Here’s the next instalment of my young adults/chick-lit/creepy/humorous school story (the preceding chapters are all on here too) – couple of implied sexual swear-words and one actual F, but all good clean fun apart from that. Enjoy – and let me know what you think!
Chapter 5: Day 2
‘Is it OK if we swing by home first?’ Raven asked as we headed out of EngLang, our last lesson. ‘I want to drop my bags off, I don’t fancy lugging them all the way to your place.’
‘Yeah, no problem.’ I’d have agreed to anything, I was still buzzing because Day 2 had been magic – well, apart from Games, but even that worked out OK in the end. For me, anyway.
It started so unbelievably I’d re-lived the moment all day, sucking it like some delicious sweet. By the time we reached the church, Raven and I had got mixed up with a big loose gang who’d bussed in from the new estate or walked from Townsend Road, where Dad said house prices had gone through the roof on account of people wanting to live near GSA for their kids; and at the turn-off for the school gates, we ran into another big loose gang coming the opposite way, from the old new estate. My stomach gave a huge BOING as we came face-to-face with Joshua Brown, draped all over Chardonnay Jenkins. She gave us her usual, ‘Ha ha, look what I’ve got,’ smirk, but it dropped off when Josh pulled up short, nearly jerking her off her feet, and a big grin spread over his face.
‘Hi, Raven! So, you come in this way as well? Cool.’ He gave her a cheeky wink. ‘I’ll look out for you.’ Then he looked at me. Oddly, like he’d never seen me before. He blinked. The grin faded for a second. Then it came back again, full beam, crinkling his eyes. My stomach went boing-boing-boing. ‘Hey, El!’ he said. ‘Wicked hair.’
I thought of icebergs, dams, floodgates, anything to cool the red tide and stop it at my cheeks. ‘Thanks, Josh.’ Glowing prettily, (I hoped), I tossed my wiggles and smiled at him nicely, no metal. Then – I still can’t believe it – I managed to say, ‘See you in class, then,’ and walk away, leaving them standing. It’s probably the coolest thing I’ve ever done, and you should’ve seen Chard’s face – I only wish I’d had my camera out.
Next we caught up with Libby and Caro, dawdling over a phone. They admired my hair as well, although Lib looked a bit sick because she’s always been third prettiest after Fi (now Raven) and Caro, and maybe I was catching up in that way too. We dawdled on to assembly together, passing round Fi’s latest pictures on Caro’s monster screen: ice-hockey players on the school practice rink, Jamie snowboarding down the school artificial ski-slope, Fi ice-skating, Fi and Jamie with the gorgeous dark-haired boy and girl, up to their necks in a hot-tub, and I could see why she hadn’t texted, and felt even better about all the good new stuff happening for me.
That carried on in assembly, when the Prince gave her usual Day 2 announcements about after-school activities, and trials for sports teams and DebateSoc, and music and drama auditions. Raven whispered that she was going to try for Baldy’s Drama Group – I was pleased, it’s the only thing I ever join – but she couldn’t decide between Orchestra and Choir, (which I’d quite like if I dared and could sing), because the orchestra usually accompanies the choir and you can’t be in two places at once.
Then in class, Baldy handed Raven a form to sign and a fresh timetable to fill in and told her to copy from mine, and swapped her blue, cherry, and pink files for a brown and two greens, with wads of course bumf she’d missed yesterday. And suddenly we were doing the same options – just like me and Fi, for want of a better idea.
‘Mum emailed Dr B as soon as we got home last night,’ Raven explained on the way to Double Geog. ‘And she rang Mum straight away, and it turns out this is the only other combination that works with the timetable apart from Art, Music, and Something Else not science or maths. You don’t mind, do you?’
My stomach boinged unhappily then sank into my shoes. ‘Um- no, no, it’s cool. But, um, I suppose you’ll want Hidden House for your project now, won’t you? I mean, it’s your home, your history.’
Raven giggled. ‘Not on Mum’s side. No, I’m going to do the Desmoulins in the French Revolution and American wars. There’s a great family archive – Aunt Genie’s even got a portrait of Captain Jean-Claude painted in 17-whenever. The movie people took a publicity shot of Joey posing next to it in his replica uniform – it’s amazing, they practically look like clones. I’ll find a copy and show you.’ She grinned. ‘Shame his acting skills didn’t match up.’
My stomach boinged happily back to its usual place and stayed there through Geog, which was on glaciers and interesting enough to make me forget about Games. But when the break bell rang, it sank again and by the time we got to the quad I felt too sick to eat my banana (100 calories saved, whoop-de-do).
‘Whoa! You’re keen,’ said Raven as I hustled her off to the Sports Block a minute early, blazer over my arm, unbuttoning my collar and cuffs as we went, with Kat Samson and Bree Patrick puffing along behind.
I wasn’t really. Our term choices, (hockey or football one week, gym or indoor court sports the next), were no choice for me – I hated them all. But I said, ‘Um- yeah, I like to get my favourite peg in the changing room, it’s handy for the loos.’ Which was true – but it was also tucked away behind the other racks in the corner furthest from the door, where people were least likely to see, (apart from Bree and Kat, and I don’t mind sharing with them). I headed straight for it unzipping my sports bag, hung up my blazer – a poor curtain, but better than nothing – dumped my bag on the bench as a shield, turned my back, whipped both tops off together, then whipped on my white polo shirt.
Phew! Flab decently veiled, I slowed down, added my maroon hoodie tracksuit top pulled well down over my bum, and had just dropped my tights and kilt when an icy hand squeezed my stomach. Oh my God! I hadn’t changed my pink flowery period pants for regulation maroon sports pants! Flopping onto the bench, I dragged my bag across my lap before anyone noticed and rummaged through desperately. No pants anywhere. Oh my God. No optional shorts, either – I hardly ever wear them because they ride up my bum when I run and make it look wobbly-huge, and I stopped hunting as I saw them, still neatly folded in my bottom drawer next to my forgotten pants, spare polo shirt, white tennis skirt, and the swimsuit I hardly ever wear either, for obvious reasons.
Calling myself every rude name I could think of, I wriggled into my stretchy gym skirt, stood and hitched it up quick, then put my trackie bottoms underneath; it looked a bit silly, but so does everyone else who prefers skirts to shorts, and at least I’d be allowed to keep them on for the first half while we warmed up and practised bully-off and passing and dribbling and shooting goals. As for the second half… well, if I was careful, I might just get away without my first-ever uniform de-merit. Glumly, I pulled on the hideous scab-and-pus stripy socks, stuffed in my shin pads, and laced up my hockey boots. Meanwhile Raven had stripped to the buff, rubbed a deodorant bar under her arms, and re-dressed in brand-new uniform sports undies, shirt, and shorts which (of course) looked great on her, as did the tracksuit. Then she followed me to the racks and chose a battered old school hockey stick; I was surprised, I thought she’d have her own from when she played at her posh schools.
Raven must’ve noticed because she leant close and muttered, ‘Mine’s some high-tech pro thing Dad paid a mint for, I was too embarrassed to bring it given how crap I am at hockey.’ She giggled. ‘You’ll soon see. I bet I’m worse than you.’
We were about the same, actually. Raven could run a lot faster, but I could dribble and pass better, (she kept missing the ball), so Ms ‘Mellie’ Mellors put us both on the duds’ side, (I mean B Team), for Period 2 – along with Chard who hated mud, and running because her chest practically hit her in the face even in a sports bra, and messing up her hair and the make-up she shouldn’t have been wearing, and Lib who’s been phobic about balls since Year 8 when a high one chipped her front tooth, plus half a dozen other more or less hopeless cases. On regular days, Mellie tries to split the good players fairly to make it a more even match, but the first session was always so she could watch last year’s school team members in action together and make sure they were still up to it after the long break – which meant she always put them all on A Team, which meant B Team always got totally destroyed.
I wore my trackie bottoms till the last possible second, (we were allowed to keep the tops on for matches, so those of us with bouncy chests always did in case of watching boys), then thanking God it wasn’t windy, I pulled my skirt down as far as it would go without falling off, pulled my top down over it, and jogged carefully into my normal position. Right Back. Yeah, that suited me – right at the back, trying to look keen but staying well away from the action, and counting the seconds till full-time.
Raven got Fi’s old place, Right Wing, and ran about looking impressive but not achieving much while I hovered round the goal, occasionally lumbering out to try and stop a ball as it hurtled towards Bree, (our widest team-mate, and a half-decent goalie), keeping my back to the Mel, and hoping no-one could see up my skirt. Luckily, no-one did, and I felt quite giddy when second half started even though we were losing 0-8. Not long now! I gazed at the Sports Block, planning to dash for my bottoms the moment the whistle blew, try and jog all the way back to be first in-
‘Raven!’ someone yelled. I jumped, whipped my head back to the game, and saw the ball pelting down the right wing with Raven pelting after, overtaking it, making a wild swing – and missing.
‘Yours, Ellie!’ she screamed, as it rolled on fast in my direction. ‘Stop it!’
I stuck my stick out, clipped the ball, deflected it into the circle, and chased it as fast as I could while the A Team attackers raced forward. Then I caught up, and thwack! I hit the best ball of my life, a lovely clean stroke which whizzed past the horrified goalie and thumped into the corner of the net.
‘Goal!’ I shrieked, jumping up and down waving my stick over my head with both hands. It was my first ever in a match. The team shrieked too, cheering and applauding. The A Team, that is. The B team stood frozen, staring at me, the goalie’s mouth hanging open. Bree’s mouth. Our goalie. A boiling red wave rushed to my hairline – I’d scored an own goal – and as I abruptly stopped jumping, my overstretched skirt dropped to my ankles.
PHEEEEP! Mellie’s whistle cut through the laughter. Like half the teams, she’d seen my rosy full moon as I bent over to yank it back up, and sternly pointed me off the pitch. Now I was in trouble (as if things weren’t bad enough). But when I explained about paddy-pants she looked interested and said what a good idea, you should sew press-studs in some sport pants for this time of the month.
Even better, she patted my shoulder and told me not to dwell on the goal. ‘It can happen to any player in the heat of the moment – and otherwise, it was a perfect shot,’ she said kindly. ‘Yes, I’ve been watching you today, Eloise, and it was good to see you engaging instead of hiding at the back doing nothing. With a bit more focus and practice and a lot more self-confidence, you could play well enough to really enjoy it.’
Best of all, Mellie said that under the circumstances she hadn’t the heart to give my pants a de-merit, pretended her pen wouldn’t work to make the black mark in her book, then sent me off with a wink to get cleaned up. Knowing I’d have the changing room to myself for ages, I had a proper shower for once, reliving my goal over and over – whacking that ball into the net had felt amazing, even though it was the stupidest mistake I’d ever made in hockey as well as my best-ever shot. Then I relived my skirt falling down, which was the absolute worst, most embarrassing moment of my entire life, (worse than getting stuck in a coin-slot loo on Cleethorpes prom when I was eight because I couldn’t work the lock and having to bang on the door and yell for Mum) – but as I soaped my hips and tum there seemed to be less of them… maybe three pounds less. Less to hold my skirt up. Oh, my God! It suddenly felt almost worth it, and I suddenly felt a lot better.
Afterwards, wrapped in a towel, I sang Passenger to myself as I rinsed my pad under the cold tap, wrung it out and wrapped it in my sports bra to go in the wash, dried my sweat-chilled pants under the hand-drier, popped in a fresh pad from the period bag I had remembered to bring, and dabbed on some of the Clarity I’d remembered to put in it. So I was dry, dressed, hydrated, banana’d, (my appetite was back), kit packed, and finger-combing my hair in front of the mirror by the loos, (Raven had re-plaited it for me at break, like Fi used to, and it had stayed quite wiggly), when she burst in, rushed over, and gave me a warm damp hug.
‘Are you OK, Ellie? What happened? What did the Mel say – was it bad? I was so worried when you were sent off.’
‘No, she was really nice about it, I think she felt sorry for me. And I’m fine, actually, because-’ I broke off as Bree and Kat puffed in, dragging off their hoodies, closely followed by Libby and Caro. Oh, God. My face went redder than theirs, but before I could apologise Bree beat me to it, (she was always apologising for herself, as if she felt ashamed of taking too much space up).
‘Oh, Ellie, I’m so sorry I didn’t save that ball for you! I feel awful about it. But I didn’t expect you to hit it my way.’
‘Don’t you feel bad, though,’ said Kat. I liked Kat, who wanted to be a nurse but looked more like a farmer’s wife with her big mop of blonde curls, dreamy blue eyes, round pink cheeks, and lovely clear skin as if she worked out in the fresh air all day. She was mid-way between me and Bree size-wise, but not self-conscious because she was so beautiful, like Rosie Cotton in the Lord of the Rings films, and had a gorgeous, curvy, dimpled shape you just wanted to grab hold of and cuddle. (Lots of boys try, but Kat says she’s saving herself for True Love, preferably with a sexy, rich surgeon). And she’s thoughtful – always stands between us and the rest in the showers, then holds up a massive bath sheet for us to get dressed behind without being too obvious about it. ‘We never stood a chance, and they’d have trashed us a lot worse than 14-1 if Bree hadn’t saved so many.’ She giggled. ‘And if I hadn’t scored the one.’
Then a hailstorm of studs rattled down the corridor and they hurried off to shower as a loud, chattering stream began pouring in, clattering sticks onto the rack, and pulling off tops as they came.
‘Oh, look – it’s Ellie Own-Goal!’ Chard Jenkins planted herself in front of me, hands on hips, smirking nastily. ‘Why are you still here, Rosy Cheeks?’ She sniggered. ‘Yeah, that’s what we should call you from now on. Isn’t it, girls?’
I smiled sweetly back. I’d much rather show a hockey team my knickers than look as silly as she did this morning, and I was just about to tell her so when Raven stepped between us.
‘No, it isn’t.’ In her bra and pants, still pumped from running, she looked like Wonder Woman about to punch Chard through the wall. ‘And anyone who does will be sorry.’
‘Oh yeah?’ Chard turned on her. ‘Says who?’
‘Says the GSA anti-bullying policy.’ Raven smiled, not at all sweetly. ‘I can quote it for you if you like.’
Ooh. Squish. Then Libby chimed in. ‘Yeah, leave it out, Chard. Unless you want us to start calling you BB,’ (it stood for some combination of Big-Bouncy-Booby-Babe, depending on who you asked), ‘like Josh’s mates do.’
Chard went beetroot. We weren’t meant to know that. But now everyone in 10 BT or 10 RK, (the class we did Games with to make up the teams), knew if they hadn’t already, because they’d all stopped to stare in breathless silence waiting for someone to get hit, (and probably hoping it’d be Chard because she was so up herself, especially since she’d been going out with Josh).
For a horrible moment I thought Caro was going to do it, she looked so cross. Chard took a step back. No-one in their right mind would want to fight Caro. She’s the tallest in class, big with it – not fat, just muscly and fit because she’s seriously sporty – and has amazing dark red cropped hair that looks hennaed but isn’t, and never wears make-up, and always wears shorts for Games, and moans about her flat chest but secretly loves it because she doesn’t bounce even without a bra and thinks it’s hilarious being mistaken for her younger brother. So she makes a terrifying centre-forward on the GSA Team, and she’s well handy with the hockey stick she was still holding.
It was great to have my mates sticking up for me, but I didn’t want Caro or anyone else losing her temper and getting suspended. Images flashed though my head, Prince Hal inspiring his troops, sassy Bathsheba, Raven trilling like Batty, ‘Fake it till you make it, my dear,’ and next thing I knew I was climbing onto the nearest bench and going into full Public Speaking Mode and not caring how red I went.
‘No, call me Rosy Cheeks if you like, I think it’s pretty funny. And yeah, big deal, I forgot to change into my school pants because these are so comfy.’ I pulled my kilt up, stuck my bum out and flashed them. There were laughs and whistles from 10 RK, but 10 BT mainly boggled because this was so unlike me. ‘They’ve got press-studs and washable pads in, and Raven’s mum gave me them because I’m Having My Period.’ It felt great saying that because I knew half the room hadn’t started yet because we talked about who had and who hadn’t all the time, and it was like being in a young women’s club everyone wanted to join despite the pain and mess, and those who were in it felt smug and grown up, and those who weren’t felt left out and jealous. ‘And I’m really, really sorry I didn’t score my goal for B Team – but that was pretty funny too, wasn’t it?’
‘Yeah, but don’t apologise,’ said Caro. ‘It was a wicked shot, El. Great angle and power. Hit a few more like that and you’ll soon be on the team.’ She poked me gently with her stick. ‘As long as you learn to get ‘em in the right net.’
This time everybody laughed, but it was nice because they were laughing with me, not at me, and Raven whispered, ‘Well played!’ when I got down and I knew she wasn’t talking about hockey, and Chard punched my arm in a jokey way as if things were fine, no hard feelings.
‘You off home to change your fancy pants now, then?’ she asked casually.
‘Um- no. I’ve not been told to.’ I could’ve done, I had plenty of time. And I should’ve done really, I knew I was breaking the rules. And I certainly wished I had later, given how things turned out. But it was sort of with Mellie’s permission and besides, I didn’t want to miss lunch with Raven, so I just shrugged. ‘It’s not like they show.’ That was a dig, because one day in April which started out snowy and freezing turned sunny and boiling by lunchtime, so Chard took her jumper off in the canteen and everybody could see her bright purple lacy half-cup Wonderbra through her shirt, and a disgusted dinner lady reported her to the Prince, who hit Chard with a uniform de-merit and sent her home to change into a decent plain white one.
Anyway, we went off for lunch in the same place as yesterday, and Raven shared her huge wholemeal bap stuffed with egg mayonnaise and salad, and I shared my nectarines, then because I’d just had a big banana and about ten litres of water I was so full I could only watch while she ate apple rings and half a giant oatmeal-raisin cookie, (and saved the other half for me in case I got hungry by afternoon break).
Meanwhile, because I’d made Chard hate me even more than she had this morning, she went off and rang her mum, and Mrs Jenkins rang Batty to complain that it wasn’t fair letting me stay at school in the wrong pants when her daughter got sent home with a stiff note for an underwear infraction, and Batty told Mrs J that staff were allowed to exercise discretion in such matters but she’d get to the bottom of it (so to speak), and she had a word with the Mel, who explained about my paddy-pants and said they were perfectly respectable and looked almost uniform colour from a distance if anyone saw, which they wouldn’t when I had my kilt on, and Batty said good call, what a lot of silly fuss over nothing. Then she had words with Chard for trying to undermine a teacher and get a classmate in trouble at a sensitive time and coming to school in make-up (again) and stood over her in the staff loos while she cleaned every scrap off and told Chard if she ever wore it again, she’d be suspended. We found all that out at break from Lib, who’d been texting her mum under the desk since Chard missed afternoon registration, (Mrs Lyons is a teaching assistant and besties with Batty’s secretary, who’d watched the whole thing on the office security video), then came in half-way through French all pale and spotty and red piggy-eyed from crying and no mascara. It was a massive shock to everyone, (especially Josh, I was watching his face), because we never realised how much make-up she used, it was so well put on. I guess she learned from her big sister Portia, (I always thought she was called after the cars until we did Merchant of Venice in Lit), who was doing Hair & Beauty at college and used to practice on her.
‘I never thought my knickers could cause so much trouble,’ I said to Raven as we walked up Townsend Road sharing the half-cookie we hadn’t eaten at break because we were too busy huddled round Lib’s phone. ‘Poor Chard… I didn’t even get told off but look what happened to her! I feel really crap about it.’
‘That’s because you’re a nice person. You shouldn’t, though. You only made a mistake, she was deliberately nasty. First she tried to bully you and when that didn’t work, she grassed you and Ms Mellors up to the Prince – and all the time she’s breaking rules herself! So ha ha karma. Maybe she’ll learn something from it.’
(She did. At least, Portia did, she must’ve worked on her all night because Chard came in next day with her shoulder length blonde hair cut into an amazing asymmetrical bob, shaved up the back, with a long fringe that flopped over one eye and hid half her face, and strands dyed GSA maroon at the roots and bright yellow at the tips, and her thin eyebrows dyed dark blonde, and her stubby eyelashes dyed black, and peachy lip salve – allowed – and her skin squeaky clean apart from spot concealer – also allowed – full of how her mum was going to buy her a course of sunbed or a spray-tan to put some colour back in her face when she’d decided which she wanted. It was like giving Batty the finger because there were no colour rules about hair, only that it had to be tidy and tied back for practical subjects, and Chard’s face looked totally different, more like the rest of us but still made up in ways that wouldn’t wash off. I quite admired her for it, it seemed like something Bathsheba Everdene might do, but when I told Mum she tutted and said bending rules was a poor lesson to learn, and Mrs Jenkins should be ashamed of herself for encouraging it).
‘Mm. I suppose,’ I said. ‘Whatever, I can’t wait to tell Fi.’ And to show her the photo of Chard I sneaked on the way from French to German. They’d looked very alike, you see, except that Fi was smaller all round and had natural dark eyebrows and long thick lashes, and never wore make-up for school, and used to be class hottie before Chard’s chest and had been jealous about it ever since, so it’d be nice to have some news that might actually cheer her up.
That thought got me buzzing again: about French, where the Joob had been pleased with my Rs; and German, which was fun because Raven only spoke it about as well as we did, although her accent was perfect and she knew lots of rude words which she kept whispering when Frau Bulow wasn’t looking, trying to make me laugh; then EngLang with Baldy (hurrah!) after break, which was about adjectives, and we had to edit a passage where everything was ‘very’ or ‘really’, and chop them out if we thought there were too many and change the rest into something more original and apt. Danny Thomas whispered too loudly to Craig Sellars that they should change them all to ‘effing,’ except he said the full word and Baldy heard and told him that Germanic euphemisms for sexual intercourse were all very well in their place but his classroom wasn’t one of them, so please keep it clean, everyone.
Talking and giggling over that kept us busy till Idenowes Terrace and I was just about to head up the lane when Raven caught my arm.
‘No,’ she said, ‘wait here, I won’t be a sec.’ She went down the path at the side of No. 1 and disappeared into the back garden. I thought she must be checking the plants, so while I waited I had a little nosey and spotted a name-plate, Arum Cottage, and that the lovely old tiles in the porch had a pattern of white arum lilies (I only knew because Mum had one in a pot in the MHOF with a care label stuck in it, so the name was in my face whenever I went to the loo). Then Raven reappeared, minus her school bags, wearing a bright orange cycle helmet and a matching tabard over her blazer, and wheeling a pushbike with each hand. ‘I asked Mum to leave these for us to save time. You can ride one, can’t you?’
‘Um- yes,’ I said, although I hadn’t since we went to Centre Parcs for my twelfth birthday. She thrust one at me – pink, with chunky tyres like a trail bike and quite a few gears, but also a white wire basket over the front wheel with a bright pink-and-black helmet and tabard in it, and a metal rack covered in bungees over the back wheel for carrying stuff. ‘But I haven’t for ages… and I’m a bit scared of the traffic, to be honest.’ It wasn’t exactly honest. I was petrified.
‘Oh, don’t worry. I Googled the route, we don’t have to ride on main roads. Here, give us your bags.’ Raven propped her bike – exactly like mine, only orange – against the wall and bungeed my sports bag to her rack and my school bag to mine while I fumbled into the helmet and tabard. Then we waited for a gap between cars big enough for us to dash across the road and wheeled the bikes up onto the track where I’d seen the woman walking her baby and dog.
‘This is the Headland – it’s been here forever, it’s marked on the maps.’ Raven swung into her saddle and wobbled off over the ruts. I wobbled after, frightened of falling at first, but soon got my balance as the track flattened out and we speeded up and I dared to look around. We were riding between two open, brown, stubbly ploughed fields with a pooey smell and loads of birds pecking up and down, and no sound except the bikes rattling and me panting because a chilly breeze was blowing the traffic sounds away as well as making it hard going, so I was glad when we reached the top of the field and turned right into a lane sheltered by tall hedges on both sides.
‘Phew!’ I gasped. ‘I think I know where this comes out. I passed it this morning.’ Sure enough, a few minutes later the fields ended in another tall hedge and a footpath with gates opening into big back gardens with trees in, and we crunched through the tunnel of overhanging branches, (it wasn’t muddy after all, just thick with fallen leaves), and then we were out on the pavement exactly where I’d expected, with cars whizzing by on the main road.
Raven pointed across to a street I’d passed a million times. ‘If we go down there, we can sort of zigzag back through to the Trees. Do you know that way?’
I shook my head, feeling vaguely ashamed because it was only round the corner from home, but I’d never bothered exploring. At least by then I was feeling confident enough to follow her twenty metres along a cycle lane I’d never noticed before because I never cycled, then nip right through a gap in the traffic onto the side-street, then through a maze of passages and alleys and little streets I never knew existed, until we popped out near our corner. Cool! I’d try going to school that way tomorrow, it’d be better than the noisy stinky main road.
I took Raven round the back, propped the bikes on the shed with our helmets and tabards in the baskets, and opened the door to call, ‘Hi, Mum, we’re home!’ Instead, I gasped, ‘Wow!’ as a fantastic smell hit my face and I saw her, looking flushed in her yellow-and-white check cookery apron (the one I sweated and stabbed my fingers over in Year 6 Art & Craft, not the topless dancer in fishnets and tassels Dad bought her for Christmas last year). ‘Have you been baking?’
Mum’s Look said, ‘Act normal,’ as she pecked me on the cheek. ‘Mwah! Hello, darling. Yes, just a little snack to tide you over. And hello, Raven! Lovely to see you again.’
Raven was gawping; she hadn’t seen the kitchen last night. ‘Hi, Mrs Morton! Gosh, what fabulous tiles… Maman would love them.’
Then we said, ‘Ooh!’ together as we spotted the yellow drop-leaf table set with a tall glass of cheese straws, a dish with carrot, celery, and cucumber sticks arranged round a blob of creamy-brown dip, a plate of red and yellow baby tomatoes and cubes of cheese on cocktail sticks, and a jug of something that looked suspiciously like Mamalou’s flat lemonade, down to the ice and sliced lemon.
‘Thanks, Mum. This looks great,’ I said, while my eyes said, ‘What the heck?!’ and Raven took a cheese cube and said, ‘Mm! This tastes just like Grange Farm cheddar.’
Mum smiled. ‘It is. After everything Eloise told us last night about your lovely home, Raven, I couldn’t resist looking it up on Google Earth. And that jogged my memory about seeing a farm shop sign on Townsend Road, so I decided to nip round after work and check it out. My goodness, what a gem! I didn’t expect it to be so well stocked – and those free recipe cards are a marvellous idea. Mrs G’s Cheesy Straws sounded so yummy I couldn’t resist getting some of her Cheddar and having a go.’ She dipped one in the brown blob and bit off the end. ‘Mm-mm. I’m glad I couldn’t resist her sweet chili hummus, either.’
I did the same. Still warm, flaky, toasty cheese smelling… oh, my God. I crammed the rest in, grabbed another, and took bites between cherry tomatoes and cucumber sticks. Then I glugged a big glass of Mrs G’s Organic Lemon Cordial and was about to have a third Cheesy Straw when I remembered about losing three pounds, and let Mum and Raven demolish the rest while I munched celery and carrots and tried not to hog too much hummus.
‘Right then, you two,’ she said when we’d finished, ‘shoo! Go get on with your homework while I get on with dinner. It’ll be ready at six, make sure you are.’
We took a cup of Woman each – mine with honey and a drop of clary sage, Raven’s as-it-comes – up to my room and changed into the comfy slobs we’d worn last night. (Mamalou had packed Raven’s in the bike-basket for her). Then we sat cross-legged on the bed, facing each other, with my homework sheets in between, (hers were still in her bag, which she’d left at the cottage), just like Fi and I used to.
‘Tell you what,’ she said, ‘you start with français and I’ll start with Deutsch, then we can check each other’s answers.’
That seemed like a good idea, so we did, and it was nice to point out Raven’s mistakes for a change because she’d only learned German by talking to Germans, which meant she knew what sounded right but didn’t know the grammar, didn’t always recognise written words, and her spelling was pants. Then we made a start on Baldy’s exercise, two A4 sides (average 10 words per line, normal margins, no giant spaces) on What I Did This Summer, with ‘creative yet appropriate adjectives – ie no slang, no hyperbole, and positively no reallys or verys, or I’ll be extremely irate.’
‘Ugh,’ I said. ‘Here’s what I did. Cried with Fi about Canada. Helped her pack. Cried some more. Went to her leaving party. Cried myself to sleep. Waved her off next day. Cried myself nearly sick. Texted her. Moped around. Ate myself stupid. Cried with Fi on Facetime. Cried on my own afterwards. Oh, and went to Temple Newsam with the folks for a day, then cried again when we got home. How am I supposed to fill two sides with that?’
‘Add an enormous number of bitterlys and woefullys and miserablys,’ giggled Raven. ‘Better still, leave out the crying parts and go on about the party… what you wore for it, what it was like, who was there blah blah.’
I groaned. ‘I don’t want to write about that. I don’t even want to think about it.’
‘Just do Temple Newsam, then. The goddies took me there once when I was little – I mostly remember walking forever up a long path past masses of red and pink flowers to this huge house that killed my feet, so they had to piggy-back me most of the way round.’
Aha! I opened the souvenir drawer in my bedside cabinet, took out the guidebook lying on top because it was the last place we’d been, and showed her a picture of the Rhododendron Walk. I wished we could’ve seen it in full bloom, but the flowers had all gone by August. ‘You mean this?’
‘Oh, wow! Yes!’ She grabbed the book and began leafing through. ‘Yes, yes, I remember now… amazing place, isn’t it? We should go there in spring, I’d love to see those flowers again.’
‘Yeah, me too – and yeah, I will do the whole thing on Temple Newsam.’ I cheered up instantly. ‘Good idea, bestie.’
Raven grinned. ‘Think yourself lucky. We didn’t go anywhere or do anything except move up here and work round the place, which was fun in its way and kept me plenty busy, but it’s going to sound very – oops, I mean deeply – dull to anyone else.’
We both thought for a minute, then began on The Plan Baldy made us hand in with our homework to prove we’d tackled it properly. First, we brainstormed, jotting down themes and thinking up appropriately creative adjectives to go with them. Then while we were numbering and arranging our themes into paragraphs in ‘a coherent narrative order with a beginning, middle, and end,’ I heard Mum come upstairs to change for dinner and knew without looking that it was twenty to six, which meant Dad would be back any time.
Sure enough, a few minutes later we both heard the front door slam and a phoney American voice shout, ‘Hi, honey, I’m home.’
Raven giggled. ‘My dad said that sometimes. Is it from an old movie or something?’
‘I dunno.’ I only knew Dad would kick his shoes off, dump his briefcase in the hall, and thunder straight upstairs because he can’t stand wearing a suit and tie a second longer than he has to. I didn’t know he’d stop dead in their doorway and say loudly to Mum,
‘Whoa! What’s going-mph.’ She must’ve shut him up with a kiss and dragged him inside, because the door clicked quietly shut and the wall began murmuring, too low to make out the words, but I guessed she was warning him we had company and to be on his best behaviour. Then I heard Dad go for his usual what-passes-for-a-shower in the MHOF, (kneeling in the bath with the pink rubber hose and the taps turned on as hard as they’ll go without popping the nozzles off, ie not very), and Mum go back downstairs.
‘We might as well pack up,’ I said to Raven. ‘Dinner’s nearly ready, and afterwards we’re allowed not to do homework. Unless you really want to,’ I added, hoping she wouldn’t.
‘Fine by me. May I borrow a page holder? I’ll give it back tomorrow.’
‘Sure.’ I passed her one off my desk and piled my stuff onto it while Raven wrote a few last lines, slid her Plan into the plastic sleeve, and tucked it into the bag with her uniform. ‘There! Ready when you are- oh, except I need to wash my hands.’
‘Yeah, me too. But we’ll have to wait until Dad’s done, unless you want to use the kitchen-’ I broke off as I heard the bathroom door open, (the spray’s so pathetic, if you don’t hurry you freeze), bare feet thud along the landing, and their bedroom door close. ‘OK, come on.’
We took turns having a pee and washing our hands and giggling over the tiles which Raven thought were interestingly horrible, and that the loo seat was so funky she actually knelt down for a closer look. Then as we were heading for the kitchen, where Fi and I usually ate so we could chatter while the folks ate off trays in the living room so they could watch the news in peace, Mum bustled out carrying two steaming plates and looking unusually pretty in her old-but-smart brown leggings and a greeny-brown tweedy tunic I didn’t recognise, instead of old saggy leggings and Dad’s sweater that shrank in the wash.
Before I could blurt anything, she widened her eyes and nodded sideways. I body-swerved into the living room and goldfished for a split-second. The dining table was out, set with Mum’s ‘special occasions’ dinner service, (the matching stuff, not our usual odd plates and bowls), and her best crystal vase full of flowers from our garden in the middle, and a bowl of baby leaf salad, and a glass dish of parmesan cheese, and a basket of bread rolls, and the posh salt and pepper grinders, and wedding-present wineglasses, and a jug of iced water, and real napkins instead of the squares of kitchen roll we normally use. The vintage orange lava lamp, (another wedding present I’d love to have in my room if they’d let me), was blooping away in the fake fireplace, and there were two tall, honey-coloured candles in crystal candlesticks glowing on the table, and a big fat one that smelt of Clarity in a saucer on the bar next to Dad, who was wearing cords and a decent jumper instead of the manky old tracksuit he usually slops round in, propped on one elbow shovelling hummus in with a Cheesy Straw.
I nearly burst out crying. I couldn’t believe Mum had gone to so much trouble – or spent so much on luxuries like candles and wine and new tops. Not that we’re exactly poor; it’s just that she always said when she had a baby she wanted to mother it full-time until it started school, then I happened unexpectedly and she had to give up a well-paid job as PA to a big local businessman much sooner than they’d planned, and by the time she was ready to go back to work IT had changed so much she couldn’t compete with people half her age and cheaper to employ, so all three of us had to live on Dad’s salary and commission, (which often wasn’t much because he’s very good at insuring but not so good at selling), until Mum did a night school computer course and signed on with an agency and started doing her crap minimum-wage temping jobs. So they’ve always had to be ultra-careful with money, which is why we were staycationing years before it was a Thing, and always save up instead of paying on plastic, and they’ve been quietly cutting back for months so they can afford to send me on the Joob’s annual Year 10 trip to Paris at Easter – so it made a nice change to see Mum splash out on herself a bit.
Swallowing a big lump, I tried to be cool. ‘Hi, Dad,’ I said, giving him a quick hug as I squeezed past to my usual place.
Raven wasn’t cool at all. ‘Hi, Mr Morton! Gosh, this looks fantastic.’ She took the chair opposite mine, spread her napkin on her lap and gawped around. ‘Just like a retro restaurant.’
‘Here you go, girls!’ Mum followed with our plates. ‘Help yourselves to salad and dig in, don’t wait for us. Can you sort the drinks, love?’ she added over her shoulder, bustling out again. ‘I’ll be back with ours in a tick.’
‘No problemo.’ Grinning, Dad picked up a bottle. ‘Wine and water for you two, isn’t it?’
I nodded dumbly, staring at my polite helping of flat greenish noodles, not spaghetti, which was fine – but they were covered in a sauce, which apart from being darker red looked exactly like Mum’s standard Bol with onions and mushrooms and minced beef. Oh God… she’d forgotten Raven might be veggie. Like I’d forgotten to check and let her know…
Raven looked down and sniffed as Mum finally flopped into her chair and picked up her glass with a sigh of relief. ‘Oh,’ she said, raising her eyebrows. Oh God, I thought. ‘Is this what I think it is?’
Mum smiled. ‘Yes, if you think it’s Mrs G’s Fresh Garlic and Herb Tagliatelle with Red Wine and Walnut Sauce. I got chatting to the lovely young assistant – Bet, is that her name? She had the most angelic little boy with her, dead to the world in his stroller.’
‘Yes, that’d be the Grangers’ daughter Betony. And Lonsdale. Good job he was asleep.’ Raven grinned. ‘He’s not so angelic awake.’
‘Mm, yes, he’s at a lively age… anyway, I happened to mention how I came to be there, and I wasn’t sure what to cook that you’d like, and Betony said this was one of your favourites and very kindly picked out all the ingredients and gave me the recipe card. She even minced me some fresh walnuts and got a jar of home-made passata out of the back. I’d never used it before… fresh tomatoes make a world of difference to the flavour, don’t they?’
Oh, thank God! I tasted it. Wow. ‘Mm-mm. Delish.’
‘Mm… and you say it’s walnut?’ Dad ladled on parmesan cheese and took another huge bite. ‘Wow. Unbelievable. It tastes really meaty.’
‘Yes, and something else unbelievable is that it didn’t cost a penny,’ laughed Mum. ‘No, tell a lie. It cost about six quid in change, I emptied my purse into their charity box. And this tunic was in the rag basket because of a tiny rip near the hem I could mend in ten minutes.’ She stroked it lovingly. ‘You can barely tell now. Then when I tried to pay for the food and wine and candles, she said any friend of Lou’s was a friend of Grange Farm, and if we were entertaining Raven, no way was she taking my money!’
Raven giggled. ‘Well, it’s probably our home-grown veg, so it’d be mad if you had to pay me to eat it! And Mum’ll be pleased you got some of her candles after all – she told me to put a Clarity in Ellie’s bag last night, but I was in such a rush I forgot.’
‘Your mum makes these? Whew,’ Dad whistled, making the one nearest flicker, ‘Lou’s a woman of many parts.’
Mum just looked relieved and said, ‘Well, I feel much better now – less as if I’d name-dropped on purpose to try and blag a freebie! Mind you, it’d still have been cheaper than the supermarket if I had paid. I couldn’t believe their prices.’
‘Mm.’ Raven nodded with her mouth full. (I’d watched how she ate before I started and the folks must have too, because we were all copying her, using our knives to twirl a noodle or two into neat bundles round our forks and popping them in without dripping, whereas we’d normally eat Spag Bol in front of the telly with paper towels on our chests, forking up big messy knots and sucking loose ends in and flicking sauce everywhere, and whoever’s paper towel is cleanest at the end has to do the washing up. It’s a lot more fun, to be honest). Luckily, before I blew our cover by blurting that out, she swallowed and went on, ‘No food miles or plastic packaging. And Mum doesn’t charge Grange for our stuff, obviously. And candles are easy, Godma taught us – she used to make them for fun with spare beeswax, then got seriously into it and bought all the professional kit so she could supply the shop too.’
‘Well, I was veryimpressed by the range,’ said Mum. ‘And I really enjoyed browsing round somewhere nice and quiet with a friendly assistant who knows what she’s talking about. I’d much rather do my weekly shop there… especially because when I said as much to Betony, she gave me a Friends & Family loyalty card for 25% off! I can get practically everything we need – not our usual brands-’
‘Do they sell peanut butter?’ Dad butted in, looking alarmed.
‘Yes, dear. Crunchy or smooth, hundred per cent whole nuts, no added sugar or salt, you’ll soon get used to it. And they have Mrs G’s Strawberry Jam and all sorts of other gorgeous preserves and bread and deli.’ She shot me a cautious glance. ‘What they don’t sell is frozen pizzas or HobNobs or Pop-Tarts or Pringles.’
Brilliant, I thought, no temptation, no awkward explanations! I managed a casual shrug. ‘I don’t care, I’ve been reading the labels – you’re right, Mum, that stuff’s not very healthy, and I’m getting a bit old for milk and biccies after school. I’d rather have cheese and crackers or something. So yeah, go for it, it’s a great idea.’
Kerching! The till in Mum’s eyes knocked another tenner off the bill. Then she exchanged Looks with Dad that said, ‘I can’t believe she’s not whining,’ like I usually did if she forgot one of my weekly junk fixes, then they started to smile, and I could tell they were doing the sums and realising they didn’t have to worry so much now about Christmas and my birthday and the Joob’s trip next year.
‘Cool!’ said Raven. ‘And you don’t even need to go shopping yourself, Mrs Morton. If you text a list, we could pick the stuff up and bring it over after school. Couldn’t we, Ellie?’
I shrugged again. ‘Sure.’ I didn’t much want to lug shopping as well as school bags home, but it would sound too mean to say so and anyway, it was no big deal if I could carry them on Raven’s bike.
‘Well!’ Mum sounded pleased – and surprised. ‘I may take you up on that if I run out of the odd thing. But I’ll do my own big shopping for the moment, thanks, girls… to be honest, I can’t wait to go back for a good long look round! I suspect lots of people will be getting Wise Woman teas and toiletries for Christmas this year. Or scented candles. Or a beautiful Jess Weaver scarf.’ She winked at me. ‘I wouldn’t mind finding one of those in my stocking if anyone’s stuck for ideas.’
‘What colours? I’ll ask Jess to make you whatever you like. I see her most days, she only lives at Bluebell Cottage. You know,’ Raven turned to me, ‘Number Two, next to yours- your favourite, I mean. Arum. At the end of the Terrace.’ I blinked. I didn’t remember telling her that, but before I could say so she turned back to Mum. ‘I can easily pop an order through the door if I don’t bump into her.’
‘Ooh, lovely! Thanks, Raven, I’ll get back to you when I’ve had a think.’ Mum smiled. ‘How funny that someone called Weaver should actually be one.’
Raven smiled back. ‘Yes, that’s what Jess thought! She took it up for a laugh when she married Freddie – he doesn’t weave though, he’s the Grange stockman – and got so good she went professional. She teaches it as well.’
‘Goodness, what a multi-talented bunch you all sound! It must be nice to make a living through your hobbies. I wish I could,’ sighed Mum, then kind of shook herself. ‘Alright, anyone for seconds? Just make sure you leave room for pud – it’s your favourite, Eloise, and the good news is that Grange Farm do sell ice-cream.’
‘Oh, wow!’ I bounced in my chair, I couldn’t wait to see Raven’s face when she tried it. ‘I’ll just finish the salad, then. Unless anyone else wants some?’
No-one did, so I scraped the last few leaves onto my plate and mopped up with a bread bun while Dad and Raven ate more pasta and Mum disappeared into the kitchen with the last of the wine. When she came back, she was carrying a tray with four glass dishes of her own invention, Toffee Apple Surprise. (The surprise is that it’s not Apple Crumble, because after she’d prepared the fruit she found she hadn’t enough flour for the topping or time to nip out to the shop, so she just layered the slices with brown sugar and cinnamon and knobs of butter and baked it until it went crispy-sweet on top and soft caramel-sweet underneath, and we all loved it so much she’s never bothered making crumble since). We usually had it with tinned custard or yoghurt or best of all, ice-cream if I’d left any in the freezer, and this was topped with two scoops, pink and gold, artistically drizzled with honey.
‘I nearly went for the Elderflower and Elderberry Sorbets,’ said Mum, ‘then I thought ice-cream would go better, so I got Clotted Rose and Honey Ginger instead. What do you think?’
I rolled a pink spoonful round my tongue, tasting crystallised petals and cream from cows fed on red roses. Mm. The other tasted like summer, spiked with sweet hot shreds of stem ginger. Mm-mm. Then I tried both together and in every combination with the apple, and even when I’d scraped the bowl clean, I still couldn’t decide which went best.
‘Wow-ee,’ said Dad. ‘This is more grown-up than the usual stuff. Less sickly. I like it.’
I nodded. Maybe less fattening too, without the cookie dough or fudge ripple or chocolate chunks! ‘Yeah, you should definitely shop at Grange Farm from now on, Mum. That was fantastic.’
‘Yes. Though I say so myself, it was worth the effort – such as it was, the recipes couldn’t have been easier. Can anyone manage a little more – Raven?’
‘No thanks, Mrs Morton. I’m as full as- as a pregnant cow.’ She glanced slyly at me, and I giggled, and that set her off, so then we had to explain what we were laughing about, and next thing I blurted, ‘Oh, and you’ll never guess what else embarrassing happened,’ and somehow found myself telling the story of my pants, and Raven joined in to play Mellie and the other girls, and we had Mum and Dad practically wetting themselves, and it was like being a stand-up comic, which made it nice to be laughed at and not embarrassing at all.
They stopped laughing when we told them about Chard, though. ‘Bravo!’ said Dad. ‘I think you all handled that very well. Thanks for standing up for Eloise, Raven – and well done for speaking up for yourself, love, instead of hiding behind your friends.’
‘Yes, well done. And I’m afraid Chardonnay got what she deserved.’ Mum frowned. ‘God knows what her mother’s thinking of, letting her plaster herself in make-up for school! I can see that young lady coming to a sticky end if she’s not very careful.
‘Anyway, let’s make sure this never happens again. I’ve got some tiny press-studs in my workbox, I’ll sew some in your sports pants like Miss Mellors said and put them in your bag with your kit when it’s washed.’
‘Good idea! And well done you too, for a beautiful dinner.’ Dad gathered the plates and dropped a kiss on Mum’s hair as he passed. ‘I’ll put the kettle on, shall I?’
Raven followed him out with the breadbasket and salad bowl, and while I collected glasses Mum hissed anxiously, ‘Was that OK? Did it come up to Lou’s standards?’
‘Oh, yes. It was about the best meal you’ve ever cooked. Thanks, Mum. No, sit,’ I pressed her shoulder as she started getting up, ’we’ll clear this, you’ve done enough.’
I made three Women for us girls and Dad’s regular brew, and when we were sitting down again, Mum produced the box of marrons glacées from where she’d hidden it behind the bar and let us all have two each.
Afterwards, Raven said politely, ‘Thanks very much for a wonderful meal, Mrs Morton, it was so kind of you to make my favourite things.’ She raised an eyebrow at me. ‘Faisons la vaisselle?’
Aha. Chance to show off. ‘Oui, d’accord,’ I replied, and we giggled into the kitchen with the mugs, (luckily Mum hadn’t insisted we use the best cups and saucers) and washed up in French again. Then we left the folks to it and went to hang out in my room. Raven went round looking at my walls, and admiring the poster of Ross Poldark with his shirt off (which Mum also likes) – she hadn’t seen the TV series but she’d read all the books, which I hadn’t, and asking ‘Getting to Know You’ questions about my favourite bands and actors and where this or that photo was taken, but that was fine because we were still getting to know each other even though in some ways it felt like we’d been friends forever; and we were sitting on the bed chatting and listening to Goldenvoice and totally losing track of time, just like me and Fi used to,until Dad shouted upstairs,
‘Oi, you two! Quarter to curfew!’
‘Oh, poo,’ Raven grabbed her bag, ‘sounds like I’m being kicked out! Do you want to ride the other bike round tomorrow? We could cycle to school then if you like. There are chains in the saddlebags, we can lock them in the bike-sheds.’
‘Um-’ I thought of the Townsend Road traffic. ‘No, thanks. I mean, yes, I’ll ride over, but I’d rather walk from the Terrace,’ I said as we went downstairs and met Dad, putting on his jacket in the hall.
‘You coming along for the ride, love? You’ll need your coat, it’s getting chilly.’
‘No, Dad. Raven doesn’t need a lift. She’s on her pushbike.’ In all the excitement of dinner I’d forgotten to mention it. ‘We cycled home from Idenowes Terrace today, her mum left the bikes there for us to pick up.’
Dad’s eyebrows shot into his hair. ‘You cycled? On the roads? Good God.’
I went bright red. ‘Not much. We mostly cut across the fields, then through those little ginnels,’ I waved vaguely in the direction, ‘and came out near the top of our road. It was fun, I’m going to ride back that way in the morning.’
‘Oh. Well, I sincerely hope you don’t plan on riding through back alleys or farmland, Raven,’ said Dad. ‘In fact, I’m not happy about a fourteen-year-old girl cycling alone in the dark, period. No, I’ll drive you. Your bike can go in the back.’
Raven shook her head. ‘There’s no need, Mr Morton, honestly.’ She put her blazer and school shoes on and tucked her leggings into her socks. ‘Mum’s fine with it – I’ve got good lights and high-vis, and I promised to stay on the main roads. Besides,’ she grinned cheekily, ‘I’m fifteen in ten days. And I know how to look after myself.’
‘I’m sure you do.’ Mum got in on the act. ‘And what’s fine with Lou is fine with us. Isn’t it, Dave?’ She gave Dad a warning Look. ‘As long as you text her when you leave, and text Eloise the minute you’re home safe indoors. You might be sensible, Raven, but there are lots of mad drivers out there and accidents do happen. Um,’ she started gabbling, ‘so, where are these bikes, then? In the back garden? Unlocked? Good heavens, I hope nobody’s sneaked round and pinched them! Why didn’t you say something, Eloise? We could’ve brought them inside.’ She hurried into the kitchen. We followed and all saw in the light from the door she’d flung open that nobody had. ‘Oh, thank goodness! Still here.’
Phew. No drama, then. For a horrible moment I’d thought we were going to have a Scene, us against the folks – good job Mum was too scared of offending Mamalou!
Raven took an orange tube from the saddlebag of the orange bike, unrolled it into a fluorescent orange kagoule with luminous stripes across the chest and back, down the sleeves, and round the cuffs, slipped it over her blazer, tucked her hair in the back of her collar, and put her helmet on.
‘Ta-da!’ Her outstretched arms glared in the kitchen light as she twirled. ‘See? I’m just a cyclist now, not a schoolgirl.’ Taking her phone from her bag, she texted aloud, ‘Leaving E’s now, ETA 2100.’ Then she popped it back in, wrapped the bag in the orange tabard, popped that back in her basket, and flicked on her lights and helmet-torch. The beams were so strong we could easily see to file after her to the front gate, which she propped open with her bike. ‘Thank you all very much for a wonderful evening. I had a lovely time, and I’m looking forward to seeing you again at the weekend.’ She gave us each a quick hug. ‘Goodnight, now!’
‘Goodnight,’ we chorused as she thrust off across the road, stood on the pedals to get up speed, then coasted on down to the junction. We watched, like Dad or I had always watched Fi, as her bright stripy arm signalled left then gave a thumbs-up just before she disappeared round the corner, as if she knew we were still here – our cue to disappear inside because it was more than just chilly, it was freezing.
‘Brr!’ Mum rubbed her arms as Dad and I manoeuvred the pink bike into the breakfast nook. ‘What an extraordinary girl Raven is… still, she’s hardly lived an ordinary life, has she? Honestly, I could’ve bitten my tongue off for saying that about mad drivers and accidents, I do hope she didn’t think I was having a poke at her dad. Ah well,’ she sighed, ‘no point worrying about that now… let’s go get your hair done, love, then we can all relax.’
We didn’t normally wash my hair two days running. But I didn’t normally run myself sweaty two days running either, and Mum always washed it on Games night because I couldn’t do it properly at school; and afterwards, while she was combing it out, Dad picked up the thread.
‘Yeah, it’s easy to forget Raven’s only fourteen- oops, nearly fifteen – when you think some teenagers can barely look a stranger in the eye, let alone make dinner party conversation! I certainly couldn’t at her age.’ He grinned. ‘Mind you, she doesn’t have to worry about her voice breaking. And I guess she’s had more practice than most.’
‘Yes, life’s certainly made her very mature,’ said Mum, ‘and sophisticated, albeit in a nice way. It was lovely to hear you two chattering away in French, Eloise. You and Fi never did that.’
No, because Fi didn’t much like French. Or German. Or any subjects except Art, and English because she fancied Baldy, and although she was clever enough for uni, she couldn’t wait to leave school at eighteen to become a lifestyle influencer, or a fashion buyer, or a personal shopper for busy rich people. The Prince would’ve gone batty (ha, ha) if she’d known. The thoughts flashed through my head as Mum went on, ‘And what on earth were you talking about that was so hilarious – or is it a state secret?’
‘No,’ I giggled, ‘we were just practicing what we did last night. Look, I’m washing a plate, what are you doing? I’m drying a glass and putting it away, sort of thing. And Raven holding stuff up saying, “This is a fork,” and me saying, “No, that’s not a fork, it’s a dishcloth,” or whatever. It was so silly I couldn’t stop laughing.’
‘Well, it’s good to hear you enthused about school for a change – and planning to work on your project this weekend instead of hanging round town with Fiona,’ said Dad.
‘Yes,’ said Mum. ‘Fond though we are of Fi, we didn’t always think she was a good influence… she did tend to overshadow you, and you always seemed to end up doing what she wanted.’
I was about to say, ‘That’s not true!’ Sometimes we went swimming with Caro and her brothers if I felt slim enough for my cozzie and Fi hadn’t got a new hairdo she didn’t want to get wet, or to the pictures if there was a movie we both wanted to see, or to the park with Jamie to give Mrs McD a break and mess about with him on the swings or scope for fit lads while he did stunts on his skateboard, which was fun and about the only time he wasn’t a pain, or to hang out at Libby’s on Sundays because her folks go to the pub after lunch and we have the house to ourselves for a couple of hours. But it’s true that Fi and her mum love to shop, it’s their favourite hobby even when they don’t buy anything, and I always tagged along on their monthly treat to some big mall while Mr McD took Jamie roller-blading, and their annual pre-Christmas trip to what Dad calls Meadowhell, and round the sales where Fi always found something fantastic for a fiver because it was in the kids’ department or one of the extra-small sizes left after all the medium-to-large girls have picked through, and how often we’d drift into Wakefield at weekends, (to be fair, most of GSA does the same because there isn’t much else to do unless you’re sporty or rich – we were forever meeting up with people from school sniffing testers in Lush or giggling over cheeky birthday cards or trying on shoes or whatever). Sometimes I got bored and left them to it and went to look at books in Waterstones, or poke about in the charity and vintage shops, or say hello to the Savile owl in the Cathedral; but that was fine, and if we met up later somewhere like Costa or Cooplands, Fi almost always paid because her allowance was much more than my pocket-money and she’s very generous. So I just muttered, ‘Um, well, it’s not like I really wanted to do anything else,’ although that wasn’t totally honest – sometimes I’d rather have been doing my maths homework than hanging round changing rooms watching Fi wriggle in and out of tiny clothes, or hunting through the racks for something I could bear to try on myself that wasn’t XS or XL.
‘Maybe not,’ said Dad, ‘but when you did want to do something, Fi hardly ever fell in with it.’ Hm. He had a point. She’d come along for an art exhibition, or a pretty country walk if it was fine, but she wasn’t into cathedrals or stately homes or museums unless they had a really great shop and café, and often couldn’t make it on the day because she’d been grounded for cheeking her dad, or had to Jamie-sit for her mum, or go and visit her poorly gran.
‘Yes, think of all the times you were looking forward to her coming somewhere and she cried off at the last minute,’ said Mum. ‘I thought her excuses were a bit too convenient sometimes, but I could hardly say so, or quiz the McDonalds about it – and quite frankly, after last November I’m glad we never took her out again.’
Hm. She had a point, too. Our Year 9 autumn Lit book had been Wuthering Heights which I loved because it was spooky and weird and totally not the sort of thing you expect a vicar’s daughter who’d never had a boyfriend to write, and finished it in the first week, reading big chunks every night before bed. And our term history project had to be on some place linked with some famous historical figure, eg Whitby and Captain Cook – ‘Don’t everyone pick that,’ Ms Dunne had said, ‘think for yourselves,’ so I decided to do Haworth and Emily Bronte, and because it was useful for school Mum and Dad took me and Fi to visit the parsonage at the top of the hill where she and her sisters and brother had lived, with the moors behind I was desperate to see because they inspired her to re-write herself as Cathy and give herself Heathcliff, the only hero interesting enough for someone so wild and free and strange to fall in love with, and who didn’t become a villain until he overheard something he shouldn’t, and went a bit mad.
I’d imagined hush, the odd visitor tiptoeing through, soaking up the atmos, trying to hear the rustle of ghostly skirts or sense a Presence, not a long, shuffling crowd buzzing with oohs and ahs in different languages that didn’t thin until we got upstairs and had room to spread out more. Still, I was in my element. This was the Brontes’ actual stuff! The actual table Emily and Charlotte and Anne wrote at and walked round in the evenings, reading their stories aloud to each other! I wanted to linger over everything, read every label, but Fi raced through the displays to the gift shop then kept going in and out, fidgeting beside me for a minute then disappearing again until we gave up and met her by the exit and went to have a look round the churchyard next door, and I spotted an old-fashioned signpost pointing to Top Withins, the house Emily’s supposed to have based Wuthering Heights on, and got all excited and jumped up and down and begged to go. The folks laughed, and Mum started singing in a high witchy voice about wily, windy moors, and Dad said ‘OK, we’ll at least make a start,’ and Fi didn’t say, ‘No, I don’t want to,’ but she got a Face on and dawdled and limped and moaned about her shoe rubbing and the cold and her lips getting chapped until Mum snapped and took her down to the High Street to buy lip-balm and Christmas presents and meet us in two hours at the Black Bull or nearest pub if it was full, while Dad and I marched off, following the arrow. Unfortunately, by the time we reached the next signpost our lips were chapped too, and the wind had frozen our faces and given me earache because I hadn’t brought my woolly hat, and we still had miles to go and Dad said it was madness when we weren’t dressed for the weather, and had no map, and if we got lost the car keys were in his pocket so Mum and Fi would be stuck waiting for ages with their shopping until we got found again, which was bound to end in tears; so we turned back and spent an hour taking photos round the church and looking at gravestones of all the people who’d died even younger than Emily Bronte, then managed to get a table at the Black Bull (hurrah!) and thaw out over a cuppa. I felt sad and sort of creepy thinking about Emily’s brother Branwell drinking here with a friend a few days before he died, until Fi burst in looking cute in a red knitted pixie hat with earflaps and a tassel on top, (followed by Mum, looking stressed), plonked a load of carrier bags on the table, pulled out another pixie hat like hers only blue, and plonked it on my head, which broke the mood completely.
‘Not that I mind a spot of retail therapy,’ Mum went on, ‘and Haworth did look gorgeous all trimmed up for Christmas, I just felt like slapping Fi for being so maungey. But then she made a beeline for the wool shop and next she’s presenting me with that beautiful shawl she’d seen in the window as we passed looking for the car-park, and been desperate to get back and buy before someone else did because it matched my coat so well and she wanted me to have it as a thank-you… so then of course I felt guilty and rotten for being sharp with her, and mortified that she spent so much money on us.’
Yes, she’d bought Dad a hip-flask and me a fake red leather-bound Wuthering Heights with fancy gold lettering and a picture at the start of each chapter done by one of the Brontes, and a matching Jane Eyre and Agnes Grey she hid in her bag to give me for Christmas and my birthday, and gifts for her folks she showed me on the way back all excited while mine sat uncomfortably quiet in the front, and it all felt very awkward and for once I was glad when we dropped her off home. (I couldn’t imagine anything like that happening with Raven. She’d probably have sprinted to town and back to buy us an OS map, then suggested we jog to Top Withins to keep warm).
Dad must’ve been thinking the same because he said, ‘I bet Raven would be game for that hike. Tell you what – let’s do it together, properly! Plan the route. Pack the flask and Kendal Mint Cake. Tog ourselves up for the cold. Get to Haworth early doors, bracing walk to Top Withins and back, then into town for a hearty Full English.’ He winked at me. ‘Veggie sausage for your mate. What do you say?’
‘Oh wow!’ I bounced on my cushion. ‘Thanks, Dad, I’d love to! I’ll ask Raven tomorrow, she’ll be well up for it.’
‘Yes, and I’ll gladly go with someone who’ll appreciate it,’ said Mum. ‘I think it’s marvellous that Raven’s keen on history too, and she certainly brings out the best in you, Eloise. I mean, you’ve only known her two days and you’re like a different girl! No,’ she corrected, ‘not different. More yourself. As if you’ve suddenly flicked a switch and come alive.’
‘Yeah,’ chuckled Dad, ‘Eloise Extra! I’ve noticed too, believe it or not, and I don’t know how much of this new improved version’s down to Raven or whether you’re just growing up, love. Either way, I like it.’
‘So do I,’ said Mum. ‘Last term if your skirt had dropped off like that, you’d have come crying home at lunchtime and not wanted to go back in the afternoon, but now you take it on the chin and turn it into a double act! Yes, good for you, sweetheart – you and Raven should go on the stage.’ She kissed my head and gave my plait a flip. ‘Now get yourself off to bed and leave us oldies to veg out.’
Glowing happily, I kissed them goodnight, then as I was closing the door, Mum said, ‘Aw, bless her! We’re lucky Eloise is such a good girl, not like that spiteful little Jenkins tart,’ so I left a tiny crack open and pressed my ear to it, hoping to suck in more praise. ‘And I never expected to hear myself saying this, Dave, but I’m glad now that Fi’s gone. I think she held our Ellie back.’
I froze, holding my breath.
‘Mm… looks that way,’ replied Dad. ‘Whereas Raven pushes her forward. Or steps back herself. Whatever, she doesn’t hog the limelight, which is amazing when you think what a spoilt showbiz brat she might be.’
‘Yes, if anything, Fiona’s the spoilt one. But Raven seems very down-to-earth, and she’s got lovely grown-up manners.’ Mum laughed. ‘God knows what they’ll make of each other if they meet up at Christmas… somehow I can’t imagine Fi taking to her.’
Dad snorted. ‘No, too much competition! No, second thoughts, there’s no competition. Raven’s so sure of herself she makes Fi look like a kid. Still, maybe that’s what comes of knowing your mum’s so loaded you’ll never want for anything or have a moment’s money worry in your life.’ He sighed. ‘I wish we could give our daughter the same security.’
‘Oh, come on, love. We don’t do too badly, and we’ll do better now I’ll be paying so much less for the shopping. I could save even more if I stop buying meat for a while – you can get it from Grange, but it has to be ordered specially, and it’s dear even with the discount. I fancy trying some more Mrs G’s veggie recipes, though. I’m bored to death cooking the same old things week in, week out.’
‘Suits me. That was a cracking meal tonight – I didn’t miss the mince, and it makes things simpler if Eloise brings Raven home for tea, doesn’t it? Besides, if I’m desperate to sink my teeth into flesh, I can always grab a bacon buttie in town… or just wait till I get home. Nom nom nom.’
Mum squealed and giggled. I guessed Dad was nibbling her ear or something, and crept upstairs on wobbly knees, feeling sick. I had no idea the folks felt that way, I’d never heard them say a word against Fi before. As if they didn’t particularly like her. As if they might not be exactly over the moon about her moving in with us in three hundred-and-however-many days. As if they might actually say- Oh, my God. I sneaked into my room and collapsed on the bed. Who was I trying to kid? I didn’t need to ask, I could feel their NO solid and cold in the pit of my stomach. And I didn’t know how I’d dare tell Fi. I just knew I couldn’t text her tonight after this, I hadn’t a clue what to say, and I wished I hadn’t now but ha ha karma, serve me right for eavesdropping. And I knew I wouldn’t sleep, so to distract my washing-machine head, I finished off my Lang homework, which was easy because the day had happened in a coherent narrative order, (we came, we saw, we went), I just had to stick in a paragraph on Temple Newsam history I re-worded from the guidebook in case Baldy checked and marked me down for copying, then scribbled in Dear Diary, then rubbed hair-gel into my plait – I’d asked Mum to make tighter tonight, hoping it’d be even wigglier tomorrow – then did my MHOF stuff, then snuggled into bed.
Before I switched the lamp off, I looked round my room. Mum refused even to open the door when Fi stayed over – not that she could’ve come in if she’d wanted, the not-very-big bit of floor not covered by the camp-bed used to be covered in clothes, (Fi’s, mine, new ones if we’d been shopping), ditto shoes, empty mugs, sweet wrappers, toiletries etc; we’d just dive in and scramble around on the beds because there was nowhere to walk. Plus all the cupboards and drawers and shelves were practically bursting with my stuff, there was no room for hers (and she had tons). Plus Dad always grumbled about us using up all the hot water on Saturdays, no way would he want that every night of the week…
NOPE! Suddenly the Great Plan we’d been obsessing over popped like a soap bubble. It might be a laugh for a weekend, but I couldn’t share this little space with Fi forever… and, let’s face it, I didn’t want to. Kinell. I turned the light out and buried my head. I couldn’t tell her, she’d go mental. But I couldn’t just leave it until she turned up with her bags. When, then? Telling her before Christmas might spoil it for her. Telling her while she’s here, (my tum clenched at the thought), would spoil it, for everyone. And telling her after, when she’s safely back in Montreal, would definitely spoil it for me – I’m a rubbish actress, she’s bound to ask what’s wrong, and I’m a rubbish liar, too. Then again, she’s got new friends now… if I wait, try and stay off the subject, she might change her mind and decide to stay, and I won’t need to say anything at all! That’d be favourite. But what if she doesn’t? What if she starts going on and on again on Sunday? What should I do? What would Raven do? ‘Oh, Lady,’ I whispered, ‘please help… please tell me what’s best.’
Inside my head, Raven giggled. ‘Tell Fi ASAP it’s a stupid idea and it’s not going to happen. She’s got three months to get over it and if she can’t, tough, that’s her problem. Don’t let her make it yours.’ Hmm. I calmed down after that, and my brain stopped going round in circles and started thinking about Top Withins instead, and Emily Bronte and Heathcliff and Cathy, and somehow they all rolled into one with Raven, I bet she’s read it, and a picture filled my head of us running hand-in-hand over the moors, me in a long dress and sausage ringlets, her in breeches and boots, and I knew from now on it’d be her face I saw whenever I read Wuthering Heights; Raven who was wild and free and strange too, and had her own wuthering height in her back garden, with a Lady who perhaps slumbered unquietly in its quiet earth; Raven who’d rub out the memory of our last weird trip with Fi and replace it with something shiny and new of her own. And I fell asleep, smiling into my pillow.