them from the road along the top, and a few benches round the sides where you can sit to re-lace your boots or wait to be called in to play. We didn’t bother with those, we just picked a nice sunny spot and sat down on our blazers, turned inside out in case of grass stains, and took our jumpers off too because it was so warm.
Raven pulled out a long oblong tin from the bottom of her bag and opened it. One end was filled by a light brown box, like a shell, and the other by a banana curled round a pear, with brown paper bags tucked between. Pulling the box apart, she shook half its contents into the top and handed it to me. ‘Here you go, Mum’s version of Waldorf salad. It’s better than the recipe, she puts toasted seeds and pine-nuts in as well.’
‘What are those?’ I pointed to some crinkly brown chunks among the chopped celery, apple, and grape.
‘Marinated tofu.’ She popped a piece into her mouth. ‘Try some, it’s delish.’
I did, and it was. But I couldn’t see how to eat the salad without getting mayonnaise down my new shirt and getting killed by Mum, so I said, ‘Um- have you got a fork or something I can borrow?’
Raven grinned. ‘You don’t need one.’ To my surprise she opened her mouth wide, took a huge bite of the box and started crunching. ‘Hemp,’ she said when she could talk again. ‘Place Mum buys them does edible plates and bowls too. Brilliant idea, isn’t it?’
I nibbled the edge, which reminded me of crispbread or a savoury Cornetto. ‘Mm – yeah.’ It was too chewy to say much more until we’d finished. Then as Raven gave me her pear because I’d already had a banana, she punched me in the stomach with a question I hadn’t expected.
‘So what happened to your friend Fiona? She’s not dead, is she?’
Boing. More of a clench, actually, as if icy fingers had just grabbed my insides and squeezed hard. ‘No, but she almost might as well be!’ I blurted. Tactless, but I was suddenly too upset to think what I was saying. ‘She’s in Canada. Five thousand miles away! And she didn’t want to go but she had to because of her dad’s stupid promotion, and she used to live round the corner, and we saw each other every day- I mean, every day, our mums took turns feeding us on school nights, and at weekends she usually stayed at ours because of her brother.’ (Eight-year-old Jamie, ‘lively’ to his mum, was ‘a total pain’ to me and Fi, always messing with her stuff and barging into her room when we were in there, unless she remembered to wedge her door shut). ‘But now we can’t even talk when we feel like because of the time difference, only for an hour on Sundays!’ The hand squeezed again as I remembered I couldn’t text either until I got home and re-charged my phone.
‘Oh. Sorry, Ellie.’ Raven squeezed my hand, which felt much nicer. ‘You must miss her a lot… had you always been besties?’
‘No, we went to different junior schools, I only met her when we started here. We were both shy and scared stiff, and sort of clung together even when we’d settled in and got to know other people. So yeah, I miss her, and everything’s been horrible since we found out.’ My eyes filled as I remembered that Wednesday night. I’d been at Fi’s as usual till our nine o’clock curfew and was just getting ready for bed when she came racing round, banging on our front door in hysterics – like I was, when I finally understood what she was trying to tell me. Ugh. ‘You know, her folks didn’t say a word about Canada at first. Not a word! Fi thought her dad was just away on business when he went for his interviews, even the second time when her mum went with him, because it was no big deal, she often did,’ I grimaced, ‘and if they were just off for the evening, a works dinner or something, me and Fi used to babysit Jamie. Anyway, they said they didn’t want to upset her for nothing in case he didn’t get it, so they waited till it was official, then announced they were emigrating, and she wouldn’t be coming back to GSA this term – two days before we broke up!
‘It was awful at school for the rest of that week. Obviously, her mum told the Prince but Fi had to tell the class, and she started crying again, and got sent to Batty’s office to have a cup of tea and calm down, then on her last day we had a special assembly with a slide show about Canada, and Fi had to stand up at the end while everyone clapped and said goodbye.’
Raven rolled her eyes. ‘Oh my God.’
‘Yeah, and all the grown-ups trying to be kind, cheer us up, saying what a great country, what a wonderful opportunity, you’ll soon make new friends blah blah, and Jamie practically bouncing off the walls because he can’t wait… and then we only had four weeks left, and that was all packing, and getting rid of stuff she couldn’t take with her, and helping her help her folks get the house ready to sell.’ I gulped. ‘The only good bit was the massive leaving party they threw in town. Everybody went, even some of the teachers – it would’ve been brilliant if it hadn’t been so sad. And that was it – they left next day to get settled in before Fi’s term started on the twenty-eighth, and her dad started his new job on September the first.’
‘What does he do?’
I didn’t really know. I wasn’t sure Fi did either, although she’d tried to explain. ‘He’s something called a Logistics Manager, and he works- I mean, used to work, in Leeds for a company called CanCom. They organise and televise big concerts and sports events.’ I’d been quite excited at first when Fi told me that, but her dad never got to meet famous stars, his job was doing important but boring stuff behind the scenes, like making sure the stadium ordered enough toilet roll for fifty thousand people. ‘And their head office has just opened some new section in Montreal, and they picked Mr McD to go and Logistics Manage it – worse luck for Fi and me.’
‘Oh my God.’ Some of the pink had gone out of Raven’s cheeks. ‘I don’t believe- this is so freaky.’
‘CanCom Montreal. Their new section – It’s called NAMCom, North American Music Company, and it’s going to produce music for Canadian and American bands as well as promoting them and organising gigs and stuff. I know, because it stands for North American MoonChild as well… it was CanCom that Mum sold the business to.’
‘Uh, yeah. See what I mean about freaky? Fiona’s over there, and we’re here, and it’s all sort of our fault. Sorry, Ellie.’ My mouth opened and shut like a goldfish. ‘It’ll be OK, though,’ Raven added hastily. ‘Mum says everything happens for a reason, and maybe this has happened because we needed to meet. I mean, I know I can’t replace Fi and I’d never try, but I don’t know a soul here my own age, and I could really use a friend I can trust, so maybe I could- well, cling to you for a bit?’ Her eyes appealed, softly blue. ‘If you don’t mind. If you don’t hate me too much now.’
I still couldn’t think of a single thing to say. Then suddenly my stomach thawed, and a huge, melty rush of relief bloomed on my cheeks, making them feel (for once) just warm, and pleasantly pink. I didn’t want to be Ellie No-Mates, or odd one out with Libby and Caro, and it was much too late to hate Raven because the thought of being friends with her made me feel better than I had for weeks. So to tease her, I looked away, stuck my nose in the air.
‘Mm. Whatever. But Baldy told me to take care of you, so I’ll have to suck it up.’ Then I poked her in the ribs. Raven poked me back with her banana and caught a tender spot that creased me up. Then we had a poking fight and giggled ourselves silly. ‘It’s not really your fault though, is it?’ I said when I got my breath back. ‘I mean, it’s not like your mum tried to mess up our lives on purpose. Besides,’ I looked down, suddenly shy, ‘mine doesn’t feel so messed up now.’
‘Whew. Thanks, Ellie – that means a lot.’ Raven unzipped her weapon and chomped off the end. ‘I’d explain why, but it’s a long story- oh, I know! Come back to ours for tea and I’ll tell you the whole thing! Mum’ll be really glad I’ve started making friends already – and she won’t believe it when she finds out who you are, and how we’ve come to meet.’
My mum was glad too, I could tell by her voice when I borrowed Raven’s phone to ask if it was OK. And I was practically sick with excitement because of what Raven might tell me, the gory details that hadn’t made it into the papers or gossip mags, and I couldn’t wait- which must be exactly why she didn’t want people going on about her, or knowing who her dad was, because they’d be just as nosy as me – which made me feel so ashamed I had to stuff my mouth with her pear to stop it saying anything stupid.
‘It’s not like it’s a state secret,’ Raven went on as if reading my mind. ‘I don’t care if people find out gradually, just not till after my party. I want them to get to know me as me first, without sucking up to Gray Childe’s kid for what they think they can get or hating me for things I can’t help and never wanted in the first place. And you will come, won’t you, next Sunday?’ She raised a neat eyebrow. ‘It’ll be brilliant, just like the old days. You’ll love it.’
‘Um- yeah, look, about your party… are you sure you want to invite everyone? I mean, the whole class?’
Raven’s eyebrow went higher. ‘Yes, why not? It wouldn’t be fair otherwise.’
‘Um, well-’ I hesitated. It seemed only right to warn her, though I didn’t like being a grass- then again, Chard could be a real bitch and she was going out with the lad who made my stomach go boing, so I didn’t feel I owed her anything. ‘It’s just that- well, the Year 12 lads let Josh Brown and Jake Adams and Chardonnay Jenkins share their spliffs in the bike sheds because she shows them her Wonderbra. With her chest in, I mean,’ I mimed unbuttoning my shirt, ‘she doesn’t just bring one to school. So they’ll probably try and sneak some weed or alcopops or something in so they can sneak off somewhere and get smashed.’
‘Oh. Thanks for the heads-up, I’ll tell Mum.’ The sly dimples reappeared in Raven’s cheeks. ‘I’m sure we can handle a few teenage stoners. And shall I tell her I’ve had my first RSVP?’
My braces flashed in a big steely grin. ‘Yes, if she’s catering!’ By now we’d finished the last bits of dried fruit, drained the last dregs of lassi, and split a yummy cherry-almond flapjack. I felt nicely full, but not over-stuffed and sleepy like I often did in the afternoon, and very grateful that Raven had saved me from starving, going home to be told off for forgetting my money, or worst of all, getting a cardboard cup of powdery lumps from the drinks machine with my lonely 50p. ‘Yeah, thanks for sharing your lunch, I really enjoyed it.’
‘My pleasure. We can do it every day if you like. I never manage to eat the whole lot on my own, no matter how hungry I am.’ Raven folded up the paper bags, put them back in the tin with her empty flask, put the tin back in her bag, and her sweater back on. ‘And now please can you show me where the Science Block is? I’ve got Double Physics there after registration.’
‘No problem. But don’t worry if you forget the way, you can always follow Caro. She does Phys too.’ I shuddered. ‘And Chem and Advanced Maths.’