2nd Prize (2009/10) - Us by Sarah Evans

by Sarah Evans

We gather up along the way to school.
          Gemma’s first. Then me, watching for her at the bottom of our road. She’s never when she should be; I always wait. Next is Jess, a few more roads along. Sometimes she walks back to meet us. Last is Trish. It’s off the straight way there. We twist along her narrow street with houses tightly packed, right up to her door. The window is on the road, and the paint blisters and flakes on the sill, and you can’t see in through the grime and net curtains. She opens the door just as we get there, her hair straight and dark, cut to points around her ears – four sets of studs – her jumper tied round her waist, no matter that it’s April and cold.
          Then we’re four.
          Trish is always at the centre.
          We shuffle, jostle and josh our way along. We talk and have a gag. It’s hard to explain just what it feels like, being us. How we’re like bigger, stronger, filled-up and warm on quick-fire laughter. Wicked!
          Close to school we see her: Simone.
          You can tell from her name she’s dead posh.
          Trish has a way of saying it. Si-moan. Miss Moan. She tried to tell us once, Simone did, that that’s not how you pronounce it.
          But what Trish says, goes.
          Simone has ginger hair. It’s not just about the colour though. It frizzes out on top, like a bird’s nest, a bird that isn’t very good at nests, Trish says. Like frigging candyfloss. And then – here’s the really good bit – it goes twisting round in ringlets.
          Who’s ever heard of them?
          They look like copper piping, or rolled brandy-snaps, or the cardboard applicators for tampons for them’s so posh they don’t like to use their fingers.
          Tampax tubes, Trish calls them.
          Simone never laughs. Though you’ve got to admit, it’s funny.
          Tampax tubes. Simone’s face goes red when you say that. It starts like a rash on her neck and creeps upwards. She has freckles too.
          Perhaps she’s too posh to use tampons at all. She might use panty liners that smell of lavender. Or perhaps she’s too bleeding posh to bleed at all. Or she bleeds blue blood, like them adverts on telly.
          Trish has us all in fits of giggles.
          The problem with Simone is, she has no sense of humour.
          That’s what Trish says.

Today Simone’s just ahead of us. Her head is all hunched down into her neck, like she’s a hedgehog. We hurry up to catch up on her.
          ‘Hello!’ Trish says, and you should hear the way she says it, like the Queen. Simone’s eyes don’t hardly leave the pavement. Not exactly friendly like. She just keeps on walking.
          ‘He-llo!’ Trish says it again with a rise on lo, demanding an answer.
          ‘Hello,’ Simone says.
          You’d think she’d learn, wouldn’t you? Only the clever bit is, there isn’t really a way out. Trish is good at that. No reply means Simone’s a stuck-up bitch. But anything she does say provides Trish with ammunition.
          ‘Hiya,’ Trish says back. And then she’s back to posh: ‘So how are you this morning?’
          Simone’s face is turning beetroot. She half trips over the curb into the road, and that’s because Trish is slowly crowding her that way. The rest of us huddle close behind, our faces hot too, from all that holding in of laughter. We’re waiting. For the good bit.
          ‘OK,’ Simone mutters. ‘You?’
          ‘Me? I’m very well thank-you.’ Trish pauses. We wait. ‘Tell me is it true?’
          ‘Is what true?’
          ‘That you bleed blue?’
          It’s almost like a poem.

It’s Gemma and me together in class, with Trish and Jess behind. Us four. Simone’s in front, by herself.
          It’s English. Dead boring.
          Miss Lavender hands our poems back. Trish has come out tops, the way she always does. A big round zero marked up in red. She shows us what she wrote. The pussy. Sat on the hussy. Half-rhyme. Clever like.
          Simone is told to come to the front and read hers. Some complete bollocks about her Siamese cat. Does she ever learn?
          We look out for her in the break, spot her in the corner on her own. Sally used to hang out with her till Trish started on her too. Mostly everyone ignores her. Not us though. We’re dead friendly.
          ‘I liked your poem,’ Trish starts.
          Simone doesn’t answer; she tries to walk away. Only we’re four and crowd in around her.
          ‘All about your pussy,’ Trish continues, and that red colour is rising in blotches up Simone’s neck and clashing with her hair.
          ‘Your grey furry pussy.’ Trish keeps on.
          ‘My cat.’ Finally Simone snaps back.
          ‘Your pussy,’ Trish says. ‘Why don’t you show us her. I never seen a grey one. Does that curl in tampax tubes too?’
          I catch the wildcat look in Simone’s eyes, along with the scent of talcum powder and sweat. And just for a moment the April wind razors through me. Then we run off, laughing.

We look out for her on the way home. Only she isn’t there. Running on ahead or left cowering in the loos, we don’t know.
          Not like we care. We huddle together against the wind as we light a single fag and pass it round.
          ‘Show us yours then,’ a group of lads shout over.
          ‘We’d never find yours,’ Trish shouts back.
          One by one we split off.
          Then I’m home. And it’s just me.

We don’t see Simone the next morning either. Something is wrong when we get to school. We feel it soon as we walk into the class. Mrs Buxton is at the front and the whole class is quiet and still, and her face is like she’s eaten a lemon.
          ‘As I was saying,’ she says, glaring at us, and normally that would be a cue for Trish to mimic it back the minute she looks away. Only today she doesn’t. ‘The police are conducting a series of interviews. The school day will carry on as normal. You will all be called one by one.’
          The police? Interviews?
          We look at one another and shrug. Has to be better than double maths. In front of us, Simone’s chair is empty. But then so’s Kieran’s and Sally’s.
          Then the door opens and Sally comes back. ‘The next one Miss,’ Sally says. ‘They said to send the next one along.’
          She sits down looking smug. Like she’s in on something. She looks over at us, then down at her desk.
          It’s an hour later and no one has even whispered what it’s all about. It’s unnaturally quiet. I’m doodling hearts and flowers, but Mrs Buxton doesn’t seem to notice.
          ‘Katherine,’ Mrs Buxton says. Like she doesn’t know that everyone calls me Kat. ‘You next.’
          I have to wait outside the headmaster’s room on a hard plastic chair. I try not to pick my spots. I fidget and think how if Trish was here she’d turn it into the biggest laugh. The door opens and hands are beckoning me in and Rachel, who was before me, flashes me a look.
          There’s two of them, a man and woman. He’s grey haired and in uniform; she isn’t. He sits behind the headmaster’s desk. She’s perched, one leg half resting on the desk, her skirt stretched tight over her thighs. Like this is dead informal.
          Her lips are glossy red and her hair is black and sleek, and she smells of citrus scent. She smiles. Not friendly though.
          ‘Well Katherine,’ she says. ‘We just have a few questions. Perhaps you could tell me who your friends are.’ Like she’s interested. I stare at her. ‘Your friends,’ she repeats. ‘You do have friends?’
          I feel like it’s a trap, only I can’t find a reason not to mutter ‘TrishGemmaJess’ under my breath. I get a feel of cold, though actually it’s hot in here. My arms are goose-bump tight, but my face is burning up, and I’m sweating. Bloody rashers. I think how Trish would say it. Rashers, bacon, pigs. It’s clever like.
          ‘Trish?’ the woman pig repeats. ‘Patricia Parkinson?’ I look down at my hands, partly because that name doesn’t sound right and partly because something in her look, hard and frozen, tells me I’ve said the wrong thing. I nod.
          ‘And how well do you know Simone Hindmarch?’
          ‘Simone?’ and I say it like she does, without the moan. ‘Not very well.’ Well I don’t.
          ‘Do you talk to her?’
          ‘Sometimes.’ Except usually it’s Trish who does the talking.
          ‘What do you talk about?’
          I shrug. A classic Trish shrug, only instead of making me feel don’t-care, I feel small and tight.
          Pig-woman keeps going on and on. When did I last speak to her? What did I say? What did she say back? Did I talk to her on my own? What did Patricia say?
          I keep saying I dunno, I can’t remember. Only in between other stuff keeps creeping out. Everything I say feels wrong.
          ‘You congratulated her on her poem?’ The woman’s voice is sarcy, almost like Trish’s.
          The room is very quiet. A radiator clanks. I hear voices outside. Must be break-time. I shuffle my bum, even though the seat’s a posh one with tapestry padding.
          ‘You see,’ the woman says. She’s talking dead slow like I’m a learning difficulties case, and her teeth are brilliant white against that red lippy. ‘The picture I’m beginning to get. What people are telling me. Is that Simone has been subjected to systematic bullying. And that there are four main perpetrators.’
          Bullying? The bloody little snitch. I try to hear the words in Trish’s voice. Only I can only hear my own.

I’m not allowed back in class. I get sat in a classroom on my own with Miss Davies, the soppy games teacher, who comes to school on Mondays with high necked jumpers, which fail to cover up the chewies on her neck. She gives me a maths book and tells me to work through it, only the book’s too far ahead and the pencil she hands me is broken. Only she doesn’t seem to care. Her eyes never once meet mine. The headmaster comes in and he doesn’t look at me either. He says something to Miss then leaves. His face is grey and grim. Grimshaw. Grimjaw. Grimy-paw.
          ‘You’re being sent home,’ Miss Davies says. ‘Your mother’s coming to collect you.’
          That can’t be right. She has her shift in Asda and she doesn’t get off till late. Only I don’t say anything.
          Just like Mum doesn’t say anything to me, not as we walk to the car, not for all the ten minutes it takes to drive back. Ten minutes takes longer than seems possible. It’s not my fault they sent me home, I want to say. They’ve not even said why.
          The house is colder in than out. Inside, Mum takes hold of both my arms and looks right at me. She’s borrowed that frozen-hard look that everyone is wearing today. She’s looking at me like she’s never seen me before.
          ‘Is it true?’ she asks.
          ‘Is what true?’
          ‘Don’t play games with me.’ She shakes me. ‘Is it true that you’ve been bullying that poor girl? Simone.’
          That poor girl?
          I want to explain. How she’s dead posh and how she asked for it with all her airs and graces and ringlets and putting her hand up in class and writing poems. We were just having a laugh.
          ‘Up to your room,’ she says, like I’m a five year old. ‘I can’t bear looking at you.’
          I’ve not had lunch, and I’m hungry, but I daren’t say anything. I curl up on my bed. Just me.

It’s six when Mum comes up again.
          ‘It’s on the news,’ she says. ‘You should come and watch.’
          What? Only the word doesn’t make it out.
          There’s a picture of our school and Grimjaw looking into the camera and I catch the tail end, ‘…serious incident. We are co-operating fully with the police.’ The camera switches to the hospital and a regimented row of flowers. A man and woman stand there wearing smartly tailored clothes, but looking crumpled. The woman has ginger hair and red eyes. Their lawyer makes a statement. Simone has lost a lot of blood. Her condition is still serious but stable. It’s lucky her mother found her when she did.
          My Mum still won’t look at me, but Simone’s Mum’s eyes seem to be razoring right through mine.
          And it’s just me, and I feel small and sick and hollow.

© Sarah Evans, 2010

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