The angel by the bed in the school sick room looked a lot like Mary Poppins. Weirdly, I seemed to be outside of my body, surveying the scene from above. I could see myself lying there in my hideous school uniform, eyes closed and dark hair splayed on the pillow. The angel was tall and slim with had an alarmingly straight back but no wings. Perhaps they were tucked under the long, grey coat but all I could see was the white collar of her blouse and the hem of her maxi skirt. She wore low-heeled boots and a posh hat plopped on her head and a purple, green and white rosette on her lapel. Disappointingly, she had no carpet bag or umbrella but otherwise, she had the look down spit-spot.
‘Oh dear, this really won’t do, Olivia.’ She used my proper name, her voice firm but concerned. I’ve never liked O-liv-i-ah. It sounds prim and snooty. And I don’t like olives. Teachers sometimes called me that and mum when she was annoyed with me. To everyone else I was just plain Liv. Or if they were being mean, Mind-the-Gap, on account of the gap between my two front teeth.
‘Smelling salts will do the trick,’ said the Mary Poppins woman, examining my super-cool green nail varnish. It was chipped where I’d been biting them. But my chemistry teacher Miss Cartwright took my pulse and didn’t seem to hear her.
‘I hope you realise that I died for your sake,’ said the lady, with a look of mocking impatience about her thin lips.
That was Jesus, wasn’t it? Confusing! Who was this Mary Poppins woman? And why was she here? I’d just fainted, right? I didn’t feel like I was dying. Besides, I couldn’t die. I hadn’t slept with anyone. Actually, I hadn’t even kissed a boy yet. But I didn’t advertise that.
I was dreaming. Mum always said I had an over-active imagination. Of course, it was dream. I mean, if this was heaven, it had been seriously oversold.
The odd woman spun on her heel and stepped towards the window, which looked out towards the school gates. She had reddish hair, curls of which, I could see beneath the hat. She drummed her gloved fingers on the windowsill impatiently. ‘Come now, I need your help and we can’t have this all the time.’ She looked directly at me with sparkling green eyes. ‘Come on, wake up.’ She clapped her hands and, just like that, I was back in my body and awake.
Miss Cartwright, who had taken to rubbing my wrist, said: ‘Olivia? Good, you’re back with us. You fainted. How are you feeling?’ She had brown, highlighted hair tucked behind sticky-out-ears. She was mum-like, Miss Cartwright, comfortable looking but nicely turned out.
‘I’m ok,’ I said, looking for Mary Poppins.
‘No, don’t sit up just yet. You lie there while I get you some water.’ Her heels clacked out of the room and faded along the corridor. What a weird dream. I still felt a bit dizzy. Probably the detox diet.
Click, clack, click, clack. Miss Cartwright came back in with a plastic cup of water and a Snickers bar. ‘Here we are,’ she said, waiting for me to sit up before handing me the drink. ‘I think we need to get your sugar levels up.’ I sipped at the water and gawped at the Snickers, which she was wagging at me. It pulsed fatly with calories.
‘I’m all right Miss, I’m feeling better for the water. I think it got a bit hot in class.’
‘Did you have any breakfast?’
‘Um. I had a grapefruit.’
‘Is that all?
I shrugged. Actually, it had tasted horrible so I left it and just had a cup of tea.
‘Well, you should have a slice of toast with it or a bowl of cornflakes. A grapefruit isn’t going to sustain you. What about at break time?
‘Not much,’ I admitted. ‘I had to catch up on some history homework.’
‘I hope you’re not on any kind of faddy diet?’
‘No, Miss.’ I shook my head, all innocence, and swung my legs over the side of the bed.
‘Good, because it will affect your concentration and your health. At your age you need energy, you’re growing. And if you don’t eat properly, once the body has got through its fat stores, which isn’t going to take long in your case, it starts using muscle. Your body will eat itself for energy.’
‘Gross!’ Although I had a figure like a dumpling so it didn’t apply to me. I guess you didn’t mind carrying a bit of weight when you got to Miss Cartwright’s age. ‘But it’s ok to eat healthily isn’t it, Miss?’ I got off the bed and she held my elbow for a second to make sure I wasn’t going to fall in a heap.
‘Yes. But you need to eat enough. Have a banana and a flapjack at break if you want to be healthy but a Snickers now and then isn’t going to kill you.’ She offered me the chocolate in question. My stomach growled, betraying me, and Miss Cartwright nodded.
I took it as nonchalantly as I could. ‘Thanks, Miss.’
‘Now, if you’re quick you should get back to Mr Copperworth’s class in time to get your next lot of history homework, which I suggest you do this evening rather than five minutes before class.’
I nodded and, seeing her glance at the brown-wrappered bar, figured I’d better have some to reassure her. I opened it and took a bite, trying to keep my face normal but OMG. The chocolate chewiness. The melting sweetness as it spread thickly over my tongue. She gave me my school bag, which I swung over my shoulder. My tastebuds did a jig for joy. There was a whole party going on in my mouth as I left the sick room.
I strolled along the corridor towards my next class. It wasn’t worth going back to history for ten minutes and certainly not for the homework. I got called a geek as it was. I contemplated the Snickers. Sod it. I’d have to run round the field a couple of times after school. I bit into it slowly. The crack of the chocolate, followed by the sweet caramel and the crunch of a salty peanut. Yum.
School felt odd, in a nice way, with everyone in class but me. I could hear Mr Grimsby intoning about tectonic plates – you’d think it would be hard to make earthquakes sound boring but he managed it. The corridor smelled of dust and something like biscuits with a hint of wet umbrella and an undertone of disinfectant. I put my buds in, found a playlist and dropped the phone in my blazer pocket. The party travelled from my tastebuds to my feet and I found myself dancing along to Bruno Mars. Why not? I had the freedom of the corridor. Now, this wasn’t normal behaviour for me. At least, not outside of my own bedroom. So I’m blaming the chocolate. But there I was, twirling by the cloakroom, totally in to it, when I heard another beating, drumming sound in my head, rising above the music. The same sound that I’d heard just before the black blotches appeared in my eyes and I passed out. I stopped, like I was playing that kid’s party game musical statues, and opened my eyes to check if it was happening again.
I physically jumped on seeing him. He was peering over the first row of coats, his head inclined to one side as though looking at a strange zoo animal. The new boy, I figured, because I’d not seen him before. He had dark, too-neat hair, full lips – slightly parted in surprise – and almost-black eyes beneath thick brows, his left one raised higher than the other. The shock had stopped the weird sound in my head. I pulled my buds out.
‘Sorry,’ the boy said. Amusement twitched at the corners of his mouth. ‘Didn’t mean to catch you unawares, like.’
I could feel myself going red and hid behind my hair. From the classroom outside, Mr Swanson was hitting a piano key and voicing a note, which a girl was trying to hold without success.
‘What you doing? I said. Shouldn’t you be in class?’
‘Shouldn’t you?’ His smile was kind so it was difficult to be annoyed.
‘I’ve been to the sick room.’ I explained loftily, ‘I felt dizzy and…’
‘That tends to happen if you spin around with your eyes closed.’
I couldn’t help but grin back, even if I was displaying the gap between my two front teeth. ‘Dancing.’ I indicated with my hand over my shoulder, like I was still there, grooving away.
‘Plectrum,’ he said, holding it up. ‘Left it in my coat pocket.’
‘You play guitar?’
He nodded. ‘I’m Jim. I’m new here.’
‘Olivia Moon.’ No idea why I used my full name, I’d come over all formal. ‘Liv,’ I corrected.
He grinned. ‘Better get back to class.’ He nodded over his shoulder towards the music room, where it sounded like a cat was being strangled to the tune of Adele’s Rolling in the Deep. ‘See you later, Olivia Moon.’
I cringed at my muppetry. Thank god I wasn’t doing any booty-shaking moves. That would have been really embarrassing. I wondered if Crystal had seen him yet? If not, I’d be the Bearer of Great Gossip. He was fit, apart from the mummy’s boy hair. Having recovered myself, I wandered out towards the music room. Just happened to be walking that way, had time to fill, thought the fresh air would do me good … Ok, I wanted to hear him play the guitar.
It was cold and damp outside. I loitered by the outside classroom keeping away from the windows. Adele had finished being massacred. Someone with an ok voice sang the same song, accompanied by a guitar. It wasn’t the halting strumming that I’d expected. He knew how to play. ‘Very good,’ Mr Swanson said. ‘What else can you play?’ Then it went into something happy and jazzy and Mr Swanson gave an approving whoop of laughter. There was chatter and laughter in the class and probably shock that Mr Swanson was actually alive. He brought them to attention. ‘Ok class, that was gypsy jazz. Has anyone heard of …’ he mentioned a name that sounded like Jangle Rhino or something. I pulled my blazer round me, folding my arms to keep warm. It had begun to drizzle. Time to go back indoors. I did a high skip to look through the window as I walked past. It was definitely Jim sitting in front of the class with his guitar. The bell went and I ran off before I made more of an idiot of myself.
The corridor was full of shoulders and bags and elbows, everyone jostling, and gossiping. Crystal’s blonde ponytail bobbed ahead of me in the corridor and I could hear Jasmine’s earthy laugh. I skipped round a few people to catch up with them.
‘Liv, what happened?’ said Crystal, turning her blue eyes towards me. Her face was free from blemish, her plucked eyebrows were in perfect arches and her lip gloss accentuated her pout. Crystal was the kind of girl who turned heads when she walked into a room. It was a mixed blessing for a BFF.
‘I’ve just met the new boy,’ I gushed.
‘And you passed out?’
‘No! Oh that was nothing.’
‘But Finn told me you had to be helped out of history.’
‘Yeah, I just came over dizzy and sort of slipped off my chair, so they took me to the sick room.’ I thought of the old-fashioned woman I’d dreamed about and decided not to mention it. Such a strange, vivid dream.
‘History has that effect on me too,’ said Jasmine with an exaggerated yawn. Her orange lipstick looked luscious against her velvety brown skin. We laughed.
‘So what’s this about the new boy then?’ said Crystal.
I relayed the story, which, though mortifying at the time, seemed funny in translation.
Crystal and Jazz were re-enacting my dancing, but made it look like I was a headless chicken, which gave us the giggles and we were still laughing as we sat down in class.
‘So is he fit?’ Crystal asked as we got our books out and opened our folders. The inside of Crystal’s folder was covered in hearts and ‘Crystal 4 Rafferty’, her boyfriend. Mine had a picture of One Direction. I was, like, SO over them but hadn’t got round to changing it. In any case, Crystal still thought they were awesome.
Before I had a chance to answer, Jim walked in. Jazz snorted with laughter, throwing back her amazing, wild hair. Crystal giggled but tried to stifle it behind her copy of Romeo and Juliet because Mr Walker had cast his laser beam eyes at us. Jim gave a flicker of a smile and a nod as he spotted me. I slipped further down my chair.
‘You’re not going to pass out again, are you?’ whispered Crystal who was sitting next to me.
‘No, but I feel a pirouette coming on.’ We both giggled.
‘This is Jim Valenti. Welcome to the class, Jim. If you just sit down there by Alfie.’ The boys nodded to each other and Jim put on his glasses. ‘We’re reading Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.’ Mr Walker passed him the play. ‘Can anyone sum up the action so far? Yes, Lucy.’
As Lucy started talking, Crystal wrote on a piece of A4. ‘OMG he has a parting in his hair!!’
My heart dropped a little. ‘He’s not bad looking though,’ I scribbled back. Crystal, queen of cool, was deeming him unworthy.
‘If you like that sort of thing.’ She wrote in neat, rounded letters with circles for dots over the i’s. ‘Should have gone to Specsavers!’
I did a fake snigger behind my hand but I felt sorry for him. And it occurred to me that, although I’d made an idiot of myself in front of him with the dancing, he hadn’t made fun of me.
At lunch, I sat with Crystal and Jazz, picking at our salads. Crystal assured me that if you wanted a model figure, you needed a model diet and that meant lettuce and grapefruit and stuff that tasted sour or hardly tasted at all. ‘Fruit and veg are mainly water,’ she’d told me. ‘With vitamins.’ Crystal was an authority on these things, having already done some modeling when she was a kid. Not that I was going to be a model, unless lard-arse became the latest look, but it would be nice if a boy would glance in my direction once in a while.
‘So I went to Westfield last night and mum bought me these killer heels. Kurt Geiger, red, suede. I’m going to wear them Friday to The Den,’ announced Crystal. The Den was a nightclub. They did a fourteen-plus night on a Friday till 11pm when the regular club opened. Crystal had been going since she was thirteen. I was almost fifteen and mum still hadn’t let me go. I think she thought everyone was doing drugs and having sex on the dance floor, but they didn’t even sell alcohol and I’d be lucky if I didn’t get trampled by boys who hadn’t noticed I was there. Crystal’s mum was so cool.
‘I think I’m going for a minimal wardrobe,’ said Jazz, leaning back in her seat and waving an expressive fork.
Crystal and I exchanged a look.
‘What?’ she said. ‘I just think high fashion is so disposable and that’s not without consequence. You know, little kids working for a pittance in a some factory in India or China or wherever.’
She was a bit philosophical, Jazz.
‘Kurt Geiger is not disposable,’ said Crystal, her blue eyes flashing.
‘I’m not talking about you, I’m talking about me, darling,’ said Jazz dramatically, making us laugh. She patted at her voluminous hair.
I saw Jim out of the corner of my eye but didn’t look at him. I didn’t want to encourage him to sit by us given Crystal’s reaction in English. I stabbed at a tomato and, after chasing it around my plastic click-box, I managed to skewer it so the juice spurted out over Jazz’s hand. Jazz looked at it and then at me and widened her eyes and Crystal and I burst into fits of giggles. Jazz didn’t have to say anything to be funny, she could do it by the slightest facial movement. It was quite a knack.
Jim sat down a couple of chairs along on Jazz’s side of the table. He had a bowl of pasta. Crystal, her giggles still tinkling prettily, whispered: ‘It’s your new boyfriend, Liv.’
‘Crystal!’ I hissed and lowered my face to hide behind my hair.
She stopped picking on me and looked over at him, a little too coyly for my liking. ‘Hi.’
‘All right. I’m Jim.’ I peeked past the dark curtain of my hair, drinking in his lively espresso eyes, his olive skin, his smile. He had a nice smile. Perhaps it would disarm her.
‘Does your mum do your hair for you?’
‘Does your mum comb your hair for you? All neat and with that lovely parting?’
Jazz guffawed. I shifted in my seat.
He leaned forward, forearms on the table and met her gaze. It was impressive. Most boys turned to mush in front Crystal. He raised a heavy eyebrow, not in curiosity like when I was dancing, this had a different effect. Or maybe it was the glint in his eye. It was more like a challenge. ‘No. Does your mum do yours?’
Actually, she did sometimes. I’d seen Crystal’s mum pinning it up for her.
He leant back, running a hand through the offending hair, making it into a quiff at the front. ‘I like it this way.’
Crystal was trying to find a suitable riposte but the simple confidence of his statement put her off her stride. This would have pleased me if it wasn’t for the charge that fizzed between them. He put his head on one side, his mouth quirking into a smile. ‘But if you want to mess it up, feel free.’
I almost gasped. Outrageous flirting. Part of me was intrigued to witness it and part of me was trying to block it out. I felt like something inside me was unraveling. Something that was soft and neatly wound up like a ball of wool. I placed my fork on the table, my appetite gone. I moved my hair to one side and exchanged a glance with Jazz whose face read ‘interesting!’ I tried to arrange my face similarly.
At that moment, Rafferty swaggered up behind us with his mate Finn. I glanced round and Finn winked at me, which was weird. He’d never winked at me before. ‘All right, Crystal,’ said Raff, his hand on her shoulder. ‘What’s going on?’ Raff wasn’t looking at his girlfriend, his eyes were on Jim.
Uh-oh. I tucked my hair behind my ear and looked from Raff to Jim, who was forking pasta into his mouth. He raised his eyes to nod at the boys as though nothing out of turn had been said.
Crystal looked up. ‘Hi Raff, we’re just talking to Jim here and admiring his hair.’ She giggled, her hand on his. ‘He likes the mummy’s boy look, apparently.’ She didn’t say anything about the invitation to mess it up. Raff gave a hard laugh.
I had the feeling I was surrounded by dogs, their hackles raised. I wanted to slink away before teeth were bared.
Finn leaned over the table and roughed up Jim’s hair, laughing. Jim dropped his fork and stood up, saying something in another language and beating the back of his hand towards Finn, his fingers pressed together. I didn’t know if it was his voice, the language or the passion with which he spoke that made me squirm low down in my belly. God he was gorgeous.
The boys didn’t know how to respond and so laughed like they thought he was an idiot but they couldn’t really carry it off.
Jim’s sleeves were rolled up and the muscles in his forearms tensed as he rested his hands on the table and leant towards them.
‘You’re putting me off my lunch,’ he said and, lifting his tray of pasta, he walked away. They all cackled after him, jeering, and I felt bad.