by Joanne Gilmour
At break, she meets Jack in the gym, right up at the back of the stage where everything is secretively dark and cobwebby. His eyes are fireflies—she likes the shape of his head in the gloom. She can almost find him sexually interesting in this light. In normal life, of course, it wouldn’t be possible. He’s too short. Sometimes he still has the vestiges of sleep ribbing his eyelashes. Once, he broke his arm and the plaster cast was all frayed and yellow and dirty around the edges. He wore it that way for weeks. It was like he didn’t even notice how disgusting it was.
She comes right up close to him, feels him catch his breath as he breathes her in. She whispers, “I like what you did with my physics project.” She edges closer, shoves the toe of her shoe against his. “I got an A star for it.” She lets her hand drop and touches his blazer pocket. His stomach squirms. Jack is most definitely a guppy, but he has some saving graces. She breathes heavily in his face.
“I think Mr. Thomas has the hots for me.” Jack isn’t speaking and she knows that he can’t. If she moves in any closer there will be no air between their two bodies. She lowers her hand, wriggling it between them, moves away a little and pauses. Lets the fingers drift across the coarse fabric of his school trousers. “I have a little maths problem. And I want another A star.” She cups his balls, thinking about Mr. Thomas. “Please.”
She follows Mr. Thomas home. He walks with a slight limp. She likes that about him. She likes limps and scars and broken noses. These things mean that a person has lived. Mr. Thomas is no guppy. She knows that he lodges in the street that runs through the village, in a house with a blue door next to the butcher’s. She’s followed him there.
She takes the key from under the garden gnome that moons into the road from her own tiny front garden and lets herself in. The house is still. She glides through its empty, unlit rooms, suddenly beached on a tidal wave of sadness. She knows they are there, upstairs, sweating in rotten sheets while she roams the sunken rooms below like a ghost on the Titanic. After a while, she throws herself down into a broken armchair and listens with an ear cocked to the ceiling. Finally, somebody hacks up phlegm onto the floor in a raging fit of volcanic coughing.
“I used to think Adrian was a pretty boring name,” says Melanie, dreamily, “until Mr. Thomas came along.” She looks to Amy for approval and Amy rolls a lot of spit around in her mouth and launches it into a corner of the Ladies. She is still thinking about last night. She is fitful from lack of sleep due to the inordinate amount of retching she had to put up with. Her friends watch her spit and are shocked, speechless. They stare at her, unthinking. “Don’t be guppies,” she says, and, “Adrian is still a boring name. He’s sexy but he’s not perfect. I don’t think I’d fuck him, personally.”
They exchange looks, Melanie and Zoe, which tells her what she’s suspected all along—that they talk about her behind her back. Well, that’s okay by her. She’s not supposed to be like them. Sometimes though, she aches not to be so different. Nobody understands how tough it is.
“Look,” says Zoe, holding warty hands out towards her, stupid clownish smile stretching her lips, “I found these really cool lace gloves and I thought of you.”
She fingers them, she can’t help herself. She has always wanted a pair like these, frothy black lace, fingers missing. She imagines slipping them over her knuckles, stroking them up to her wrists, big rings riding each finger. She can’t stop the smile that cracks her face. Her girls always with their gifts! The grins on their faces reflect hers, they bask in her pleasure.
“Zoe, babe, you are just the bee’s knees!” and she stoops to kiss her cheek—a great, big, sucking smacker of a kiss. Zoe looks like she might faint. Melanie says, in a broken little voice, “Amy, it was me who spotted them in the shop first.” Her whiny, needy girls. Maybe later, in the rec room in second break when she normally slopes off for a cigarette, she will go and play pool with them instead.
Her mother is a functioning alcoholic, a phrase that she first heard on the Jeremy Kyle show. When she wants to, she can scrub up well enough to pass for normal if not even mildly attractive. The trouble is, mostly she doesn’t want to. She’d rather slop around in her old stained dressing gown with a ciggy dripping ash on the bare floorboards, ringing up the local taxi firm to pick up a job—lot of cheap Polish vodka and drop it round. She still manages to hold down two jobs though, a surprise to most of their neighbors—she works as a secretary of sorts in a carpet warehouse during the week and cleans their local pub at weekends. That’s probably her dream job.
Her dad can’t work on account of his bad back, his bad feet and his numerous phobias. He doesn’t get out of bed for entire days, and when he decides to clear his throat he just leans over the side and gobs up on the floor. There used to be a carpet and her mother cut holes out of it with the kitchen scissors where the patches of hacked-up mucus were really minging, until in the end there were more holes than carpet.
“We’re happy as two pigs in shit, your dad and me,” her mother said.
Jack hasn’t done her maths yet. She believes that Jack is playing up. His little beady eyes glint in the shadows of backstage. He’s getting greedy. He reaches out for her, but she grabs both his wrists and creates a space between them. She licks her lips, tauntingly, knowing he can sense what he can’t properly see, making him wait. But Jack is desperate. He breaks her hold and pulls her hand down to his groin.
“Mr. Thomas’s cock is so big I don’t even know what to do with it,” she tells him, sounding bored. But Mr. Thomas’s cock couldn’t be further from Jack’s thoughts.
Something weird has happened in English Lit. There’s a new girl standing there by the teacher’s desk and she’s being introduced. Her name is Jacqueline. An oil slick of polished black hair runs free down to her waist. She’s sculpted to perfection from her nose to her toes. She’s rabid desire in a pleated skirt. Her shirt collar is too big, only serving to highlight the seamless symmetry of her cheekbones. There’s a thin gold bracelet hanging like a broken wire off her wrist, a thing for other girls, lesser girls, to emulate. Melanie and Zoe are standing to attention with their mouths open. Really, she could just slap their stupid guppy faces.
Mrs. S parades her before the class like a prize exhibit. She asks her to tell the class something about herself. She behaves as if she’s giving them a gift. Jacqueline glances all around the room, her gaze skipping from one face to another like a gazelle. Her eyes are liquid chocolate, all big and disarmingly scared. She opens her mouth and gives them all a politician’s smile, exposing her teeth, two tidy strings of doll-house-sized snowy-white pearls. Not one thing about her is remotely broken, Amy thinks, until she starts to speak and the words come out thin and metallic.
She is Jacqueline, she says, and she pronounces the name the French way and then she tells them she is half-French on her mother’s side and has been living in Paris for the last seven years. Mrs. S gives her the only spare desk next to Suzy Skidmark. Suzy looks like the cat that got the cream, if such a creature as Suzy, with her rodent teeth and her armpit-stink can be compared to a cat.
Zoe and Melanie will not shut up about Jacqueline. Amy learns all about her through their constant inane chatter. Her father is a diplomat. Her father is Welsh. He can sing like a good Welsh Valley boy and he can speak seven languages. Her maman used to model for Chanel. They have a tennis court at their house. Obviously, it’s a very big house.
Suzy Skidmark presents her with a small box of gold foil-wrapped chocolates for no apparent reason one morning, right before registration, and Zoe and Melanie watch it and sigh. At break, Jacqueline hands out the chocolates to her classmates as they cling to her like wet leaves on a damp autumn pavement. She empties the box among them with her winsome smile, leaving nothing for herself.
“See that?” says Melanie, voice packed to the rafters with unbridled admiration, “See how she’d give her last sweet away before leaving one of her friends out?”
“But they’re not her friends, are they?” says Amy, noticing the red flush of anger bulldozing Suzy’s cheeks as Jacqueline disposes of the final chocolate. “And anyway, she’s probably anorexic.”
Jack has come up trumps with her Holocaust essay. It feels like another A star in her hands.
“My God, how truly awful it must have been in one of those concentration camps,” says Melanie. They are in the Ladies, brushing out their hair and checking their mascara. Zoe has her hair braided down the center, exactly like Jacqueline had hers the day before. She keeps swishing it around her face, admiring it from both sides.
“I don’t care how bloody awful it was,” Amy says, yanking a brush through her own hair with brutal strokes, every one a kick in Jacqueline’s magnetic aura, “if that were me in there I would still find a way to customize those hideous striped pyjamas.” She doesn’t look at the girls in the mirror, she doesn’t care to see their reaction. She’s thinking about Jack behind the heavy velvet curtain backstage, when he’s pushing her face into his groin and moaning, “Oh Jacqueline, Jacqueline.” Jacqueline may look like an Angel Fish, she thinks, but underneath all that exotic other she’s just another moronic guppy.
They don’t have money for the butcher’s next to the blue door since all theirs ends up at the off-license, but that doesn’t stop Amy from making it a regular pit stop on a Saturday now that she knows just exactly who lives beyond that peeling blue paint. One afternoon she goes inside and Jacqueline is in there, cradling a tiny animal against her chest. She’s had her hair cut into a fringe and is dressed in a shiny black mac and suede boots with a fringe down the side. She looks very thin and very Gallic.
“Animals aren’t allowed in this shop,” Amy says, wincing as she realizes she sounds just like Suzy Skidmark.
The butcher, who normally only likes his animals dead, winks at Jacqueline and says, “Just this once,” and Jacqueline holds out the tiniest tortoiseshell kitten towards Amy.
“Go on, you can hold him for a minute,” she says, the kitten a pathetic sacrifice in her outstretched hands, “I don’t mind. His name is Spice.”
“Isn’t it unhygienic?” she pleads with the butcher, but the kitten is in her arms suddenly, wriggling, scratching, then settling into the crook of her elbow, its tiny ears twitching. As light as a dust mote.
Behind her, somebody makes a tutting noise and says, “Don’t look now, there goes The Retcher,” and there’s the awful sound of somebody hacking their guts up out on the pavement. Half a dozen customers turn to stare. Amy turns away to the meat counter and studies the pork and cranberry pies, freshly baked, sitting on their tray glistening beneath their lattice pastry crusts. She squeezes the tiny creature in her hands, feeling the panic in the bubble of its throat.
Somebody else says, “I’ll bet he’s off to the bookies with his benefit money,” and Amy, who can feel a sickening throb start in one corner of her head, turns to look at Jacqueline staring curiously out into the street at the shabby, lopsided figure shuffling along the side of the road launching saliva missiles at passing cars. Thank God, Mr. Thomas isn’t here.
“Is it true your mum used to be a Chanel model?” she asks, lamely, as over Jacqueline’s glossy head with its precision parting she watches two warty old housewives glance over at her and exchange knowing looks before staring off in the opposite direction, lips twitching. They are trying not to laugh. They are pretending they weren’t just gossiping about her. They are now blanking her out of existence, bored already.
“Not Chanel. Jean Paul,” says Jacqueline earnestly, turning back to Amy, who bends her burning face to bury it in the kitten’s fur, which smells all brand-new and comforting. She hopes that she will never meet Jacqueline in the butcher’s again.
All the way home, Amy streams anger and humiliation and injustice into fantasies which mostly involve annihilating the new girl—knocking all her books off her desk in one crippling blow, wielding a machete to rip her chic French clothes to shreds, getting hold of her stupid baby cat by the scruff of its scrawny neck and whacking it against concrete till its brains explode. By the time she’s close enough to give the mooning garden gnome a kick in its gonads, she’s feeling much better.
Melanie and Zoe have betrayed her in the worst possible way, but it takes her half a day to find out. They come into the classroom with averted eyes, giggling to each other under the raised lids of their desks. They smell different. They smell like coconut and sexy sweat. Jacqueline smells like coconut and sexy sweat. It’s some awful French cologne that she wears.
“And how come you didn’t get invited up to her Ladyship’s at the weekend?” says Suzy Skidmark, who hasn’t forgiven Jacqueline for redistributing her carefully chosen gift in the corridor. Amy is furious and half-blind with jealousy and she hates herself for feeling this way. Her face is flaming on the inside, her rage sits like a block of lard in her chest. Zoe’s arms are a nonsense poem of scratches donated by Spice the kitten, and she exposes the ugly scars with boastful pride. Mr. Thomas glances at her arms a conspicuous number of times during class.
Amy says, “Do you mind…can I have a word?” She’s caught him unawares, he jumps —he definitely jumps. He had his back to her in the store cupboard, putting things away after the lesson. Now she’s in the doorway and he’s backed against the shelves that heave with science paraphernalia and musty old text books.
She tries to imagine how she must appear to him, silhouetted against the empty room, dark against light, the very shape and essence of a woman. She hopes that her breasts look good from this angle. They protrude mere inches from his chest, closer than they’ve ever been. An animal excitement surfs a tide of exhilaration through her veins. It’s never like this with Jack. Jack is kindergarten. Jack is such a bore. Jack is far too short and can never control his excitement.
She and Mr. Thomas have bodies that will prove a good fit. Like the last two missing pieces of a jigsaw, they will snap together to complete the picture. She steps forward. He backs into the shelves and a test tube plunges to the floor.
“This isn’t the place…” he starts.
“It’s about Zoe,” she says, firmly, pressing forward, “Her arms? Have you seen them?”
“The staffroom,” he says, but she shakes her head, violently. She feels she has the upper hand and she isn’t about to surrender it.
“She’s cutting herself. She’s my friend…if she thought I’d confided in you she’d close right up. She’s…she’s in denial…”
Amy feels herself falling into character. She thinks about Melanie and Zoe playing tennis on the court in Jacqueline’s garden, dressing up in her mother’s designer lingerie, squealing knee-deep in shag-pile cream carpets with the kitten jumping in and out of their arms, and all of this without her, without any thought for her, sitting at home listening to the kitchen tap dripping while her dad lay comatose on the couch, farts popping like firecrackers.
The tears come easily, and she injects a measure of panic into her voice, when she pleads, “I…I…don’t know what to do—can, can…you help me, please, Mr. Thomas, you’re the only one I feel I can …I can…talk to.” Her breasts are heaving with emotion and she’s helping them to heave and she has the impression that Mr. Thomas is perfectly well aware of her heaving breasts. And yet he resists her.
Something that actually looks like annoyance flickers in his gaze and then a wall goes up. “It’s hardly appropriate to discuss a problem in a store cupboard,” he says, his voice hard.
“But Mr. Thomas,” she says, daring to edge a smidgen closer. He has nowhere to run. But then, right out of left field, his face closer to hers, the merest fraction.
“Amy, isn’t it about time we had a little chat with your father?”
Jacqueline has invited her home. Not Zoe or Melanie, just her, Amy. She was sitting on a bench by the bus stop when Amy walked by. She was wearing one of those huge dirndl skirts that they used to wear in 1950s American movies, wholesome girls and boys by soda fountains going on dates. It was made from some shiny fabric. It had big fat vertical stripes in ice-cream colors. Spice was curled in her lap, purring.
She wasn’t catching a bus, she was just sitting. She beamed up at Amy like she was a long-lost friend. Amy sat down beside her, just to spite her friends, and put out her hand to pet the kitten’s furry head.
“Is that your mother’s skirt?” She only said it to make conversation. She didn’t care two figs about the skirt.
“Oh no, I made it myself. I make all my own clothes. I even design them.”
The invitation is a surprise and the house an astonishment. She keeps trying to think how she will be able to gloat in front of the girls on Monday morning but gets distracted by the enormity of a marble staircase, a real Picasso on the wall, the French windows in Jacqueline’s bedroom opening straight out onto the swimming pool. Jacqueline pirouettes in her dirndl creation. Amy feels small and dirty in her ugly street clothes.
“How come you go to a school like ours? I mean, shouldn’t you be at Eton or something?”
“They sent me to a boarding school in Oxford. I hated it. None of the other girls liked me. They used to throw all my books on the floor and my clothes out of the window. They slashed my dresses with a big pair of dressmaking scissors, my favourite ones—the ones I made myself. They took Rodrigo outside and trampled him into the mud. He lost an eye.”
Amy feels her face going hot, thinking how she imagined grabbing Spice and smashing him into the wall. She makes herself look at all the shoes lined up on shelves in Jacqueline’s walk—in wardrobe. She can’t squeeze out the image of the kitten sliding down the wall, looking like roadkill.
“Was Rodrigo your…?” And Jacqueline pulls a battered photograph from under her scented pillow. “He was a gift from my godfather for my first birthday,” she says, her sudden sadness lost in the brilliance of her smile. “I had him with me every night of my life.” Amy snaps up the picture and tries not to choke on her laughter. Rodrigo is a lilac teddy bear with a string of lumpy brown beads twisted around his neck.
“Where is he now?” she asks, trying to keep a straight face.
“Gone now,” says Jacqueline. “I mean, obviously, I don’t need him anymore.” Jacqueline shifts position on the edge of her bed where they’re sitting side by side, and regards Amy with open curiosity, and then she asks her about her parents, who they are, what they do. The image of her dad shuffling down the road vomiting up his throat lining outside the butcher’s is a slice of realism cutting through the shimmering vision of sunny blue swimming pool beyond the French windows.
“Dead now, both of them,” she says, cheerfully. “I live with my grandparents. They’re really old.”
“Oh,” says Jacqueline. “Actually, my parents are so old that people usually mistake them for my grandparents.”
“Oh,” says Amy, who would have liked to admit that she was pretty much in the same boat. Too late.
“Oui,” says Jacqueline, “Maman was forty-five when she had me and Papa was sixty.”
“Oh,” says Amy, whose own mum had been forty-six when Amy unexpectedly made her debut.
On Monday, she is walking on air, the air of a person who has spent her entire weekend living out the wildest dreams of others, although actually, it was only about three hours on Saturday afternoon. She can’t wait to see the surprised look on Melanie and Zoe’s faces when she and Jacqueline greet each other with a kiss on each cheek, the French way, the way they did when they said goodbye before she skipped away from Jacqueline’s house. They will be thick as thieves, her and Jacqueline. Suzy Skidmark will most probably have to give up her desk.
But Jacqueline doesn’t come to school on Monday and she doesn’t come on Tuesday, either. Suzy puts up her hand and asks straight out where she is, and Mrs. S says Jacqueline is sick. Jacqueline is sick all week. In the Ladies, Amy can’t resist the urge to say, “See? I told you. She’s anorexic. She’s probably got brittle bone disease by now. If she isn’t dead already.” Melanie and Zoe look put out.
“I think you’re jealous of Jacqueline,” Melanie bursts out, and then turns red and looks shocked. She has never talked back like that to Amy. Ever.
Amy gets another A star for maths. It doesn’t glow in the bottom of her soul the way it should—it just sits in her hands like a reproach.
Mr. Thomas avoids meeting her eye all the way through class and gives them a seriously tricky piece of chemistry homework. He’s out of the room before half the class have shifted from their seats and there’s not so much as a backward glance. He’s still wearing the archaic corduroy jacket. Under the weary fabric, his shoulders are clenched like stone.
She meets Jack behind the velvet curtain, heavy with ancient dust and grime. He’s got a slimy, expectant little grin on his face. She’s got the chemistry homework in her hands. But Amy can’t stop thinking. She doesn’t want to be like Suzy Skidmark, a miserable failure. But she doesn’t want to be a fraud anymore, either. She shakes the papers in Jack’s face and tells him that she’s not giving it to him because she’s decided to fail on her own terms rather than succeed on his. Afterwards, she jumps off the stage and runs across the gym, feeling all lightheaded and free.
The following Monday, Mrs. S clears her throat and announces that, regretfully, she has to be the bearer of bad news and inform the class that Jacqueline has left the school and won’t be coming back. No, she doesn’t know why. Her father is a very important figure in French diplomatic circles and perhaps it is related to that. Yes, indeed it is very sad. Jacqueline will be sorely missed. And Mrs. S stares pointedly at the empty seat next to Suzy Skidmark.
After school, Amy walks to Jacqueline’s house. It broods over the sunken garden, abandoned. All the windows are shuttered, including the French doors behind which Jacqueline slept under her lemon-scented duvet. A cover has been laid across the swimming pool, and clumps of leaves have gathered in little sagging pockets of dirty rainwater.
There’s a wind getting up, bellowing across the empty lawn, and the first raindrops work their way under the collar of Amy’s school shirt. She takes cover on the veranda, under the eaves, back pressed into cold brick. Over the sounds of wind and spattering rain, a faint mewling reaches her ears. She listens through the weather for the direction of the sound and then scrabbles down on hands and knees to peek under the veranda.
And there she finds the tiny, shuddering body of Spice, wild-eyed and terrified, squeezed in as far back as he can possibly get. It’s an absolute bugger, getting him out of there, and she doesn’t escape either the sharp fright of his claws or the vindictive lashing of the rain, heaving its guts over everything.
“Poor Spice, poor baby,” Amy says, snuggling the pitiful creature down into her soaking arms. Gone, she thinks, not needed anymore. Obviously.