My room was white. A blank canvas. I’d intended to put something arty on the walls, but I hadn’t got round to it. So there was just a pin-board of photos, tickets, a couple of postcards from a school trip to the Tate Gallery, other memorabilia and a medal from when Lauren and I had won the doubles tennis tournament. The curtains were a relic from when I was about eight. Pink and lemon stripes. Wild. The duvet cover was also yellow. Mum’s choice. And I had some cuddly toys on top of my wardrobe, which I didn’t have the heart to get rid of.
I was supposed to be doing homework but was doodling instead at my desk by the window that looked onto the street with its identikit houses. Brick boxes. Each one, it’s own reality TV show. Except it would be really boring. Mums, dads and kids all sitting down to watch the telly or variously surfing the net, checking email, texting. Lots of little lives. I drew boxes within boxes. I didn’t want a little life. I wanted a big life. Actually, I just wanted life to start. I felt like I was waiting for that.
I really didn’t like the curtains. I wondered if mum would let me change them. But what colour would I have? What was me? I wasn’t a pink girl. Blue, maybe. I liked Crystal’s bedroom. It was a sophisticated aqua and white. Tiffany blue, she called it, and she had a walk-in wardrobe with racks and racks of clothes and a huge oversized mirror with an ornate gold frame that leant against a wall and reminded me of Alice in Wonderland. Jim Valenti appeared in big bubble letters on my A4 notepad. I thought of his dark, flashing eyes and his strong looking forearms. Valenti, my Valentine. Yeah, right.
I felt bad about what happened at lunchtime. I should have told them to leave him alone. But what good would it have done? They wouldn’t have stopped and I would have been cast out into the far recesses of the playground. Jim had been stupid to get angry and have a go at them, especially in another language. It would give them ammunition. You’d think as a new boy he’d want to fit in rather than make a ruckus on his first day. His flirtation with Crystal floated into my mind and I pushed it away.
An argument was brewing downstairs between mum and dad.
‘It wouldn’t kill you to peel a potato.’ That was mum.
‘I’ve just got in. Can’t I watch the news for five minutes.’ Dad.
I wasn’t sure how I became friends with Crystal. She was so with the crowd. She WAS the crowd and she’d included me. I guess it was sitting next to her in English. Yeah that was it. We’d got chatting about fashion and she described a dress she’d bought and I drew it as she described it and that impressed her. I can’t really afford to buy clothes. Not like she does, buying the latest fashions every week. So I just draw stuff that I’ll wear when I’m thin and rich and famous and have married a rock star. I sketched a long shallow S shape and made it into a willowy girl. I gave her a long strapless gown, a necklace, the pointy toe of a shoe, just peeping out. Hair in an up-do.
The argument downstairs had stepped up a gear.
‘What happened to the woman I married, that’s what I want to know?’
‘She grew up.’ The crash of a pan on the hob.
‘Meaning I didn’t, I suppose?’
‘Meaning you don’t take your share of the responsibilities.’
It was building into a bad one. I went back to the cubes drawing them on top of each other this time. The third one was off kilter and then I drew them all higgledy piggledy round the base of the box tower.
I caught a movement out the window and looked up. Someone on a bike. I looked down at my pad, a kind of chill in my belly. It had looked a bit like… But that was impossible. It had been a dream. I looked at my doodles of boxes, the bubble letters spelling Jim Valenti, the willowy girl in the red-carpet gown. I am here, at my desk in my bedroom with hideous, girly curtains. This is real. Perhaps it was just a figment of my imagination, a trick of the light and it would be gone when I looked again. Slowly I raised my head and peered out of the window. There she was. The tall, thin woman in the old fashioned get-up. She was standing beside an ancient bike and admiring the magnolia tree, which was beginning to bud in the front garden. Who was she? I got up, pushed my feet into my Converse, dashed out of my room and down the stairs. Above the sound of my parents yelling at each other in the kitchen, I heard the drumming sound, rising, getting louder. I paused and held on to the banister post at the foot of the stairs. What was that? I didn’t feel dizzy this time though. Weird. Noises in your ears. There was a name for that wasn’t there. Tinnitus. That was it. I waited for it to subside, which it did within a few seconds, and went out the front door, leaving it ajar because I had no key.
‘Ah hello!’ Her voice rang out clear and true like the chime of a musical triangle as I walked down the path towards the quiet street. ‘I thought I was lost, but…’ She looked me up and down and then along the street. What is this place?’
I had meant to come right out and ask why she was following me but she was so prim and proper and I felt like I’d just crawled out from under a hedge next to her so I answered, ‘Larnford Drive’ and tried not to gawp.
‘Never heard of it.’ She peered at me closely, gave a wave of her hand and said: ‘It doesn’t matter. I have the feeling I’m exactly where I’m meant to be.’
She was a plain woman and wasn’t wearing a scrap of make-up. But she had rosy cheeks and darting green eyes that, at that moment, were looking me up and down. ‘I say, I do think your outfit is splendid. It’s so daring.’ She gave a wiggle of her shoulders and raised her eyes skyward, like it gave her some sort of thrill.
Weird chick. I looked down at my skinny jeans and my blue, oversized jumper, the cuffs of which I had pulled nervously over my palms.
‘One must be able to move about with such ease in trousers, I should think.’
Super-weird. But I had the feeling she was more eccentric than bonkers. I could hear mum screaming something about a mid-life crisis from inside the house.
The woman glanced up but didn’t comment. ‘I do apologise. I’ve not introduced myself. I’m Emily.’ Her thin lips stretched into a smile.
‘Olivia.’ It was the second time that day I’d introduced myself with my proper name. I think it was because she was so posh. Yet there was something oddly familiar about her. ‘Are you, like, for real?’ I asked.
‘I beg your pardon.’
‘It’s just that you’re really rocking that look.’
‘I’m sorry, dear, I don’t understand.’
‘That outfit. Are you going to a fancy dress party? Or are you an actress, getting into a part?’
‘Good lord no! I’m not that kind of gal.’ She looked confused and put her hands to her hat as if to check it was still there.
‘I just thought you might be auditioning for Mary Poppins or something,’ I said apologetically. I hadn’t meant to offend her but she did start it.
‘I don’t believe I know a Mary Poppins.’ Her face brightened. ‘What a delightful name. Is she something in the music halls?’
I opened my mouth and closed it again. There was weird, there was super-weird and then there was completely barmy. But her face was so open and cheerful I couldn’t help but laugh. ‘No, you know, the nanny who flies with an umbrella and magical carpet bag. “A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, the medicine go dow-wn, the medicine go down…”’ I sang.
‘No, dear, I don’t recall her at all.’ She looked at me with wide eyes like I was the one who was mad. ‘I say, that tune is rather catchy’. She started singing it, which was beyond weird, her looking like Mary Poppins and all. I laughed.
‘Do you know. I think you and I are going to be very good friends.’
My smile dropped as I thought of Crystal and Jazz. Emily was not exactly the coolest chick on the planet. Unless she really was an actress, then she’d be ok.
‘Liv? Mum was calling from the doorstep. ‘Are you all right, love?’
‘Yeah, just…’ This was going to be interesting. I looked at Emily… to find she’d gone. ‘Coming.’ I looked both ways down the street and, seeing no sign of her, walked up the path. Mum put her arm around me when I came in the door. Her face was strained and jaw tight with keeping her emotions locked down but I could see the distress in her eyes. She looked at me carefully. ‘Sorry, love.’ She meant the argument with dad. I shrugged. Then, her voice cracking, she said: ‘I’ve not heard you sing that since you were little. You used to love Mary Poppins.’
I met up with Crystal at the end of her road to walk to school. Mysteriously she wanted to meet up half an hour earlier than usual. ‘All right,’ I said as she approached, light-footed in her ballet pumps.
I’d been on the look out for my new ‘friend’ but hadn’t seen her. Thank God. No idea where she went last night. Didn’t even hear her cycle off. Luckily, mum didn’t say anything. Maybe she didn’t see anything strange in me hanging out with weird people.
‘Hi’ sang Crystal, all fresh-faced and sparkling like mineral water. ‘I’ve got a good feeling about today, haven’t you?’ She bumped shoulders with me and giggled.
‘Um, not really.’
‘Liv, you really must work on your attitude. Think positive. You never know what’s round the corner.’
Precisely. Bloody Mary Poppins could turn up and ruin my image. I looked sidelong at Crystal, blonde hair in a chignon. I wondered if her mum had helped her with it. I sighed inwardly at the thought of Jim Valenti. I’d mess up his hair, given half the chance. Crystal was wearing a smile that said she had a secret to tell.
‘Come on then?’ I urged.
‘I dunno. You just look like you’re the Bearer of Great Gossip.’
She grabbed my shoulders and gave a squeal of a laugh and skipped along a bit. ‘Maybe I am, maybe I’m not. But I’m in a very good mood. Listen, can you come to The Den Friday night.’
‘Crystal, you know I can’t.’
‘Your mum has got to let you go sometime, Liv. Or just don’t tell her. Say you’re staying over at mine.’ She held her forefinger up at me. ‘Ah-ah. Don’t say no just yet. Think about it, yeah. The offer’s there.’
She was a good mate. But I couldn’t lie to mum and dad. I wasn’t the kind of person that got away with it.
‘Now I’ve been thinking,’ she said. ‘Don’t take this the wrong way, but I think you need to start experimenting with make-up.’
‘Because you’re a girl. It’s fun. Why wouldn’t you want to make the best of yourself?’
‘I’m wearing lip gloss.’
‘Yeah, but you don’t highlight your eyes at all.’
‘That’s because they’re a weird grey colour. Poetry is not written about eyes the colour of dishwater.’
‘There’s that attitude again. You have… enigmatic eyes. They kind of change according to the light and sometimes they look blue and sometimes green and they’re pretty.’
‘Really?’ I felt momentarily flattered but I knew she was just being nice.
‘Yes. But if you put a bit of mascara and liner on, you’d bring them out.’
Enigmatic eyes. Didn’t the Mona Lisa have enigmatic eyes. No, that was her smile. She was still pig ugly though. Maybe Crystal was right about making the most of myself. Jim Valenti. Oh what was the point? As soon as he’d seen me next to Crystal yesterday, it was pretty obvious where his interests lay.
We walked up to the school gates with Crystal explaining how she was going to give me a make-up lesson. I didn’t want to do it in either of our registration classes with everyone trailing in. So we decided to go to one of the art rooms. No one was there. She sat me down by the window, which looked onto the sports field, and out came her capacious turquoise and silver striped make-up bag.
‘My box of tricks.’ She held it up gleefully. And out of that came, brushes and tubes and lippies and liners and glossy boxes of eye shadows. Some were regular brands I recognised from Boots but others were designer. I stared at the array of goodies in front of me.
‘We’ve only got 25 minutes,’ I said. ‘Looks like you’ve got enough for a whole art project here.’ I hoped her efforts wouldn’t be inspired by Damien Hirst’s spin paintings.
‘Plenty of time,’ she said confidently. ‘We start with a base to even out skin tone.’ She sounded like she’d swallowed a copy of Cosmo.
‘You’re not going to turn me Essex Orange are you?’
‘Do I look orange?’
She did put on too much sometimes but, obviously, I couldn’t say that. ‘No. It’s just that I like the natural look.’
‘I know. I’m not going to do anything dramatic, ok. God, Liv, it’s only make up. Look,’ she showed me the tube, ‘BB cream. It’s subtle, all right.’
I nodded. That sounded ok. She dabbed some on my cheeks, forehead, nose and chin, and then used a brush to blend it in.
‘Can I have a look?’ I picked up the hand mirror and looked at my worried reflection. Actually, it was ok. I didn’t look like I’d just stepped off a plane from Florida or anything. It wasn’t obvious I had anything on but it toned down the colour in my cheeks and sort of softened my face.
‘Pick an eye colour,’ she said, dabbing concealer on the spots on my chin.
I opened up some of the boxes and looked to her for help, raising my eyebrows and hitching up the corner of my mouth into a ‘No idea.’
‘Something neutral, a gold colour, I think.’
‘Gold was neutral. Ok.’
I pointed to one.
Crystal nodded. ‘Although I think the pinkier one above it might work better with your skin tone. Close your eyes.’
I felt the brush, soft on my eyelids, pulling slightly, then she moved above the crease. ‘You can open them now. You have lovely big, round eyes,’ she said, considering them, the brush hovering to the left of my face.
‘Like the big bad wolf?’
She gave me an admonishing look. ‘Like Scarlett Johannson. And you don’t need a brow pencil because your eyebrows are dark and they have a really nice natural arch, you lucky cow.’
What was it with the compliments today? Hey we’ll forget the big (sorry, do mind my attitude, shall we call it strong?) nose, the dishwater eyes and the daft gap between my two front teeth, look at the eyebrows, darling. More arch in those than the McDonalds M.
I watched Crystal work in the hand mirror so I’d remember what to do when I had enough pocket money to buy some eye shadow. A shimmery ivory colour in the inner corners and just below the outer corner of my eyebrow, then a tickly mascara wand zig-zagged through my lashes and, I had to admit, my eyes looked more seawater than dishwater.
‘You see how it brings out the green in your eyes.’
‘Yeah.’ I was surprised.
‘Now for a bit of blush,’ she said, swirling a big brush through a pallet of shimmering peach, champagne and pink then sweeping it along my cheekbone to my temple. The other cheek then a swipe across my forehead, nose and throat. It gave my face a glow. ‘And finally, lippy. How about this.’ She picked up a coral gloss. ‘It looks bright in the tube but it’s just a hint of colour on.’
‘Ok.’ She’d done all right so far.
‘There’, she said, looking pleased with herself. ‘You just turned into a swan.’ She clapped her hands together. I stared into the mirror and found myself flashing my gap-toothed grin. I looked all right.
It didn’t stop me being self-conscious though. In fact, going into registration, I felt more self-conscious than usual because I hadn’t had a chance to get used to my make-up and as soon as Crystal left me, I became unsure about it.
She and Jazz weren’t in my class but some of the crowd were: Amy, Megan, Oscar. And Finn, of course, who was one of the golden few along with Crystal, Jazz and Raff. Crystal was Queen Bee, naturally, by virtue of being gorgeous, Raff was sporty and the best-looking boy in school. They were the school’s golden couple. Jazz was, well, Jazz. She was cool. And Finn the Chin – he was the joker in the pack. Then there was Saskia with the leonine eyes; Clare, who had a dirty laugh and language to match; Amy, who was bolshy, liked to hang out with the boys and had an enviable blonde bob; and Oscar, who was a bit of a lad, like Finn. My seat was next to Megan, who was smiley and chatty and got on with everyone. I slid in next to her. Us two were kind of on the periphery of the crowd.
‘Hi Liv,’ she beamed at me. ‘Hey, have you checked out the YouTube video yet? That dance routine, Finn has put up?’
‘No.’ She hadn’t noticed anything. I still looked like me. It was ok. Then I registered what she was saying: ‘Finn has uploaded a dance routine?’
‘Yeah,’ she giggled. ‘I know.’
‘What, like, of him dancing?’
‘Apparently. I heard him telling Belle just before registration.’ Belle with the boobs. The boys called her ‘Ding Dong’ among themselves as kind of alert that she was nearby. Finn was talking to Oscar, who sat next to him, but looking at me. He winked. Weird. That was the second time he’d winked at me. Maybe it was because he knew Megan was telling me about the YouTube thing. ‘I haven’t seen it yet either but we’ve all got to learn the moves. Everyone in Mr Copperworth’s history class. And then we’re going to flash mob it next Wednesday.’
I gasped. We’d never get away with it. The whole class would be put in detention.
‘You look really nice today,’ said Megan, jumping subject, as she frequently did. ‘Have you done something different?’ She crinkled her freckled nose trying to work it out.
‘Crystal put some make-up on me.’ I pushed my hair behind my ear. ‘Is it too much?’
Megan put her hand on my arm and her eyes widened. ‘No. You look good with mascara.’
To my horror, I realised that Finn had come over and was standing right by our desk and I let my hair drop forward again.
‘All right.’ He mumbled and looked oddly bashful, which wasn’t like Finn at all. ‘Did Megan tell you about the flash mob?’
‘Do you want to see it?’
‘Yes, yes, give it here,’ said Megan.
He put his iphone on the desk. ‘It’ll be up in a minute. And if you listen carefully you hear my mum half way through saying “Finn, will you stop that racket!”’ He mimicked a woman’s voice and grinned. He was really good at taking people off. Voices and walks were his stock in trade and teachers hated him for it.
He sat on the desk as the video played and my stomach hurt with laughing. He was so gangly and seemed deranged when he danced, like his limbs were a separate entity. He was in time with the music though and it was a deliberately silly dance that when done en masse would look hysterical.
‘Practice. Tonight. In the park after school.’ Hearing Mrs Potts struggling with the door, he skipped over and opened the door for her. ‘Morning, Miss.’
‘Thank you, Finn,’ she said struggling in with a pile of folders that came up to her nose. Finn waddled behind her, exaggerating her walk just enough to cause some sniggers round the room. I still had the giggles from the deranged dancing. ‘Finn McCormack, isn’t that getting a bit old now?’
‘I was thinking that myself Miss, yes Miss, I’ll just sit down.’
When the bell went for first lesson, Finn sidled up to me in his long-legged way as I was throwing my bag over my shoulder. ‘Um, Liv…’ I looked up at him. ‘I was just wondering, right…yeah, like, um…’ He looked more gangly than usual, like he didn’t know where to put his hands. They were on my desk, running through his light brown hair, in his pockets. ‘Have you done your maths homework for tomorrow?’
‘It’s just that I didn’t really get what he was going on about.’ His hazel eyes were as restless as his limbs.
‘Ok. We can go through it at break if you like.’
‘Yeah, thanks. Laters.’ He skipped off. Finn McCormack wanting to understand the homework rather than just copying it. That was a first.
I was on my way to art and his voice behind me in the corridor made the little hairs on my neck prickle. ‘Nice friends you have, Olivia Moon.’ It was low and lovely like mocha. More playful than coffee, more serious than chocolate.
‘Yeah, Crystal’s really pretty.’
His brows darted together and a smile flickered at his mouth. ‘I was being sarcastic.’
‘Oh, right, yeah.’ I avoided his eyes. I could feel myself going red. ‘Sorry about yesterday. They can be a bit… like that.’
We’d reached a junction in the corridor. Kids jostled past. Chatter bounced off the walls. ‘Is the science block this way?’
‘Yeah, through the double doors. I’ve got art.’ I indicated in the other direction.
He nodded, then as I turned to go, he said: ‘She’s pretty but not my type.’
Part of my brain was doing a happy dance at this news. The realistic part was yelling: Liar! Crystal Summers is every boy’s dream. I looked back at him. ‘Yeah, right. What was it? If you want to mess up my hair, feel free?’ I smiled and layered it on some more. ‘Please run your fingers through my hair and all over my body while you’re at it.’ The corridor was thinning out. I’d be late for class.
He laughed. ‘Is that an invitation?’
I tried to force my face into a ‘you wish!’ but I probably just looked alarmed that he’d taken it the wrong way. I wondered if the BB cream masked the heat I could feel in my cheeks.
‘I’m half Italian.’ He said it as if it explained everything, his arms were outspread and he took a couple of steps backward before turning 180 degrees towards the science block. I ran up the stairs to art. He was flirting with me, I think. But then, by his own admission he flirted with everybody because he was Italian. Still, a boy had flirted with ME.
At break time I met Crystal, Jazz, Amy and Megan by our wall, where we always sat. ‘So…’ said Crystal, smiling.
‘Yeah,’ I flicked my hair from my face. ‘I’m getting used to it. Megan said I looked nice with mascara.’ I smiled at Megan.
Breaking from her conversation with, or rather at, Jazz, Megan said: ‘Yeah, you do. You should wear it every day.’ She turned back to Jazz.
‘Good, good.’ Crystal gave a slow nod but somehow, I felt I’d given her the wrong answer. ‘Anything else going on?’
‘No,’ I said a little too quickly. Even though her make-up job had worked wonders with Jim, I didn’t want to tell her about it.
‘Did you see Finn in registration?’
‘Yeah. Have you seen his YouTube dance routine thingy? It’s hilarious. He’s organising a flash mob in history next Wednesday.’ I was a bit worried about getting into trouble but I didn’t let on to her. It wouldn’t be cool.
‘Yeah, yeah, I’ve seen it.’ She smiled but looked like her mind was elsewhere. Rafferty probably.
‘Actually I’m supposed to see him at break.’ I looked around the playground but couldn’t see his gangly frame anywhere. ‘He wants help with his maths homework.’
‘His maths homework.’ She rolled her eyes. ‘God, he’s useless.’
I thought that was a bit harsh. It wasn’t until the bell had rung that I saw Rafferty, Finn and Oscar loping along. Finn raised his hand to me, said something to Raff, then loped more quickly towards us. Crystal saw them too. She nudged me, gave me a wink and peeled off to give her boyfriend a kiss. Was there some kind of winking disease? I was still working out what her wink meant, when Finn said: ‘Sorry, had some stuff to do. About that maths homework, um, could we catch up after school and go through it.’
‘Aren’t we doing flash mob practice?’ I caught sidelong glances from Crystal and Raff.
‘Yeah. After that. We could go to the coffee shop on the High Street.’
‘Great. Laters.’ He grinned, skip-loped over to Raff, gave him a shove then ran off into the school building. I had the feeling something had just happened but I wasn’t sure what.
‘So…’ said Crystal.
‘What did Finn say?’
‘We’re going to do our maths homework after school in the coffee shop.’
She clapped her hands and jumped up and down.
‘He just asked you out.’
‘No. I think he just wants help with his homework.’
She turned me towards her, hands on my shoulders, bringing us both to a halt. ‘My God, for such a swot you can be really dim sometimes. Since when has Finn been interested in his homework?’
I shrugged. She had a point.
‘He’s interested in you.’
‘Finn?’ One of the golden few, was interested in me?
‘Yes, Finn wants to go out with you.’ Crystal spoke slowly, like she was explaining to a two-year-old, which I was in these matters. And then it all fell in to place. Meeting early to go to school, the make-up lesson, Finn being awkward that morning in registration.
‘And the penny drops.’ She laughed.