My mother is bristling, annoyed at my refusal to be coerced into a pew near the front, irritated that I steer her to an anonymous seat at the back.
Miss Grice has been at the pulpit for a while now and the vicar is looking twitchy.
‘…A for History; A for Geography; and, last but not least, A for Religious Studies…’ she intones, in full assembly mode. It’s a wonder she hasn’t turned up in her gown and mortar.
Mum’s involuntary flinch at hearing of Suzy’s A-grade in Maths reoccurs when it dawns on her that Suzy has gained top grades in all nine of her subjects.
‘….an apt pupil and a credit to Grantry Grammar School for Girls…’
Miss Latham (English) sits in front of me, a light sprinkling of dandruff resting on the shoulders of the black jacket she invariably wears to all lessons unless there is a heatwave. She sniffles into a make-up stained tissue, a surprising display of grief seeing as Suzy was nothing but a cow to her. Mrs Bevan (Biology) the other staff representative, is not sniffling. Has she volunteered to attend in order to make sure that Suzy has well and truly gone?
‘…so let us be upstanding and sing the School Song in remembrance of a once-bright light so precipitously extinguished…’
I am impressed with Miss Grice’s acting skills. If you didn’t know better, you would think Suzy had never spent a single minute in her office serving detention for numerous infractions: serial tardiness, ear-piercing in the toilets with a geometry compass, mouthing an alternative lyric to the National Anthem at the Founders’ Day service, persistent smirking to name but a few.
The curtains are wrong for Suzy – she never wore blue – and when they open to allow her to pass through, I wince at the choice of music. Classical? She’d far rather have gone out to Bye Bye Baby.
Mum and I turn up at her house a good fifteen minutes behind the other mourners having made a quick pit-stop at The Bull for what Mum called a livener. She pulls down the sunshield and checks her face in the mirror, re-applying burgundy lipstick and fussing at her glossy bob with the sharp end of a glinting metal comb. She has brought out the big guns for the occasion: cashmere, silk and my late grandmother’s diamonds. Nothing like putting on a show, eh Mum?
Suzy’s house is nothing like ours, it doesn’t even have a drive. Cars are parked bumper-to-bumper on the narrow lane, their tyres sinking into the nettled grass verge. Mum’s shoes, high and pointy, also threaten to sink; however, she is practised in the dark arts of stiletto-wearing and sashays gracefully and effortlessly along the pitted road to the tired end-terrace, an etude in black.
The front door is open. People I don’t know stand in the narrow hallway holding drinks.
‘Thank God; it’s not TT,’ Mum hisses. ‘For heaven’s sake, straighten up, Lizzie! I’ve had just about enough of this slouching!’
She steps over the threshold, excusing herself through the gathering in the hallway, neck craning – ‘I must find Miss Grice; she’ll be picking prefects in a couple of weeks….’ – and exocets a route towards the kitchen in search of my unsuspecting headmistress, leaving me to follow on.
Which I don’t. Instead, I make for the stairs. Sidling up, step-by-step, I glance down into the front room. Suzy’s mum is hunched in her chair, the one that looks out onto the road and has the best view of the telly. Aunty June is perched on one of the arms, patting at her sister’s shoulder with one hand whilst manipulating a drink and a vol-au-vant with the other. Suzy’s mum has been a widow since Suzy was little. Now, she’s a… I don’t know the word for it. If you lose a parent, you’re an orphan. If you lose a wife, you’re a widower. What are you if you lose a child?
I lock myself in the bathroom. The loo has thick, green bleach clinging to the porcelain, and the sink and sills look shinier than they’ve ever been, for which I give Aunty June the credit. Putting the toilet seat down, I sit for a minute, then flush and make a pretence of washing my hands, running the tap and splashing for a bit so it wouldn’t be a lie to say that I’d been up here using the bathroom if asked. I open the door a crack, making sure there’s no-one around to see me sneak across the landing into Suzy’s room.
Nothing has changed.
The only thing missing is Suzy.
I survey her lumpy bed with the off-white candlewick bedspread and assortment of grubby soft toys strewn across the flat pillows. Messy shelves excrete teen magazines, LPs, cassettes, dog-eared paperbacks and battered lever-arch files. The faded forget-me-not wallpaper – my bitch-mother won’t let me paint the walls black – is peeling in certain places and the dingy sash-window, with its cracked and damp-blackened windowsill, is still letting in a draught.
As I say, Suzy’s house is nothing like mine.
Walking round the bed to the dressing-table, I finger the bead necklaces hanging across the grainy mirror. The Bay City Rollers watch me from the back of the bedroom door, all toothy grins and tartan. Les was our heartthrob. We were both in love with him.
I spy the china ring-tree I bought her for her sixteenth birthday, rooted to the walnut surface of the dresser, my silver snake ring wound languidly around one of its spindly, porcelain branches.
I knew it! I knew it!
‘How should I know what you’ve done with your stupid snake ring?’ she had spat at me in answer to my question. ‘You accusing me or something?’
In it goes, into my blazer pocket: it’s a good start. I lift the lid of the dressing-table and rummage through knick-knack boxes and make-up compartments, turning up lost treasures as I search: an enamel ladybird brooch; the fountain pen Dad gave me when I started at the Grammar; a small AnaïsAnaïs atomiser that I’m not sure was mine but I take anyway; a wavy, pink plastic bangle; the green leather change-purse I bought with my holiday pesetas in Calella; two metallic bead necklaces; my Madame Cholet pencil-topper; a fluffy, orange-haired gonk. I pocket them, quickly. This, I suppose, makes me a thief even if the stuff is mine.
I hear footsteps on the stairs and move quickly to the bed, grabbing one of Suzy’s raggedy teddies, holding it to my face as if I’ve been crying just in case someone comes in and wonders what I’m up to. I rub hard at my nose and eyes to redden them, preparing myself to work up a fake sob if anyone enters but they don’t. The bathroom door slams shut and then there’s grunting and the sound of peeing. I stand, check my pockets in the mirror to make sure none of my stash is showing and then creep quietly out of her room and head downstairs.
‘Lizzie! There you are! Come here please and pay your respects!’
Mum is no longer in the kitchen. Revelling, as always, in being centre of the frame, she is flanking Suzy’s mum’s other side, a glam mis-matched bookend to doughty Aunty June. Gripping a half-drunk tumbler of what looks like water but I know isn’t, she leans in and pats at Suzy’s mum’s shoulder: ‘You’re doing so well, Rita; you really are….’
Suzy’s mum’s eyes are pink where the whites should be. She wipes her nose with a crumpled, damp tissue, leaving a thin web of mucus trailing across her cheek. It’s disgusting and I feel embarrassed for her.
‘Come on, Lizzie, find your tongue!’
I walk over to the armchair.
‘Mrs Minshull, I’m so very sorry,’ I say.
Like I mean it.
Suzy’s mum gulps more phlegm. Her sister pats her, competitively.
‘Thank you, Lizzie,’ says Mum. Her tone is sweet but I know she is still smarting at the revelation of Suzy’s straight As while I only achieved one grade-A, in English; the rest, a motley clutch of Bs, and a disgraceful C in maths. How can she have managed those results, coming from a house like this?
‘Go and get yourself something to eat, would you, darling?’ she continues. ‘I’m not cooking tonight, your father’s away. Take it into the garden, out from under the grown-ups’ feet, there’s a good girl.’
The sandwiches have dried out, their edges curling like those fortune-telling fish you get in Christmas crackers. Egg-and-cress, yuk. I poke around until I find some ham ones, fingering them to find the softest. The cardboard plate is bendy – I balance it so my salt-and-vinegar chipsticks don’t slide off – and, having accidentally overfilled my plastic cup with lemonade, I negotiate the kitchen step carefully, so as not to lose the lot. Crazy-paving leads me down the overgrown lawn to a wobbly cast-iron bench at the side of a ramshackle shed. It’s a chilly late-August day with the threat of rain in the air so there is no-one else out here but me. I sip warm lemonade and chew on flaccid ham, mindful of the nettles lying in wait under the bench ready to sneak up and nip at my ankles; nasty, vicious things.
There were nettles on that day, too.
Suzy and I had been earning our summer holiday money toiling away in the strawberry fields of Brinkly Farm, kneeling for hours in damp, prickly rows, picking punnet after punnet after punnet. Only after we had filled our crates were we allowed to stand and stretch before carrying them up to the weighing-trailer to be handed our 50p payment and to be given our next crate with its six empty punnets. There were diktats: green sides up, red sides down! No weighing punnets down with stones! It’s 50p a crate, like it or lump it! Oy, you, no chatting, save it for breaks!
It was humid, dehydrating, back-breaking work but it had its compensations. One, anyway. Adam Brinkly, all black denim and battered leather, springing on and off the trailer’s tailgate like a supple cat. With bright sapphire eyes, the left almost permanently veiled by a flop of dense, black fringe, he was rakishly wiry, dangerously pelvic. Lying in bed after long baths spent plucking strawberry prickles out of my knees with my mother’s tweezers, I would entwine myself around my pillow, nuzzling and caressing my arms with eager, virgin lips, imagining how it would be to lie like this with him, to kiss him and have him kiss me back.
I was in love with him. More in love with him than I ever was with Les.
That day, the day of the nettles, we were cycling home, hot, sweaty and tired. Suzy was leading as always, pedalling fast so I had to strain to keep up. I concentrated on the thick, auburn plait swinging between her shoulder-blades like a shiny copper pendulum, as if it could hypnotise away the aching of my legs and arms. We reached the top of Narly Hill and she pulled in at our usual pitstop, the copse set back from the lane, for us to have a swig of warm, weak juice from our plastic beakers. But this time, she had something extra. Reaching into her jeans pocket, she pulled out a battered cigarette packet and a box of Swans. I kicked, uncomfortably, at the rough grass beneath my feet while she plucked a cigarette from the pack, placing it between pouting lips, all the while staring unblinkingly at me through those narrow cat-eyes of hers, almost goading me into watching her performance.
He smoked those fags, they were his brand.
My heart pounded. I had a question that I wasn’t sure I wanted answered.
‘Where did you go after lunch?’ I asked, aware my voice sounded reedy and petulant. ‘I looked for you…’
…. where we park our bikes….in the hollow in the next field where we do our wees…up at the weighing-trailer…
‘I had to start picking without you,’ I continued. ‘They sounded the horn. I had to go without you….’
She struck a match and lit-up, looking born to smoke.
‘I was…around,’ she answered.
‘Yeh, you know; around…’
I don’t know how long after the horn sounded she had returned to the row next to mine. One minute, when I’d turned my head to see if she was there, she wasn’t; the next she was: head bent, hands busy plucking, her lips a vibrant flush of strawberry-red.
I had meant to sound nonchalant but the words came out crotchety, waspish.
Suzy leaned back against the trunk of an old oak, languorously twisting her plait around her fingers with one hand, holding the cigarette aloft with the other as if she were advertising it, like one of those glamorous models you see on hoardings and doubledeckers.
‘Okay,’ she said. ‘I’ll tell you,’ blowing a plume of smoke into the air.
And she did.
I felt sick. From the smoke. From her.
‘He’s so gorgeous.’
They were my words but they came out of her mouth.
‘Don’t you think, Liz? Absolutely gorgeous…’
‘He’s taking me to see The Gags on Saturday…’
‘He’s picking me up at six so we can go for something to eat first…’
‘At that pizza place in Grantry…’
‘Everyone’ll be dead jealous once they find out. I’ll come round Saturday morning, Liz; grab that halter top of yours. And that choker thing…’
‘Shut up! Shut up, shut, up, SHUT UP!’
This time the words were out there, not just in my head.
She stopped, abruptly, mid-flow, staring at me like I was an idiot; and in that second, I hated her, realised I had hated her for some time now.
‘What’s up with you?’ she asked, and I couldn’t understand her credulity. Didn’t she know?
‘Y-y-y-you..’ I stuttered. ‘You..and…?’
So what?! She could have any boy she wanted and she goes and picks him!
‘Christ, Lizzie; don’t tell me?’ and then she laughed.
‘I don’t think Little Lizzie Barton’s quite in his league…’
And that’s when I went for her.
I hadn’t meant to push her that hard. I charged at her, an angry ball of sweat and frizzy brown hair. I charged at her, shoving her hard in the chest; and her head, her head just sort of flipped back and bounced, ricocheted, off the trunk of the oak.
I was screaming as I did it, screaming and sobbing with rage.
‘You bitch, you thief! You take things off me all the time, you take my things ALL THE TIME! I’m sick of it, sick of it…I’m sick of YOU!’
The cigarette dropped from her fingers as she crumpled into the tree, still standing, but staring at me, silently, her look befuddled. I had never shouted at her before, never so much as raised my voice. Meek little Lizzie Barton standing up to Suzy Minshull?! What a turn up.
She put a hand to the back of her head. Aaah she mouthed but no sound came out. And then she moved towards me and I thought shit she’s going to kill me and I lunged for my bike, mounted it at a run, pedalling like crazy, legs like pistons, a thousand miles an hour down the other side of Narly Hill, terrified she would catch me, panicstricken she would smack me right back. At the bottom of the hill, instead of carrying on towards the crossroads, I braked heavily and skidded sharp left into the long, narrow driveway of Tarrington House, pulling my bike deep into the foetid darkness of gnarled branches and thick foliage, crawling into a jungle of dense rhododendron, holly and hidden, spiteful nettles. Those nasty, vicious things bit me as I lay there, they snapped and nipped at my ankles, but I didn’t make a sound, clamping my hand to my mouth until I heard the whirr of her wheels as she sped past towards the village and I could scream the pain out.
The police constable was nice. She came round the next day and sat opposite me at the dining-room table, the polished rosewood a gleaming mirror between us.
‘This is hard for you, Lizzie, I know,’ she said, opening her notebook. ‘But we need to establish a timeline…’
So I told her how we’d left the strawberry fields, stopped for a rest, got back on our bikes and cycled down the hill to the crossroads, she going one way, I the other.
That’s not a lie, is it?
It was a tragic accident, everyone said so. Poor Suzy had suddenly toppled off her bike on the Copsall Road, the driver behind her valiantly swerving to miss her, mounting the pavement and careering into a gatepost, miraculously sustaining no more than a few cuts and bruises. It was the car behind his that had done for her, squishing her head as she had lain there, smearing blood and brains across the tarmac like thick, gooey blobs of strawberry jam. Eyewitnesses said Suzy had faltered before falling off her bike, loose gravel spilled from one of the many local construction lorries rumoured to be the unproven cause.
I wash down the remains of the grizzled ham sandwich and flat lemonade, savouring the last chipstick whilst feeling around in my blazer pocket for my silver snake ring, slipping it onto my finger before chucking the atomiser into the nettles under the bench: don’t think it’s mine, after all.
Aunty June comes down the crazy-paving, rolled up poster in hand.
‘It’s not much,’ she says, proffering it to me, tears in her eyes. ‘But I know how much you both liked him…’
I smile my thanks.
Bye bye baby…