Chapter 1: Wake
When I wake in the middle of the night, it’s like the blackness of my bedroom has crawled inside me. I feel swallowed by it. Like someone’s put me in an envelope and sent me to a place that doesn’t exist, then just left me in the envelope. I can’t get out. I can’t get out. I have no control over these feelings.
I reach into the darkness; my headphones are ready and waiting; the music I need to hear is already cued. I press play. Faint December. The band’s music pours through me, shoving the darkness back into the corner. I can keep an eye on it there. I know I’ll be alright now. At last I fall back to sleep.
I wake again when Mum pulls my headphones off.
“You’ll be late for school,” she says and kisses me on the top of my head.
She leaves the room and I hear my brother, Josh, emerging from his cave down the hall.
“Alright, freak,” he says when I enter the kitchen.
I ignore him and he turns his attention back to the TV. I look around me. Everything’s where it always is: the same cereal boxes on the counter; the plastic bottle containing Mum’s red-topped watery version of milk and the blue-capped real stuff for me and Josh; the fruit bowl placed in a way that means we always have to stretch across it. Mum gets everything out and ready every morning. She remains hopeful that someday we’ll grab an apple or a banana rather than head straight for the Coco Pops. One day I’ll do it just to see her face.
Josh is laughing at something on the TV, his mouth too full with cornflakes, milk dribbling down his chin. The cartoons have finished and I don’t know what he’s laughing at – something disgusting probably. I have loads of time, so I eat my breakfast slowly, then somehow I’m late and I have to run for the bus. It overtakes me but then waits at the stop for me to catch up. I climb on, looking only for Amber.
“You’d think she’d be early,” someone says, “it’s not as if she spends time putting make-up on.”
“Yeah, but she should.”
“Wouldn’t make any difference, she’d still be gross.”
I hear the boys’ comments just like I know they want me to. I think of shooting them a poisonous look, but it would only deflect off them the same way it would rebound off the mascara-thick force field of the girls sitting amongst them. Why don’t they stick up for me? Shouldn’t any girl hate to hear other girls spoken about like that? Who am I kidding? For the back-of-the-bus crew – the nitwits as I like to think of them – school is a fashion show. I’ve got more important things to be thinking about. That’s what I tell myself.
Amber raises her eyebrows at me as I let myself fall into the seat next to hers. She doesn’t say anything. She doesn’t need to. Her thoughts are the same as mine. I know this as absolutely as I know the sky is blue. I glance out of the bus window. Well, blue-ish.
The bus drops us a few metres past the school gates. As we walk back and turn into the long driveway, Josh pulls in too. In his car. He pretends not to see me, and Amber has to pull me out of the way before he knocks me over.
“What a loser,” I sigh.
“Takes one to know one,” Amber says.
“You’d know,” I laugh.
And so our day begins.
Just like any other.
Chapter 2: Fallout
For the whole of registration, I’m annoyed. By the fact that Josh gets to leave the house half an hour after me. By the fact that he still arrives at school at the same time. By the fact that he never offers me a lift.
But then it’s English.
It’s the best lesson of the day. We’re studying poetry and although we’ve looked at Shakespeare, Owen, all the obvious stuff, we’ve also been set our own individual projects. We’ve had to pick our own favourite pieces of poetry and work on those.
“What if I don’t have a favourite poem?” one of the girls in my class asked when the project was set. “What if I hate every poem ever written? Does that mean I don’t have to do anything?”
The girl’s name is Charity and the rest of us are simply living in her fallout zone. Seriously. If everything’s going smoothly, then you can be pretty sure Charity’s probably not in the room.
For my own project, I chose to use lyrics from songs by Faint December. Mrs Hill asked me to justify my choice. I did, and she seemed pleased, like she’d have done the same kind of thing if it had been her doing the task.
At lunchtime, Amber has a music lesson. I wait for her for five minutes before remembering. I dig into my bag for my packed lunch. It’s not there. Immediately, I picture it where I left it. Between the bowl of fruit and the Coco Pops. Drat. No Amber. No sandwich. By the time I get to the canteen, all the best food has gone. I queue for a plated meal and use the fingerprint scan to pay for it. I’m still not sure that the school are within their rights to force us to use a system that necessitates all pupils being fingerprinted.
Chloe waves at me from the middle of the canteen. Lia looks up and smiles too. I smile back and sit down next to my friends.
“How’s your day been?” Lia asks, looking sympathetically at my plate of mush.
“Suckfest,” I tell her, holding up a forkful of food as evidence.
After lunch, it’s Drama. No one ever takes the lesson seriously and by the time I arrive, the classroom is already in chaos.
“Welcome to the jungle,” Amber says as I look over at Mr Corzone.
He’s the kind of teacher who always tries to act as if everything’s going exactly the way he planned it. We know it never is. Amber and I do try to do what we’re asked, though. Today, he wants us to create a series of freeze frames that represent the state of the teenage mind.
“The ironic thing is that this carnage,” Amber grimaces, “probably does say quite a lot about the average teenage mind.”
“But not yours, Queen Amber? You’re so much above the common masses?”
Amber points her nose in the air.
“Well, of course I am.”
“Good girls,” says Mr Corzone as he walks past.
When he’s gone, we roll our eyes. If him telling us we’re doing a good job makes him feel like he’s teaching us something, we aren’t going to burst his bubble.
“At least he lets us choose our own groups to work in,” Amber says. “Imagine if you had to work with them.”
She nods in the direction of the nitwits. One of them has just tried to lift a girl’s skirt up and the girl is laughing as if she doesn’t mind.
“That’s so wrong,” Amber cringes.
I should take a picture. She’s fulfilling Mr Corzone’s task perfectly.
Thankfully, the bell rings. The end of another day.
Chapter 3: High Voltage
At the bus stop, teachers are meant to be managing the queue but they’re scared to take on the nitwits.
“I’ve been here all along,” one of them screeches when a member of staff tells him off for pushing in.
He points at a small Year 7 boy who quite frankly has enough problems already thanks to the massive rucksack on his back – one wrong move and that kid’s going to topple over.
“It was him that shoved in.”
“Is that right?” the teacher asks.
Given that the titchy eleven-year-old is hardly capable of standing up straight, it’s pretty obvious that, no, it’s not the slightest bit right. How could he possibly shove past a gang of much older and bigger boys? He’s too nervous to answer, though, and the teacher takes his silence as an admittance of guilt and sends him to the back of the line.
When we actually get on the bus, I can’t help but gawp at the nitwits. It’s impossible not to. They demand attention. One of them shoves a tangerine down the front of another boy’s trousers and then squeezes it until the juice creates a stain. In the middle of the ensuing commotion, Mos Fischer is laughing. A fight is threatening to break out.
“I can’t watch this,” Amber groans.
She covers her eyes with her hands then peeks through the gap between her fingers. Mos is still laughing but the boy who’s been tangerined – that actually is the word for it; Mos and his friends ‘invented’ it themselves – looks like he might be on the verge of reacting. For a moment, the situation feels dangerously high voltage. Then Mos loses interest and the fuss dies down.
When I get off the bus, I wave at Amber until she’s out of sight. I always do the same thing. Even if it’s raining. I arrive home and Mum hugs me. I make an attempt at resisting but only because that’s what Mum expects.
“How was your day?” she asks.
“Mindblowing,” I laugh. “What are you doing back already?”
“I had nothing on that I couldn’t do on the laptop.”
I smile. I like it when Mum’s here after school. It doesn’t happen often. I start up the stairs.
“Make sure you do your homework,” Mum says.
I don’t answer. She knows I will.
I take out my religious studies book. We have to write about who we are. I sit at my desk and look out of the window.
Who am I really?
Do I even know?
God, teachers are stressful, setting you work that surely isn’t even really work. Maybe I’ve got this task all wrong. Perhaps there’s something particular about myself I should be writing down. That’s probably what everyone else is doing. I’ll hand my work in and it will be all like, ‘refugees make me sad and stray dogs make me sad and people who have to do jobs they hate make me sad,’ but everyone else will simply have put down when they were born and what football team they support. So I’ll feel like an idiot for over-sharing and then I’ll never be able to look Mrs Brown in the eye again because of the time she asked me for some facts about myself and I basically told her I’m an emotional wreck and that the world makes me want to cry like all the time.
I already know I’m going to spend the whole night worrying about this homework.
Then, no doubt, Mrs Brown won’t even check it.
Chapter 4: Looking For An Answer
After ten minutes of chewing my pen, I eventually decide to start with when I was born.
My name is Daisy McCarthy and I will be sixteen on the 25th December. I have my birthday in common with Jesus Christ and I guess I kind of resent him for it. I don’t know if Jesus actually existed. I hope he did. A lot of what he represents seems important to me – whether you’re Christian, Hindu, Muslim, whatever. And anyway, I’ll be pretty cheesed off if I ever find out that my birthday’s been kind of overlooked every year because of some guy who wasn’t even real.
I glance around for inspiration. I look at the things I own. What do they say about me? I note the black nail varnish I’m wearing and the bottled of unopened sparkly stuff Mum bought for me in the hope that I might brighten myself up a smidgen.
I carry on writing.
I believe I’m a bit of this and a bit of that. I believe that my black nail varnish says something about me, but I also believe the fact that I love my mum for buying me glittery nail varnish I will never wear says something else. These little things add up to something bigger. I believe that.
I still don’t know if I’m doing the task right. I put my stereo on. Josh isn’t home yet – he’s probably getting stoned somewhere. He’s such a waste of space. Still, at least I can play my music loud. When Josh is here, he takes any opportunity to leap into my room and tell me that I listen to such depressing bands, that I’m so emo. The thing is, the music I listen to doesn’t ever make me feel bad – not the way he makes me feel bad, that’s for sure. Okay, so the words might not all be suitable for Hallmark cards, but they say something important. A Faint December song comes on and I start writing again.
I believe in music.
I look at that statement and then change the small m to a capital letter.
I believe in Music.
Music transcends language. Every person on the planet can be connected through music. The sound of it, the beat of it. Faint December are my favourite band. I believe in them because they help me to believe in me.
Again, I read over what I have written. Does it make sense? Does Faint December’s music actually transcend language? How can it when the lyrics are so important? Can those words make so much sense to someone in, say, China? Well, Faint December are massive in China, so I’m going to say yes.
If it wasn’t for the songs I listen to, I wouldn’t know that anyone else feels the way I do. When I don’t have a clue how to express myself, Ben Chester, the singer of Faint December, says what I want to. When I’m looking for an answer, I know he’s looking for one too.
For every moment of everything, there’s a song that helps me understand how I am feeling. And when I have problems, my favourite music helps me make sense of them. Most importantly, even at the moments I feel like there’s no one else around and that nobody can possibly understand me and that nobody ever will, the songs I listen to force me to recognise that someone does. Sometimes, my life feels so crazy and like it could never have happened to anyone else, but I put a record on and I realise that’s not the case. I find my own story in songs that other people have written and it makes me feel more secure, more sane.
Which is why I believe in music.
Because it’s real.
I know it.
I’m living it.
By suppertime, Josh is home and we sit together as a family. As always, Mum makes us each talk about one thing that’s made us happy during the day. It’s the same every evening. If we can’t think of anything, then we can’t opt out; instead, we need to decide on one thing that we can aim to do the next day that might make us feel good. Even Josh has learned that it’s worth finding something in the day to be pleased about. Sitting there and shrugging his shoulders won’t wash. He knows as well as I do to just get on and find something to be happy about. And Mum will know if either of us is faking. So there’s no point even thinking about making something up. Tonight, I tell her about my English class and Josh regales us with a story about how, after their P.E. lesson, his friends hid another boy’s clothes.
And so another day ends.
Have I done anything worthwhile?
Have I really earned the air I’ve been breathing in and out for the last however many hours?
But I’ve made it through in one piece. Which is something, I guess.
Chapter 5: Nobody Can Save Me
I don’t know if it’s the darkness or the loneliness or what, but when I wake up in the middle of the night, I’m deep in a hole again. It feels like nobody can save me. Then I reach for my music and let it fill me up. I listen to Faint December’s words – the words written by Ben Chester – and the knowledge that I’m not the only one who feels the way I do calms me.
Ben’s voice asks me if I feel cold or if I feel lost and just in asking me he makes me feel those things less. The band’s drums sound like a marching crowd and I feel like I’m a part of that crowd and that we’re going somewhere good. The guitars rise up like a new sun, it really feels as if something inside me is lighting up, and when the song reaches a climax, my heart feels strong enough to fight anything. I go back to sleep.
In the morning, despite my disturbed sleep, I wake up before Mum gets to me. I lie still and think about how difficult I’m finding it to get through each night. I mean, I’m used to it, but still I wonder if everyone has this layer of anxiety in them. Maybe everyone squirms in the night like I do, maybe everyone’s awake at three in the morning, filled by feelings of terror that surge through them like water breaking through a dam. Maybe, like me, they’re just not talking about it. I roll onto my side and stare into the middle distance. Somehow, I don’t think that is the way it is. I don’t know for sure. It’s just what I think.
I can hear Mum moving about. I could get up before she comes to get me, but I won’t. I like to wait for her. I like the routine of it. I like knowing that each day there are certain things that will definitely happen. While I wait, I look at my phone. There’s a notification from Faint December. They’ve announced tour dates. They’re coming to England. I sit up like I’ve been given an electric shock. My heart is beating faster; they haven’t been in the country for three years and all that time ago I was only first discovering that music like theirs even existed. It’s not as if I had a cool older brother teaching me about cool music. Although isn’t that exactly what older brothers should be doing? Isn’t that their whole purpose? Not that it matters now. There’s no point wasting energy thinking about Josh’s failings as a mentor.
I snort out loud at the thought and as I do so, my bedroom door opens, and Mum comes in. She looks at me strangely. Who can blame her? As far as she can tell, I’m making farm animal noises for no reason.
“Time to get a shift on,” she says.
I can see the inquisitiveness in her bright blue eyes, but one of the things I love about my mum is that she knows when not to ask questions. I manage to nod at her and, when she’s gone, I catch sight of myself in the mirror. Maybe I really have experienced an electric shock. I mean, look at the state of my hair.
I throw my duvet off and get out of bed, almost tripping over myself and falling to the floor in the process. I need to get a grip. I march towards the bathroom. I shower and at last my brain slows to the point where I can articulate a plan. It’s Wednesday and tickets will go on sale on Friday. I have enough money but I’ll need Mum’s credit card to make the booking. How many tickets will I need to buy? One for Amber obviously. Will Lia and Chloe want to come? They don’t really listen to Faint December but it’s a night out in London. They’ll want to be a part of it. Back in my bedroom, I check the concert details. One person can buy a maximum of four tickets. Perfect.
Chapter 6: Empty Spaces
“What are you looking so happy about?” Josh asks me.
I’ve been in the kitchen long enough to pour my cereal, plus I’ve eaten a few mouthfuls, but only now is my brother acknowledging my presence. I look at him as he asks the question but immediately regret doing so. He talks with his mouth full and I can see his chewed-up cornflakes – some of them fly out in my direction.
“What are you looking so happy about?” I counter.
I know there’s no reason. My brother’s brain is full of empty spaces and he always has that goofy expression on his face. For a moment, he looks like he’s about to answer but then his attention is diverted by the television and he forgets about me altogether. Inwardly, I sigh. Only one year until he goes to university. Thank God they let any old doofus in these days.
I get back to the important business of thinking about the Faint December concert. Mum won’t want us going on the train, not if it means coming back late. She’ll drive us, though. I know she will.
As if I’ve wished her into the room, she enters the kitchen. She’s putting her crystal earrings in, the ones Dad gave her for Christmas a few months before he died. Watching Mum fix them into place, I remember the moment so clearly. She’d been so pleased with the gift before even opening it, as if she’d already known that it would be the last Christmas present she’d ever receive from him and that whatever was in the box would go on to have an indescribable significance. Of course, that couldn’t have been the case, but my memory of that moment is so vivid, it’s as if I can still see the tears glistening in her eyes. Mum catches me staring at her.
“What is it?” she wants to know.
The importance of my current mission means all other concerns vanish back into the hiding places they normally inhabit. I bounce over to Mum and put my arms around her middle. I squeeze her tight. She laughs.
“Careful, you’ll crease me.”
But I know she doesn’t mind.
“Mu-u-u-m,” I say, stretching out the central vowel in a way that makes it clear I want something.
She responds with an ambiguous, “Uh huh,” as if already preparing to turn me down flat.
She won’t say no to this, though. She can’t.
“Faint December are going to be playing in London.”
“Ri-i-i-ght,” Mum replies.
This time it’s her turn to stretch out the word’s middle syllable. She isn’t going to commit until she knows all the facts. I reel them out. She stops what she’s doing and pretends to weigh the situation up. I vibrate up and down on my tiptoes. Waiting her for to say something is a bit like that feeling of waiting for a teacher to tell you your exam result. You know you’ve passed. You revised hard and you hadn’t really struggled to answer the questions. Still, you can’t help but be nervous.
“I think we can probably put a plan together,” Mum says at last.
I’m relieved. This is a big moment. Only Josh could think to ruin it.
“Ooh, Faint December,” he says.
I can’t even be bothered to give him a withering look. This is the best morning ever. I finish my breakfast quickly, still standing as I scoop up the last few spoonfuls. I put the bowl and spoon in the dishwasher, run upstairs to grab my bag and then back downstairs. I do not want to be seen sprinting for the bus again.
As I’m leaving, Mum calls out.
“So, what’s the date of the concert?”
And as I say the date – March 24th – out loud, I realise.
It’s the anniversary of Dad’s death.
How had I not realised? I was too caught up in my own selfish desires. But still I want more than anything to be able to go to the concert. I look at Mum guiltily. I don’t need her to tell me that it won’t be possible. That’s our day together. We’ll visit Dad’s gravestone and we’ll see other members of our family. We’ll drive out to his favourite spots because if we don’t do that, it’s as if the things he liked doing don’t matter anymore. When Mum hears the date, she doesn’t say anything. She doesn’t need to. She can tell by the look on my face that I’ve realised. And she also knows that I won’t ask her if there’s some way we can work it out so I can go to the Faint December show. I won’t put her in that position.
“I’m going to be late,” is all I can say and I fling myself out onto the street.
I power-walk towards the bus stop and I’m there before the bus comes into sight.
Chapter 7: Too Late
Amber’s not allowed to have her phone in her room at night. Her parents take it when she goes to bed and only give it back once she’s ready to leave for school. It’s so harsh. But it explains the glow on her face. She’ll only have read about the Faint December tour in the few minutes it takes to get from her stop to mine. When she sees me, though, she realises I’m not as full of beans as she knows I should be. Quite the opposite. It’s as if someone’s thrown my beans in the bin. I’m an empty can. Not good.
“The concert’s on March 24th,” I say.
I know I’m telling her what she already knows but I know too that her focus won’t have been on the precise date. Like me, she’ll have been completely consumed by the fact that Faint December are coming and that at last we’ll have the chance to see them up close. As soon as she hears the words come out of my mouth, reality hits. More like it crashes. Smashes us to smithereens. Before I know it, I’m crying. I don’t want to be. I hate it when I cry in public. But it’s all too much. All those thoughts about Dad, combined with the disappointment of knowing I’ll miss the Faint December concert, are smooshing down on me. I lean into Amber so that no one else on the bus can see but it’s too late for that.
“Steer clear of Daisy,” I hear one boy say as he walks past my seat and towards his friends at the back of the bus, “it must be her time of the month.”
This makes me cry harder, not because I particularly care about anything those immature boys say, but just because the day already feels unbearable. And then I cry even harder when I realise the boys will be thinking they’re the ones who have made my sobs increase to the point where everyone can hear me. I hate the fact that they think I care about what they say, that I’d let their stupid comments affect me. And then I cry even harder because I probably do care what they say and that makes me so stupid. I’m upset on so many levels now, it’s difficult to know how to start calming myself down. Amber holds me until eventually I stop weeping like a lunatic.
“You know what?” Amber whispers in my ear, “we probably wouldn’t even get tickets anyway.”
“Last time they were here,” she says “they sold out the O2 Arena. That place holds, like, twenty thousand people. This time they’re playing at Brixton Academy. You can only get a few thousand in there. Like, only a quarter the amount of people or something.”
I manage to catch my breath.
“Good maths, Einstein,” I manage to say.
Amber knows I’m going to be okay. She lets go of me and kneels up on her seat, turning around to face the boys at the back of the bus.
“You are horrible, horrible human beings,” she tells them.
Then she turns around again and grimaces when the boys voices start up, just as she should have known they would.
“You are horrible, horrible human beings,” they chant together.
Amber and I start to laugh and soon we’re in such uncontrollable hysterics, we’re finding it hard to sit up straight.
“You’re such weirdos,” one of the boys says to us as we pile out at the school stop.
“You’re such weirdos,” we mimic, and before I know it, the school day is underway.
Chapter 8: End Of The World
“This is a serious problem, though,” Lia says at lunch.
Lia is probably the sweetest person on the planet. She wouldn’t care at all about Faint December if it wasn’t for the fact that I do. But in the moment she finds out that I can’t go to their concert, they become the most important thing EVER. She is bereft on my account and I know she will go to any length she can to make sure I don’t feel sad.
“Don’t worry about it,” I tell her. “It’s not the end of the world.”
There’s no point labouring the point that it actually kind of is.
“Well, I’m not going without you,” Amber says for the hundredth time.
“Don’t be silly,” I say, also for the hundredth time.
It does make me feel better, though, to know she’d make that kind of sacrifice if she thought it would make me feel better. I really think she would. But I won’t let her.
“You need to get tickets,” I tell her. “You need to tell me all about it.”
“I suppose I could record it and then you’d at least be able to see it,” Amber says.
Then she shakes her head.
“No, it will be no fun without you. Why would I want to go to the concert if you’re not going to be there?”
“Er, because Faint December will be there,” I point out.
“And because the singer’s fit,” Chloe cuts in.
Lia glares at Chloe. She looks up from the fingernails she’s filing.
“What? I’m just saying. It’s not as if Daisy doesn’t already know that.”
“She’s right,” I admit. “I do already know that.”
But it isn’t actually his looks that have anything to do with how I feel about Ben Chester.
The afternoon goes by slowly. The final two lessons of the day always seem to last longer than the four lessons that come before lunch. Today that’s more the case than ever. I have to put all thoughts of the concert to one side. I’m not going to be able to go. Lia has explored every avenue. Even though we’re not allowed to get our phones out inside of school buildings, and even though Lia would never normally break a rule, she spent most of lunch surreptitiously looking up the band’s other tour dates. But they’re all too far away and even the closest ones are still too distant to consider on a school night. Travelling to London is possible. Going further is not. Eventually, even Lia runs out of ideas.
One thing that no one suggests is somehow trying to sneak out of Dad’s anniversary. And I love my friends for knowing that whatever the reason, I would never do that to Mum. No one ever says it’s unfair to expect me to stick to that commitment when Faint December are only in town for one night. Nobody suggests I should have further discussions with Mum to see if we can work something out. It’s Dad’s day. I know it and I love that my friends know it too. Going to see Faint December play might be the most important thing in the world but some things are somehow even more important than that. What would sneaking out of the anniversary even mean anyway? How would it be possible to sneak out of it? It would be nice if it was that easy – if Dad’s death was like a room and I could simply walk away from it.
That would make everything much simpler.
Chapter 9: Crawl Back In
The afternoon passes by much as any afternoon at school passes by. I’m crestfallen but I’ve become used to shoving sadness and frustration to one side. It helps to be at school. I was back here the day after Dad died and everyone had seemed shocked by that fact. But being there was normal and I’d needed normal. Even Josh came in that day. Normally, he’d have jumped at the first opportunity to skive. But like me I guess he’d needed school’s solidity.
Josh is always saying how much he hates school. I don’t feel the same. Lots of my favourite songwriters seem to detest the time they spent in education. Ben Chester was bullied and I know lots of other people have that experience too. And, sure, I get called names but only by people who would have trouble knowing one end of a pencil from the other. I get laughed at but only by people who find animal cruelty amusing. I get pointed at and teased but only by people who would point at, and tease, Gandhi. God, that sounds like I’m comparing myself to Gandhi. I’m definitely not. I’ve got more in common with that squirrel thing in the Ice Age films. I’m just saying that the people who don’t like me would find a reason to hate Gandhi, or Mother Teresa, or Buddha. So, frankly, I’m not going to give their opinions much cred.
I admit, though, school can make you feel bonkers – and there are plenty of paper bags with better music taste than most of the people I share classrooms with – but mostly we’re all just doing our best, hauling ourselves from lesson to lesson. And we’ve all got our place. Mine is with my friends. Hanging around with them all the time is a bit like dating I reckon. Which might be a weirdo thing to think. But it’s all so intense. I love it. We’re the most important people in each other’s lives. There’s a Faint December song and the chorus revolves around the line: ‘Friends like lovers.’ I totally get that. And in a way it’s better that dating. It’s purer. Or something. Or maybe I just don’t know what I’m talking about. I’ve been on zero dates and there’s probably zero reason to be hopeful about my romantic future. But I’m fine with that. Just looking at most of the boys at my school makes me feel icky; they say such repulsive things and sometimes just being near them gives me the same feeling I get when I accidentally touch the chewing gum stuck to the underneath of every desk in the whole school. It’s stomach-churning. Me, Amber, Lia and Chloe, we’re a team. I know I can tell any of them anything. Except maybe that them being my friend is a bit like them being my date. I’m never going to say that out loud. Obviously.
It’s Wednesday so Amber has netball after school. I get the bus on my own. I used to play netball too but I was never any good and I really only kept it up for Amber. I didn’t complain about it but you can’t keep anything from my best friend so she absolutely knew when the last drips of enthusiasm I might have had for trying to throw a ball through a hoop had drained away. We were drinking hot chocolate in our favourite café when she lifted her hands in the air and wriggled her fingers like a fairy godmother.
“I free you from the great responsibility of playing netball,” she’d said.
And just like that, my wish was granted. I stopped going to netball practice and although it was a bit insulting that the P.E. teacher never sought me out to find out why, overall I’m happy with how things have turned out.
There’s no one at home when I get back. I watch clips of Faint December performing live and try to convince myself that the experience of actually being at a show wouldn’t be that different to watching it on my phone. A message comes through from Lia. ‘Luv U,’ it says. I smile and I tap my reply out: ‘u2’.
I don’t know how long I’ve been lost in music videos, but it’s dark when Mum appears in my doorway. She makes me jump.
“Do you know where Josh is?” she asks.
I roll my eyes in a way that makes it clear I don’t but that I can probably guess.
“He promised me he’d be home for supper.”
I put my bottom lip over my top lip in a way that shows Mum I feel sad for her. Because I do. Even though she should know better. But I guess that’s life as a parent. Always hoping for the best from your kids. I don’t want to let her down. And I don’t want Josh to either. Dad’s already let her down enough. Does that sound harsh? Maybe. But it’s the truth.
At least Josh will crawl back in eventually.
Chapter 10: Tinfoil
When Mum calls me for supper, I skip across the room because I want to be my zippiest around her.
It’s just the two of us at the supper table.
“You know, we can figure something out.”
I look at her, not sure at first what she’s talking about. But of course she’s referring to the concert. It will have been worrying her all day. She doesn’t want me to miss it. I shake my head and wait until I finish my mouthful.
“No way, Mum.”
And there is no way. That day is Dad’s day. Compromise that a little now and before we know it, a few years down the line we’ll hardly be acknowledging it at all. I’m not going to be responsible for that.
“Dad would have wanted you to go,” Mum says.
I shake my head again.
“Dad would have wanted me to be with you.”
I stare at the lasagne on my plate as if there might be some important message written in the cheesy topping. I don’t want to make eye contact with Mum; I know she’ll be welling up.
“What if I come to the concert with you?” she says after another few mouthfuls of a silence that’s only broken by the clink of knives and forks on china.
I turn the idea over. It’s not a bad one. Josh, though, will never have it. I say as much.
“Your brother’s not as bad as you think,” Mum tells me.
I purse my lips and look deliberately in the direction of his empty seat. Enough said.
I stand up when Mum does and help to clear the plates away. Mum covers Josh’s lasagne with tinfoil and then I help her concoct a fruit salad of epic proportions. One thing we’re definitely never short of in our house is fruit. Mum’s sure it will keep Josh and I alive until we’re a hundred. Making sure we’re on this planet for as long as possible has obviously always been número uno priority for my parents but, since losing Dad, Mum’s efforts to keep us fit and healthy have quintupled. She thinks she’s subtle about it but she’s not. We’re always running to the shop ‘for fun’, or having competitions with the skipping rope in the garden. I act like I don’t notice what she’s doing and make my best attempt at pretending to be at least as enthusiastic as she pretends to be. The fruit thing at suppertime’s not bad, though. We cut strawberries, grapes, raspberries, peaches, and together I think they taste almost as good as a bowl of chocolate ice cream. Once upon a time, I wouldn’t have thought that possible.
“So, tell me one good thing about your day,” Mum says as we demolish our deserts.
I consider telling her that nothing was good, that it’s been the worst day ever. Except that of course it hasn’t been. The worst day ever has already been and gone. Today there’s been all the love I’ve felt from my friends, but I’m not sure I want to talk about that. Sometimes when you let those kind of feelings out, it’s like letting birds out of a cage. I like to keep them fluttering in me for as long as possible. I search the last twelve hours or so for something else to offer. Mum carries on eating. She’s got a way of waiting patiently without making me feel like she’s really waiting at all. My mind has gone blank, though. I can’t think of anything else to say and it’s not just that I want to keep the birds in their cage that stops me from talking about how gorgeous my friends are; it’s more than I can’t mention their supportiveness without explaining why they needed to be supportive in the first place and that’s only going to bring the whole Faint December concert up again. Life is complicated! In the end, I concede defeat.
“I can’t think of anything.”
Mum knows I don’t take these moments lightly and so she’s probably thinking that my day has been so bleak because I can’t go to the concert. Darn it, I’d forgotten about that angle. I thought I’d avoided potential for Faint December-related guilt in Mum’s corner but actually I’ve worked us back into a dead end and Mum’s definitely going to be feeling responsible for a day which actually hasn’t been as rubbish as she’s now imagining. I sigh. Which is the icing on the cake because that only makes things worse. Mum hears the sigh and I know immediately that she thinks it reflects a deep inner sadness. Really, though, I’m just thinking how you try your best to look after your parents, to protect them, and yet somehow we still end up in situations like this. I see the worry in Mum’s eyes but she does her best to move on from it.
“So, what do we do to make sure something really great happens tomorrow?” she asks.
I think about it. My brain’s racing. I really need to come up with something good, but of course when you absolutely need something right away it instantly becomes ridiculously impossible to get anywhere near that something. Mum sees me struggling and I wonder which way this is going to go. Is she going to wait it out or is she going to help me along? I’m grateful when she takes the latter approach.
“How about you meet me after work and we go for a milkshake?”
I look across the table at her and smile.
“That sounds perfect.”
At about 9 o’clock that night, I hear the front door clatter shut. God, he doesn’t even have enough decency to try sneaking in. Immediately, I think I can smell pot. Even I have to acknowledge, though, that’s unlikely. The front door is a long way from my room. He might well stink of all the reefer smoke he’s no doubt been swamped in for the last few hours, but it is my low expectations I can smell in that moment, not him. I hear Josh climb the stairs, his bedroom door shut, then nothing else.
Chapter 11: Fire
When I wake the next morning, I notice the gloopy feeling of abandonment straight away. It makes it hard to pick my head up from the pillow. I feel something clutch my heart and squeeze it. I wince. There’s a physicality to the feeling that’s never presented itself so extremely before. Normally, it’s my soul – and I know the soul won’t appear in any biology textbooks but it’s there, I can feel it – that bears the brunt of the attack. Today, though, it’s like something very small but very strong has entered my actual body. It takes all my focus to fight against it. I pull myself up. A noise – “ugh” – escapes me. It’s an ugly sound and I wonder if perhaps it’s not me making that noise at all. Maybe the voice belongs to whatever has infiltrated my body.
I shake myself and concentrate on feeling better. For a moment, it was like the end of the world, but I am well-practised in convincing myself that everything’s going to be okay. It’s a normal morning. A normal day. Those are Mum’s normal footsteps approaching the door.
“You’re already up?” she says when she sees me. Clearly awake. Clearly up.
“Two mornings in a row, I’m impressed.”
She blows me a kiss and leaves the room. I review the idea that an extra physical being could have somehow moved into my body. Obviously, the thought’s bonkers.
The day starts with Media. We’re learning about exploitation and the teacher tells us about the page 3 models used in The Sun newspaper until relatively recently. The boys respond as maturely as can be expected and I feel a fire starting in me. I’m sick of their stupid comments. Then, in Chemistry class, Chloe and I are teamed up with Mos Fischer. Clearly, some higher power is out to get me today.
Chloe, Mos and I have been at school together since we were four-years-old, but I can’t remember ever having a conversation with him. I mean, I guess we’d hardly be discussing the meaning of life when we were four, but even in more recent years there’s been nothing. It might look like Mos and I live in the same world, but we don’t.
“Right, you get the apparatus,” I tell him, “Chloe can get the chemicals and I’ll start setting up.”
“Yes, boss,” Mos says, and he turns to do what I’ve told him.
I don’t know whether his use of the word ‘boss’ is a reference to the way I’ve taken charge or just a part of his lingo. So many of the boys around here talk like they were born in the East End of London. ‘Yes, boss,’ is something they do say to each other. And ‘boss’ is the best of the words they use! It’s definitely better than ‘Yes, blud,’ or ‘yes, bredren’ or ‘yes, bruva’. And everything is punctuated with the word ‘innit’. I don’t think they sound like idiots because the grammar is bad; I think they sound like idiots because the language is not their own. It makes perfect sense that they use it, though. They’re scared of letting their real selves out. But surely who they actually are would be better than this weird street version of them. God help them if not.
Mos comes back.
“Here you go, boss,” he says and I swear there’s a twinkle in his eye.
He’s playing with me. The ’boss’ is definitely a nod to the leadership role I have automatically assumed. He’s being funny. I take a beaker from him and turn away before I make the mistake of smiling.
Chapter 12: Figure 0.9
Chloe is part of the reason I was so quick to assume authority. She’d struggle to tell you the difference between hydrogen and iron. Not that she’s stupid. She’s not. But when she doesn’t care about something, she really doesn’t care about it. You can be talking to her for ten minutes about chemistry or netball and I swear she literally won’t hear a word you say. She has no interest in those subjects and her brain switches off whenever they’re raised. Ask her anything about Strictly Come Dancing, though, and she’ll tell you whatever you need to know. The same applies to the subjects she feels are relevant to her: French (she wants to live in Paris), Geography (she wants to travel) and History (she wants to travel back in time). When it comes to anything related to those topics, she’s a mine of information. But, chemistry? Uh-uh.
“Does this go in here?” she asks, holding a pipette full of water over a pewter dish full of potassium.
“Why don’t you let me take that,” I say, moving quickly between Chloe and the experiment.
Of course, she might not be as clueless as she makes out. After all, the way things are she barely has to lift a finger during these lessons. I do everything. Not because I’m a keeno, but because I don’t want to die in a lab explosion.
“So,” I say, thinking out loud, “we need to start with the chemicals that react most slowly.”
“Here, let me help,” Mos says.
“Have you even looked at the textbook?”
Mos looks deliberately at figure.09 – which summarises the next process of the experiment – then reaches across and takes the pipette from me. He lays it down on the counter and looks at the array of powders in front of us. I half expect him to comment on how the zinc oxide looks like cocaine. That’s the kind of thing he’d say if he was working with his friends, and then one of his pack would rub his knuckles over the head of some quiet boy until said boy admitted that, no, he’d never taken drugs. Which would obviously make him seem fatally uncool. Then there’d probably be further knuckle rubbing until the same boy admitted that not only was he not a drug addict, he was also a virgin. Only then – reputation in tatters – would he be released. Right now, though, Mos isn’t acting like that at all. I watch him carefully, wondering if he might actually know what we’re meant to be doing. He ignores the zinc oxide, picks up the dish of calcium and looks at me.
“Thought I’d pick the wrong one, didn’t you, boss?”
“No,” I reply, but even I can hear that I’m lying.
He laughs quietly before getting on with the task at hand. His sensible, systematic approach means all I need to do is sit on my stool and chart the results. Chloe looks at me and makes a face. The look would be meaningless to most people, but I have no problem translating it. Chloe can’t quite believe what she’s seeing.
When the experiment ends, Mos helps us to tidy up and then returns to his friends without saying goodbye. Chloe leans over and whispers in my ear.
“Is it just me or is Mos looking quite fit?”
“Shush,” I tell her.
We both quieten down and try to suppress our giggles as the teacher begins to speak.
“Most of you completed that experiment with quite some style,” he says, nodding approvingly.
Yeah, doggy style,” Mos calls out.
I look at Chloe. The bubble has well and truly burst.
Chapter 13: Walking In Circles
After school, I take the bus into town. It means I’m travelling the opposite way to normal. I’m on Lia and Chloe’s side of the street and the three of us wave at Amber as her bus disappears in the direction of home.
“Ah, poor Amber, having to travel alone,” Lia pouts.
“Or you could look at it,” Chloe says, “like she’s lucky to have a break from hanging around with Daisy. I mean, every morning having to sit with Daisy and every afternoon having to sit with Daisy. Everywhere she turns, there’s Daisy. There’s no escape. That can’t be easy.”
Chloe turns and pretends to be surprised to see me standing there.
“Oh, I’m sorry, Dais, I didn’t mean for you to hear all that.”
“Ha ha,” I say, and I throw my arms around her and squeeze tight.
“Hey, I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe,” Chloe calls out.
She lets her legs give out under her and now I’m sort of holding her up.
“Love you,” I say.
“Love you too,” she says.
She and Lia evacuate the bus before it reaches town. They live next door to each other and, as I watch them trot away, I feel envious because I would love to have my best friends as my neighbours.
Going into town is like walking into the vipers’ nest. I have to keep my wits about me. There are kids from other local schools who might at any time take offence to my uniform. It’s the end of the school day so there are fleets of pupils everywhere – some with the red and silver badges of my school, Park Wood, others in the blue and white striped ties of Reed Academy and even more in the sickly green of Avenue Academy. Then there are the private school lot from King Edward’s and the students from the sixth-form college. Shopkeepers are in the worst mood at this time of the afternoon but I’ve got nearly an hour to kill so after walking in circles for a bit I go into a newsagent’s. The way the man behind the counter watches me, you’d think he’d just seen my face on a most wanted poster. I’d been hoping to look at the magazines, maybe even buy one, but being stared at like a criminal is enough to put anyone off their shopping experience. I go back outside and walk straight into Mos. He’s with three other boys and Charity’s there too. I want them to pretend not to see me, but when does what I want count for anything?
“Are you stalking me?” Mos wants to know.
His hangers-on grimace in a way I assume is intended to convey how stomach-churning they find that idea. I don’t know what to say in reply and end up making a sound that is half-sigh and half-sarcastic. It’s an unfortunate combination and the resulting noise is just weird. Even I can recognise that.
“Oh my god, you’re so strange,” Charity says.
“You can’t blame her,” Mos says. “It’s my presence, it leaves the ladies speechless, innit.”
Then he winks at me. Actually winks!
“You wish,” Charity snaps. “Come on, I want to go to Maccy D’s.”
And with that, the group of them swagger off. I look around as if there might be more nitwits waiting to pounce. But it’s just me. I’m all alone. Which a moment ago didn’t feel too bad. Now, though, it just feels sad. Maybe I am the massive loser Mos and Charity think I am.
Chapter 14: White Noise
I hide away in my favourite shop, White Noise Records. None of the people I would rather avoid ever come in here. I download or stream most of my music for free but it doesn’t stop me from wishing I had a room full of records and CDs. And I know I sound like a colossal hypocrite but I really do believe that if you love a band you should pay them for their art. I’ve read interviews with musicians who have to work three jobs to cover their recording costs. Then, when they eventually get some music out into the world, people like me just take it without even saying thanks.
Okay, that’s it, I’ve guilt-tripped myself. The truth is, I do have forty pounds saved up and, if I could have, I would have spent it on a Faint December ticket. It’s only right that I now spend that money on something related to the band. The decision gives me a thrill. I’m going to buy something.
My browsing becomes more purposeful. I check the time. Suddenly, I don’t want Mum to finish work, I want to stay here, savouring this search for a new record. I flick through the five Faint Decemberalbums: We Dissolve; I Set My Life On Fire; Like Brothers; We Weren’t Quite Human; Corey Haim. Which one should I get? I glance around. It’s the same guy as always behind the counter. I’m not sure he’s even noticed I’m in the shop. He’s certainly never acknowledged my presence before which I guess is kind of insulting. He doesn’t say one word to me when I take Corey Haim to the counter. Maybe he’s in shock due to the fact that I’m actually buying something. I pass him my debit card but still he hardly looks up. He’s wearing a snot-green cardigan over a T-shirt with Hash Pipe written on it.
As I exit the shop, I pause outside on the doorstep. I reach into my White Noise bag and pull the Faint December record out. I stare at the picture of the boy and girl on the front, the boy and the rest of the world in black and white, only the girl in sharp colour. The solidness of it makes more sense than its digital alternative. The fact that it’s been made, then packaged, then sent out into the world – I think that’s so cool. It feels like this album really represents the effort it takes to make an artistic statement and then to let that statement loose. It feels like the band’s music has been posted to me, that this particular recording of it is here for only me. That feeling of being alone with a song is never quite as complete when you’re tuning into a link that any person in the world with access to the web can link into too.
I have to get my skates on. I’m going to be late to meet Mum. She works a few streets away from the main road. No one from school ventures this far off the thoroughfare so I’m pretty safe. I have a chocolate milkshake and she has vanilla. I drink mine really quickly. I want to make it last but I can’t help myself; it’s so delicious and I pretty much inhale it. No wonder no boy will go out with me – I’m a gannet. Not that I’m going to let it worry me. I’m getting used to this feeling that everything feels as bad as it does good. So, yeah, the milkshake’s so yum it literally makes me tingle, but it also makes me feel so desperate about my own future that I’d struggle to breathe if I wasn’t so used to just keeping going. It’s like the record I’ve bought. The reality of having it to touch, and to look at, whenever I want almost takes my breath away but, on the flipside, I’m now nearly twenty pounds poorer and what about all the people in the world who need that twenty pounds for food or for water or for medicine? Everything is equally amazing and awful. It’s difficult to cope.
“How was school?” Mum asks when I’ve finished slurping the dregs of my milkshake.
My gran established a rule long, long ago that Josh and I are allowed to have three slurps when we reach the end of a drink. Any more than that and the noise of us trying to suck out the last of the residue milkshake would become unacceptable. At fifteen years of age, I still follow the same rule. Again, it’s no wonder no one asks me to go on dates.
“Fine,” I say.
“Did you talk to Josh at all?”
I shake my head. I know how much Mum wants to have a closer relationship with my brother. I can see the anxiety in her eyes. She’s always trying to think of ways to show him how much she cares without stepping on his toes. It’s tricky. I mean, that boy has got seriously large feet. I watch as Mum takes a sip of vanilla milkshake. As always, I wish I hadn’t tipped mine down my throat all in one go.
When I get home, I position Corey Haim alongside my few other records. Not that I can play it. I don’t have a record player. Dad’s got broken long ago in one of his rare but bewildering furies.
Later in bed, I lie awake with my headphones on. I think again about the effort involved in getting music out of someone’s brain and onto vinyl. The physicality of a record seems significant to me, it properly represents the band’s slog. But as I listen to the tracks streaming on my phone in random order, I start to think there’s something significant about the digital process too. It’s like the songs are floating about in a form that more realistically represents – in the case of bands like Faint December at least – the people who made them. The vinyl record pins these bands’ feelings to the world in a way that does not actually match the sense of dislocation they feel, and the idea of their songs floating around the internet is in some ways more fitting. At their heart, these bands are lost and the fact that their songs are haphazardly floating around in cyberspace seems to symbolise that. Or at least it does to me. In the middle of the night. When I’m all alone and totally lost myself.
Chapter 15: A Place For My Head
On Friday morning, I’m in a tizz. I pretend it’s because my hair won’t go how I want it to (when does it ever?) and then because I haven’t done enough revision for our fortnightly Maths test (even though I know I have). Really, it’s because the Faint December tickets go on sale at 9am and I know that I’m not getting any. My tizz has become a strop by the time I head to the bus stop. I’m already imagining an empty seat where Amber usually is. Amber’s parents leave the house before her in the morning, so she could easily stay home, ready to log onto the ticket site, ready to pounce on tickets for the show. I imagine her sitting on her bed, phone poised. There’s no way she can miss this chance to see the band we’ve been dying to see for so long.
I put my headphones on and Faint December’s heaviest track surges into my ears. It’s a fitting soundtrack and I nod my head purposefully in time to each thump of the bass drum. The lyrics move fast, tearing away as if they’re trying to define something that will not stay still. I’m furious with Amber. She said she wouldn’t go to the concert without me. This heavy track is one of our favourite songs. I hope they don’t even play it. That will show her.
As I stomp towards the bus stop, I feel something happening. I’m changing. I’m calming down. The music is working on me like medicine. The girl who’s so angry with her best friend for no reason at all begins to fragment. As Faint December’s lyrics flow into my blood like an antidote, I become stronger. By the time the bus comes around the bend, the resentment I was feeling is back in its box. I prepare myself for the sight of Amber’s empty seat and promise myself I won’t be upset. I definitely won’t cry. Not again. There was a time, after Dad died, where my tears were acceptable. But that time has run out. The same girls who actually tried to befriend me in the weeks after Dad’s death would now tut if they saw me blubbing. I don’t care. I’m not a fan of criers. But I do think it’s crazy how short the socially acceptable period of mourning seems to be. For those girls who offered me a friendship they’d never thought of sharing with me before, I became temporarily cool when Dad died. But that temporary cool ran out when everyone – except me – got used to the fact that I now had one parent less. The reality that had at first shocked them into a kind of awe disappeared when they realised I was still just me. Whatever. I have no desire whatsoever to shed a tear. I won’t allow the vacant spot where Amber usually sits to get me that upset. I’m prepared. As long as no other numbskull has taken my spot, I’ll be fine.
The bus pulls in and I take a deep breath. I flash my bus pass over the electronic reader. I look towards my seat. My usual space is free, and sitting right next to it is Amber. Her dark red hair is swept away from her face so that the whole length of it falls over one side of her head. She has the greenest eyes and they are aimed in my direction. Her eyes glow so brightly, you wouldn’t be surprised if they showed up in the dark. They don’t – I’ve checked – but that’s not the point. There she is, like she always is. There for me when I need her. I wrinkle my nose at her and she wrinkles her nose back.
“You know tickets go on sale in, like, less than an hour,” I say, checking the time on my phone.
“If you’re not going, I’m not going either,” she smiles. “I told you that.”
“You’re serious?” I ask, but I already know she is.
Somehow, I’d wound myself up to the point where I couldn’t even believe that Faithful Forever Amber was going to do what she said. I need to have some serious words with myself.
I rest my head on Amber’s shoulder.
“You’re the best,” I say.
“You jump, I jump, right?”
I close my eyes and smile. We’ve watched Titanic a zillion times and quotes from the film pepper our experiences together. I take hold of my headphones again and put one in my right ear. I give the other to Amber and she puts it in her left. As I listen to Ben Chester’s voice, I think about everything Amber’s done for me. When Dad died, it meant me struggling to complete homework, me not going shopping, me not giving enough time to the problems Amber had going on in her own life. Amber, though, remained unfailingly at my side. If my homework took forever, it took forever for her too. If I couldn’t go shopping, then Amber couldn’t go shopping either. When I needed a place for my head, she was there for me exactly as she’s here for me now.
Chapter 16: In Between
Sitting on the low wall outside my form room, I wait for Miss Lurg to let us in. I don’t know why she can’t be like the other tutors, the ones who seem to realise their form groups are made up of actual human beings. Miss Lurg thinks we’re a different species. And maybe we are. But if that’s the case then it’s definitely not us who aren’t human – it’s her. From where I’m perched, I can see her all alone in the nice, warm classroom and I know she won’t open up until she’s absolutely forced to.
Whatever. I try to cut myself off from the noise of the rest of the form group. My mind flickers back to yesterday morning and I feel a tight, tense feeling in me at the thought of that gloopy cloud I’d woken under, at the thought of what had felt like some kind of tiny but fearsome intruder eating up all my oomph. I can’t feel it in the same way now, but I can still feel some sort of echo of it. It’s soon drowned out, though, and I know Charity has arrived.
I have no idea what planet Charity lives on. Whichever one it is, she’s its leader, its dictator. I’ve never seen her smile. She rules with an iron fist and if you’re living in her vacuum it’s a life of fear. I know that because I see the looks on her underlings’ faces, the way they say something and then look at Charity to check that she approves. Or at least that she doesn’t disapprove. As far as I can see, she doesn’t approve of much unless she’s done or said it herself. She likes to scorch and she likes to scorn. She’s like a wild fire, there’s no point throwing water on her, she won’t notice. Not the metaphorical kind anyway. If someone was to literally tip a full bucket of water over her head, I can’t imagine what kind of hell would break loose. It would be carnage. Either that or she’d disappear in a puff of smoke, her myth extinguished. Or perhaps she’d triple in size and start eating Year 7s for breakfast. I smile to myself. I wonder if this counts as the kind of good moment I can discuss at the supper table.
Miss Lurg appears in the doorway. As usual she sends daggers in all directions even though no one’s doing anything wrong. Each morning, we’re to sit at our desks and read and she won’t accept any reason for not toeing the line. She throws detentions around as if each one earns her points. Maybe it does. Maybe there’s a chart in the staff room and each teacher gets a sticker for every detention handed out. Miss Lurg has probably got that competition wrapped up already despite the fact that we’re less than half a term into the school year.
There are various types of teacher. Our drama teacher, Mr Corzone, and Miss Lurg are at opposite ends of the spectrum. Corzone’s new but likes to pretend he’s been doing the job for years, that his style is super-relaxed and that he purposefully invests pupils with a spirit of independence. None of us are fooled. His lessons are ‘relaxed’ because he doesn’t know how to control them and he might think that he looks cool on the surface but we can all see his little duck legs paddling frantically under the water. He’ll have a heart attack one day and it won’t surprise me one bit. Miss Lurg is different. Whereas Corzone avoids giving detentions because he thinks each one symbolises his failings as a teacher, Miss Lurg’s insecurities manifest themselves in a less passive form. She needs everyone to be doing exactly what she says at every second of the day and if you’re not playing along she responds as if you’ve threatened a rebellion capable of bringing humanity to its knees. Miss Lurg thinks being a good teacher is about a silent classroom and still students. If she can get every single one of us to think in precisely the same way she thinks and to feel at all times the exact way she feels, she believes she’s succeeded. In their own ways, both Corzone and Lurg are a nightmare. I know they both think they have girls like me on their side because we smile and do our best to get on with whatever they want us to get on with, but they don’t. Not really. I mean I’m not on the same side as Charity, or any of the other kids like her – they’re the ones to blame for the teachers acting like mad people in the first place – but neither am I on the teachers’ side. I’m on my own team. It’s small but it’s got its head screwed on.
I sit at the back of my form room, out of the firing line. There’s no way I want to be sitting in between Miss Lurg and Charity. They’re constantly eyeing each other and it’s absolutely impossible for Charity to get through these morning sessions without receiving a detention. I almost feel sorry for her. I don’t think she should act in the extreme way she does, but on some level I think it’s actually impossible for her to be as silent as Miss Lurg demands her to be. And so she begins each day with a punishment. That must be rubbish.
“Tell me what you’ve read on that page,” Miss Lurg asks suddenly.
My head jolts up in case she’s talking to me, but her focus is on Charity.
“I wasn’t doing anything,” Charity retorts.
“Exactly,” Lurg replies, and she keeps a straight face but it’s obvious she thinks she’s being really clever. Like we haven’t heard teachers deliver the same line a hundred times before.
Charity glares at her and Lurg speaks again.
“If you’re actually reading that book you’re meant to be reading, tell me what’s happening on the page in front of you.”
She makes sure her voice sounds composed. She wants to project the idea that she is too stone-cold for emotions, that there’s no way she’d let a fifteen-year-old girl upset her equilibrium. But that’s hooey. I can feel Miss Lurg’s desire to squash Charity in her voice. I mean, I think Charity’s despicable but still I can recognise that this is not fair or right.
“You’ve been staring at the same page for the last five minutes,” Lurg continues. “That’s not reading.”
Inwardly I sigh and I can’t help but faintly shake my head. If Charity’s opened a book and is sitting quietly, then that’s Charity putting in at least as much effort as it takes me to go one step further and actually read. Probably more. I enjoy reading; it’s really no hardship to sit down and get my book out. But Lurg doesn’t see that Charity even having a book with her is an achievement.
“Tell me what’s actually happening right now in that book. Prove me wrong.”
“You’re a cow,” Charity hisses.
It’s under her breath but loud enough for everyone to hear. This is normal Charity territory but still most of the class can’t help but gasp.
“Another afternoon in detention it is then,” Miss Lurg decides triumphantly.
The tone of her voice implies that the rest of the class should be impressed by how well she’s handled the situation. She hasn’t shouted or visibly lost her temper. But she has created a situation out of nothing. It wasn’t necessary and now Charity is riled up. Good luck to her next teacher.
Chapter 17: Hit The Floor
At break, I head to the covered area behind the canteen. It might not have been officially designated as a Year 11 zone, but that’s what it’s become. The sixth-formers have their own space and none of the lower year groups would challenge our position here. Okay, so they might if it was only people like me in their way but even in that case I like to think the fact that I’m in my final GCSE year gives me a little cred. I’m not a complete fool, though. I know that it’s not me and my friends who frighten the younger pupils away.
I reach our spot first but immediately see Chloe coming in my direction. A boy, he must be in Year 8 or maybe Year 9, bumps into her and immediately swears as if it’s her fault. I can’t hear him but I can read his lips and his expression. So much for the younger pupils having any respect for their elders. There’s no point kidding myself – if it wasn’t for the likes of Mos and Charity, they’d swarm us. I guess those two do have their advantages.
Chloe knows I’ve been watching her.
“They might be small,” Chloe says when she eventually makes it over to me, “but they’re fierce.”
“I’d have given him a thump,” I tell her.
Amber’s next to arrive and I know she’s smiling like a lunatic before I even look up. It’s as if I can hear her happiness. When I do look over, her emerald eyes are sparkling even more than usual.
“I got tickets for Faint December,” she says.
Lia and Chloe are as surprised as me. I feel my cheeks go crimson and Lia looks worried. But Amber only laughs. She laughs!
“Calm down, babe,” she says. “I’ve got you one too.”
She thinks it over.
“Or rather my mum did.”
“What are you talking about?” I ask.
The bitterness in my voice is far too pronounced. Whatever Amber’s done, I need to react like I’m a rational human being.
“You know I can’t go.”
“My mum called your mum and everything’s been taken care of.”
I have to concentrate all my energy on not bursting into tears. I don’t understand any of this. Amber knows that I would never want Mum to adapt Dad’s day around any plans that me and my friends might want to make. What has she done? I can’t believe it. I open my mouth to say something but I can’t find any words.
Not that I need to. I can see Amber suddenly realising how furious I am.
“Faint December announced another show,” she says in a rush. “They’re going to be playing two nights in London.”
My brain starts to get itself around what Amber’s telling me.
“And guess who’s going to be there, up the front, looking right into gorgeous Ben’s gorgeous eyes? The four of us!”
As Amber makes this last proclamation, she sweeps her hands through the air just to make it clear that she’s talking about her, me, Lia and Chloe. She doesn’t see a girl walking behind her with a carton of chips. The chips go flying as Amber’s hand connects and we all look at the flying food in surprise. Like some kind of Karate Kid, Amber grabs one of the chips out of mid-air but the rest hit the floor before they’ve even had the chance to put any of us at risk of heart disease, cancer, diabetes or obesity. What a waste.
“Oh my God, I’m really sorry,” Amber squeaks.
She holds the caught chip in the direction of a girl from my French class called Helena. Helena looks at her as if she’s got the plague and walks away. Amber shrugs and puts the chip in her mouth.
“So, what do you think, babe?” she wants to know.
I’m stunned and Amber doesn’t wait for me to reply.
“So, yeah, I had an inkling, you know, that the show would sell out in seconds – I mean we both did, right?”
“So it occurred to me that maybe they’d announce an extra show right away. I looked at their tour dates and the night after the Brixton gig had been left blank. I looked at the Brixton Academy calendar and the venue was apparently free that night too. Mum said she’d keep an eye on the site at nine o’clock, and by nine thirty they’d announced the extra date and sold that one out too.”
The reality is sinking in. My blood is surging through my body.
“We’re going to see Faint December?” I ask, just to make sure I’ve got it right.
“We’re going to see Faint December,” Amber confirms, her smile still set to full-beam.
And after that I guess the day goes on as normal, but I’m in too much of a daze to tell. I’m going to see Faint December!
Chapter 18: New Divide
When Mum gets home that evening, I rush down the stairs and give her a hug.
“It’s going to be amazing,” I gasp.
“I’m glad you think so. When Amber’s mother called, I almost said no. I didn’t think you’d be that bothered.”
I roll my eyes.
“It’s going to be the best night ever.”
“I think it might well be,” Mum agrees before going upstairs to get ready. She’s got some work event on. When she comes down, she’s still fixing her crystal earrings in. I’m always worried she’ll lose them but she always says there’s no point in locking them away where no one will see them. She sees my concern now and understands it.
“Having them on is like having something of Dad with me,” she explains, not for the first time.
I already know that she feels the surge of his love every time she puts those earrings on, so of course she’s going to wear them.
“Throw caution to the wind,” she says jokingly now, as if the act of accessorising is one of huge rebellion. “That’s what I do.”
Then more seriously.
“That’s what your dad would have done.”
I can’t help but make a face that roughly translates as ‘yeah, right.’
“Once upon a time anyway,” Mum clarifies. “And besides, they’re so dangly, I’ll notice if I drop one.”
After supper in front of the television, I go upstairs. I should go to bed but instead I put my headphones on and dance around my room. It’s pretty embarrassing how excited I am, especially given that the show won’t happen until March. That’s more than four months away! I’ve got to think about Christmas before then but Christmas now seems way off the map of things that are important. Even my mock exams don’t feel so significant all of a sudden. This time yesterday, if you’d have asked me, I’d have said I was nervous about them. But now all I want to do is get them out of the way because once they’re done I’ll be that much closer to the Faint December concert. I wonder what song the band will start their show with?
With all the good feeling rushing through my body, I don’t even consider that I might have a difficult night. Everything’s too perfect. But I wake in a swirl of darkness. It’s as if I’m spinning. I can’t get my bearings and every time I think I might be about to, the whole world seems to shift again. I try to open my eyes. At least then I can perhaps find a lampshade, a picture, a crack in the ceiling even, to focus my attention on, to use as some kind of axis. But my eyelids are as out of my own control as the rest of me. There’s a new divide between me and my brain. My mind is whizzing but it’s not joining up with my body. It’s as if I’ve been locked into some nightmare-ish corner of my own self.
And then, at last, my eyes do open. My arms are still frozen. My legs too. My fingers and my toes as well. But at least I can see. I fix my attention on the tiny gap at the top of my curtains where a whisper of shallow streetlight is filtering through. And slowly I start to feel less dizzy. I stabilise. I am still. Then it’s just a matter of waiting. I unfurl a forefinger, then a middle finger and inch by inch I regain some kind of influence over my whole hand. I grasp for my phone. Music gushes into me and as I listen I feel like I’m being reclothed after falling into freezing water.
I don’t want to go back to sleep, I’m scared to. I went to bed feeling so good and now I feel so desperate. I’d kind of always assumed that the better my days were, the better my nights would be, but that’s not how things have worked out at all. If anything, it’s the opposite. Yesterday was way better than any day in a long time and yet the night has turned out like this. The higher you fly, the further you fall, right? Makes sense. What’s the solution? To deliberately not have any great days? Or, more extreme, to deliberately have awful days? Perhaps then, I’ll have the most incredible nights. Whatever the case, I need to get on top of this. I don’t fancy spending much more of my time in this pit of despair. It sucks.
Chapter 19: It Goes Through
Four months later: March
I’m suddenly aware of the darkness. I’m not quite asleep, I’m not quite awake. I’ve been finding myself in this in-between state more and more regularly but the experience gets no less frightening. In some ways, it gets more so. The more it happens, the more I worry that at some point I might become permanently frozen.
This time last year, there were the nightmares and the unsettling feelings that remained after waking up from them. Now, though, the experience is way more multi-dimensional. Most nights, it’s as if I wake up before I’m meant to – which, I guess, could be exactly what is happening. I just don’t know. I can’t explain it. What I do know is that when I come to in the middle of the night, it’s as if I’m paralysed. This paralysis never occurs at seven o’clock in the morning, when I need to get up anyway, when Mum might find me and help me, it’s always at three or four. And then it’s as if, instead of all the parts of my body and my brain waking up simultaneously in the way that any normal person is surely used to, each of those different areas regains consciousness according to its own separate timetable. My brain always beats my body. No one who played netball with me would be surprised to know that.
It’s the middle of the night and it’s happening again. I become aware that my nightmare has become more intense, that the consequences of whatever happens now could actually impact on my real life. My mind flickers into action in a way that makes me think of myself as a house. It’s like someone is walking around upstairs, turning on the lights, but downstairs my body remains comatose. I want to get up and run away but I can’t even move a finger.
I know all I can do is wait. But hanging around, waiting for my body to mobilise, isn’t as easy as it might sound. The nightmares I’ve been having are still all over me and I worry about what might be just out of sight. I know that whatever it is can do whatever it wants to me. Because, yes, I’m conscious, but at the same time I’m totally incapacitated.
I don’t know how much time has passed when I begin to unfreeze but I do know that by the time I thaw enough to move I’m desperate to fill myself up with music. As soon as I’m able, I grab for my headphones. I knock my glass of water over and it falls to the floor but I don’t pick it up. There’s only one band that can save me from myself. My fingers are shaking but I manage to press play. Faint December’s music becomes almost visible. The sound of it forces its way through the deadness around me and obviously I can’t see musical notes floating in the air – I’m not a complete mad person – but it is almost as if there are flecks of colour tearing their way through the thick night. I’m trembling, but Ben Chester’s words begin to filter their way into me. It feels like his full attention is concentrated on talking me through this.
“You will be okay,” he sings, “don’t you give in; give me your fears, you don’t need those things.”
I concentrate on my breathing. The bass drum booms. It goes through me like the charge from a defibrillator and I breathe in. The bass drum booms again. I breathe out. I don’t need these fears. They are not a part of me. Breathe. Breathe.
Chapter 20: Leave Out All The Rest
At some point I fall back to sleep and when I wake again the venomous feeling of the night has fragmented. Mum is standing over me.
“What have you been doing in here?” she wants to know.
I wonder what she means and then I see her looking at the floor beside me and I remember the glass of water. She leans down and picks up the glass as well as my copy of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. It’s a school book. We’ve been reading it in class but now its pages are all mushy and glued together. I groan.
“Are you okay?”
“Mrs Hill’s going to kill me,” I whine, even though I know that my English teacher won’t kill me at all; she will understand that it was an accident.
“It will be fine,” Mum says, looking at the novel dubiously.
I catch her eye and we both laugh. The book is unreadable and we both know it. The sound of our laughter breaks the spell of the night completely and I’m back in the real world.
“I’ll put it on the radiator,” she says.
When I get downstairs, Josh is already dressed. I raise my eyebrows. He sees me.
I shake my head in reply. If the cartoons were on the TV or the football, he’d have never even noticed my presence but it’s the news and stuff that’s actually important. If something’s of consequence, I can guarantee it won’t hold my brother’s attention for long. Just as I can usually guarantee that he’ll normally still be slobbing around by the time I’m on the verge of leaving for school. Today, though, he looks ready and as I eat my breakfast it dawns on me that maybe Josh’s car has broken down. It happens sometimes. The last thing I need is to have Josh on the bus. He’ll join the boys that sit at the back and Amber and I will have to listen to whatever drivel comes out of their mouths for the whole trip to school. Normally I can block the noise of their swearing and burping out but there’s something about my brother’s voice that has the ability to penetrate any kind of forcefield I might usually be able to rely on. I watch him suspiciously until he puts his cereal bowl in the dishwasher. He notices my attention on him.
“What?” he asks again and once more I shake my head.
We have such sophisticated methods of communicating.
I finish my breakfast, brush my teeth and grab my bag. It’s heavy so I empty its contents on my bed. I chuck the stuff I’ll need back in and leave out all the rest. Then I pick up my copy of Jekyll and Hyde and consider what to do with it. It’s still soaking. I can’t read it; the pages will tear if I try to separate them. I put it back and hope I can borrow a spare copy when I get to school.
As I take my coat from its peg, Mum and Josh crowd into the same small space around the front door. It’s rare that we all leave at the same time.
“I’ve got a meeting,” Mum explains even though no one’s asked.
Josh waits while I do battle with the zip on my coat, but I can feel his impatience. I should get ahead of him, otherwise we’ll end up in the awkward position of having to walk to the bus stop side by side. Either that or one of us will have to make the conscious decision to stride ahead or fall behind. It’s best I get going and save us that problem. Mum opens the front door and stands aside so I can exit.
“Have a nice day, sweetheart, don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.”
“Cross my heart,” I say, and I draw the shape of a cross over my heart with my finger.
I turn and walk quickly in the direction of the bus stop. As I reach the end of our road, I hear Josh coming. His car’s fine. I recognise the sound of it. I glance at him through the windscreen, his body squeezed in behind the steering wheel. The March sun makes it difficult to see more than his outline, but I’m sure he doesn’t even look my way. What a loser.