“Do you ever feel like … life is just waiting there, behind a curtain or something, waiting for you to earn it? Sometimes I feel like there’s this whole tribe waiting. My people. But I don’t know what I need to be to make the curtain fall, you know? I’m stuck.”
Context: Violet’s crush becomes a hero when he stands up to the biology teacher. Violet’s best friend is moving to Cornwall. From Paper Starlings (book 1).
Si did return to school a week after his escapade, and Nicholls upgraded his disdain-o-meter to a hate-o-meter purely for his benefit. But Si smiled through every loathe-encrusted look and hateful comment because he was untouchable. He cared about Nicholls’ opinion like he cared about algae.
Leia’s last day was messy and wet. She had rarely seen me cry before, and though it didn’t happen until we got to her house, it brought out her maternal side so that she became all warm and gushy like Eden. We promised each other we’d talk or text every day. She’d made me a photo album, and I’d painted a picture of the two of us in our Stitch onesies as a going-away present. On Friday morning, my brain checked out while my class watched Life of Pi. I might as well have been in double maths.
By the end of the day, I’d solidified my plan to speak to Si. My plan was this: get changed into my art overalls so that when he invited me to the scrubs, I could say yes. It was a good plan, if I didn’t factor in the probability that he wouldn’t invite me anywhere ever again, considering I’d said no last time. Leia sent me mileage updates, accompanied by crossed boxes because my crappy phone couldn’t deal with emojis. It didn’t matter; I knew they were turds. Turds were her favourite. Leia had travelled three hundred miles away from me in the five hours it took for me to formulate a half-plan. Maths felt like my enemy.
As much as Leia would’ve hated to miss it, I geared myself up for some loitering with intent. I looked ridiculous. At art club, I forced myself to wear a chronically beige boilersuit which did an admirable job of protecting everything but my hair, and made me look like a ghostbuster that had been mugged by Jackson Pollock. I stood beneath the bald tree that had offered Si anonymity before it lost its leaves, but offered me nothing. I looked ridiculous for twenty minutes while the crowd thinned. It was much harder trying to spot Si on a non-uniform day. When everyone wore navy, his hair was a beacon. When they didn’t, his hair was just another slash of orange, because apparently people who weren’t me wore orange.
By the time Si wandered out of the foyer, I’d counted to twenty another dozen or so times, twenty being the number at which I’d give up and go home. My heartbeat slowly climbed up my oesophagus, pulsing like a beast. I watched Si’s eyebrows climb, then a slight hitch catch the corners of his mouth, but no smile. He looked around like he thought I might be waiting for someone else, so I raised my hand in a half-wave. Then he smiled.
A million useless bits of sentence fell over each other in my brain while I waited for him to get to me. Then he was standing where I had stood the day he reminded me where his face was. He was looking at my overalls, and it was on the tip of my tongue to say, I’m up here, when he spoke.
“You’re in the mood to paint a masterpiece?” He sucked on his bottom lip.
I tried to avoid a full-body spasm. “No. I just didn’t want to get dirty.”
He moved closer. There was no canopy now, just spiky fingers. But it wasn’t the leaves that had made the air beneath the tree dangerous.
“Where are you going that’ll get you dirty?”
He grinned. “Me too.”
His feet were two pairs of shoes away from mine. With each breath, I released less air, until I got to the point where breathing in became impossible. I lowered my head, then let it all go in an embarrassed gush. I didn’t know whether he heard or saw or not, but I vowed to use whatever time we spent together proving that I did actually know how to breathe.
He half-turned to the gate, waiting for me to step in beside him. The dull winter light did nothing for his complexion, but I didn’t mind his bleached face. He wasn’t cold enough yet for his cheeks and nose to turn rosy. His knuckles were pink though, and shredded.
“What happened to your hands?” I said, while we walked side by side towards the gate.
“I don’t get on with my mum’s arsehole boyfriend.”
“What are you apologising for?”
“I shouldn’t have asked. It’s none of my business.”
He shrugged. “It’s nice to be worried about.”
We ate up the pavement at twice the speed I walked with Leia, who could dawdle for Britain. We were quiet for a few minutes, the only sounds our shuffling breaths and synchronised footsteps.
“Leia moved today, right?” he said, side-eyeing me cautiously.
“Yeah. How’s Lewis?”
Luckily, Si knew how to take a hint. “He’s okay. He’s been making the most of his five minutes of fame.”
“How about you? Il a un point, Jeff has become a meme. You’re a legend.”
“Today, a meme. Tomorrow, a movie.”
“Exactly. You can’t buy that sort of notoriety.”
We were laughing when an obnoxiously toxic car pulled up alongside us, something dangerously black seeping from its rear-end. The window hummed down, and the driver leant across a huge plant taking up most of the passenger seat. Si groaned.
“Hey, boy. This your wifey? She’s fi-iii-ine.” I wasn’t sure where this London boy thought he was from, or why he thought fine had eighteen syllables.
“She also has ears, and class, and she isn’t my wifey.”
“Bet she knows her way around a car.”
That was an inexplicable sentence. Was it a euphemism? What the hell was he talking about? And also, Si thought I had class.
“What the hell are you talking about?” said Si.
“She’s a mechanic, right?” I laughed at his earnest expression, until it gave way to sleaze. “You can fondle my gearstick whenever you like, baby.”
“No, she’s not a fucking mechanic.” Si was no longer winter-white.
“I’m a ghostbuster,” I shouted.
Si laughed, then dropped all humour. “What do you want, Ryan?”
“Just checking in, bruv. You want a ride someplace?”
“No. And stay away from the flat. The new one’s huge.”
Ryan tipped his head dismissively, then roared away leaving a black fog behind.
“The new one’s huge?” I said, flapping my arm across my face to avoid choking.
“My mum’s boyfriend.”
My eyes were in danger of drying out, they’d gone so wide. “He’ll hurt you.”
He smiled gently. “He’s not that big. I just said that so Ryan wouldn’t turn up at the flat.”
“Right.” I laughed. “Did he really have a seatbelt on a marijuana plant?”
Si didn’t laugh. “There’s probably worse in his glove box.”
“So, how do you know him?”
“I don’t. Not really. He’s just a twat my mum knows. I’m sorry he said those things about you.”
“It’s not your fault. I’ve heard worse, and I definitely do not know my way around a car.”
By the time we got to the scrubs, I remembered the other reason I didn’t go there. An eight-foot chicken wire fence.
“Shit,” I said.
“I can give you a leg-up.”
“Your hands are already broken.”
“I can take your weight.” He leant close to my ear, and said, “I already did, remember?”
I shuddered. “You mean I didn’t dream that particular humiliation?”
He shook his head. “Totally real.”
“So you give me a leg-up, then what? I face-plant into the chicken wire, and go home looking like I’ve been griddled?”
He laughed. “Fine. There’s a weaker spot in the fence we can crawl through, but it’s around the other side.”
“You just wanted to see me get scuffed up. That’s evil.”