I sit in Mr Walker’s classroom. He’s kept me behind. Again. Hasn’t he got better things to do on a Friday? I’m told that I have potential, that I could be brilliant. Blah, blah, blah. It’s the story of my life. The same lines I’ve heard a million times before. His voice is only slightly more boring than the room we’re sat in. The beige walls are adorned with choice examples of pupils’ work, though he’s sorely mistaken for thinking that maths constitutes a legitimate form of decoration, even in a maths classroom.
“Look, Ellen, you’re not applying yourself,” he goes on. “You should be top of the year,” he exaggerates. He’s cute when he tries to be encouraging. Part of me is just glad for the compliments… But Walker isn’t any different to any other adult. Sure, he talks down to me, like any other adult, but I’m the one in control. There are so many ways that I could manipulate the direction of this conversation. I could shed tears, and tell him how badly I’m taking my parents’ break up. How, despite the fact we live in a massive house, the family has fuck all money because Father has become estranged and Mother can’t work through incessant drinking. I could tell him about how we even had to sell my horse. Though that probably wouldn’t glean sympathy from a man on a teacher’s salary. Or I could piss him off. I could be completely obnoxious, and smirk and yawn until he accuses me of insolence as I kick back my heels, thoroughly entertained. I could even and try to seduce him if I were feeling especially destructive. I wonder how he’d react… I could do any of these things. Though I actually quite like Walker, so I permit him the illusion of authority. I sit quietly and blankly let his words wash over me and wait for the whole tedious ordeal to end.
“Anybody wanna waste some time?” I love that line so much. It’s from the Darren Aronofsky film ‘Requiem for a Dream’, which I first saw three years ago after stealing the DVD from Harry’s bedroom. It’s the line that Jennifer Connelly’s character asks just before they inject heroin. I’d never inject. There’s a scene later in the film where Jared Leto’s character goes to shoot up, but his arm is septic, and the veins leading away from the puncture in his arm are green and swollen in all directions like some kind of gangrenous roadmap. Eurgh. The depictions of the characters’ overbearing addictions and descent into madness are unbearably uncomfortable – the film as a whole is probably the most affecting thing that I’ve ever experienced in my entire life. Sometimes I wake up and find myself in the foetal position, sweating and smelling of fear, incapable of remembering the nightmares about it that I know I’ve had… I don’t know what I’d do if I ever caught Harry with a needle.
The bus from school only goes so far in the direction of my house, which is surrounded by acres of fields in all directions. I used to alight on the outskirts of the town and have Mother pick me up in her car. This doesn’t happen anymore. I had to hide her car keys because she’s never sober enough to drive. She barely ever comes out of her bedroom nowadays anyway. Harry’s supposed to pick me up instead, but I’ve been waiting for over an hour and I conclude that he’s either too fucked to drive, or has simply forgotten about me. Or both. Again. At least the late afternoon sky’s all clear blue and sunbeams. So I start to walk, traversing the country lanes feeling frustratingly anonymous. It takes effort to wear a school uniform this incorrectly, you know… My pumps don’t tread well over ploughed fields, so I’m not able to take shortcuts. Instead, I have to follow inefficient perpendicular tarmac and I’m an hour into my walk before I even see the building that I call home – a building that is going to shit as physically as it has done emotionally. My parents were working on renovating it. It was their beautiful project, though obviously that’s not happening anymore. It’s remarkable how quickly a large building in an uncompleted state degrades when left exposed to rural elements. White paint yellows. Brickwork chips. Creepers overrun. Thickening layers of fuzzy dust accumulate absolutely everywhere. The front door creeks queasily as I push it open.
“Harry, you prick! It’s half five! I left school two fucking hours ago!” The silence is deafening. I’m obliged to love Harry as a brother but, frankly, he’s a complete moron. That he’s technically the ‘man of the house’ now is a fact that fills me with nausea. I hear distant movement. Harry emerges like a hermit from his cave and looks at me from the top of the stairs, squinting as the confusion as to why I’m home so late turns to shamefaced comprehension.
“Shit…” he mutters,
“Why didn’t you call me?” he says, as if this is all somehow my fault.
“I did, Harry. Twenty times.” He checks his iPhone, and sees twenty missed calls. Or at least pretends to.
“Ah yeah. Sorry.” Prick. I purposefully steal up the stairs and make a point of barging him with my bag as he passes me on his way down. His shock of blonde hair is styled exclusively by his pillow, and he smells of cannabis. Nice. I throw my things onto my bed and remove my shoes with satisfaction. Blisters have formed symmetrically on the outside of my little toes from the walk. Injuries vicariously inflicted by my brother. I stand at my bedroom window and watch Harry get into his car. He precariously wheels a three-point turn on the gravel courtyard and drives off into the sun to do fuck knows what.
It’s early evening and Harry has friends over. Whilst they congregate with beer and bongs in the lounge downstairs, I’m sat on my bed with my two best friends. Megan (long, straight black hair and bleached white skin) sits on my right. Gemma (dirty blonde bob, and freckles) sits on my left. Megan is wearing a plain white t-shirt with the letters ‘Mm’ printed on the front in bold black Helvetica. Gemma is wearing a pink/navy horizontal striped polo shirt. All three of us wear short denim shorts that are different in subtle ways, and we each sup small lime-capped bottles of Mexican beer. Megan and Gemma make jokes about Mr Walker keeping me behind. Their insinuations are disgusting, as are their bizarre attempts at a live dramatisation (Megan plays me, Gemma plays Walker), which they perform uncomfortably close to me on the bed.
“You’re not applying yourself,” Gemma coos, “You could be brilliant…”
“How do you know he said that?” I ask.
“Duh. It’s what he tells everyone.” Gemma shoots back, breaking character. Her reply snags more than it should. I swallow awkwardly. I thought I was special… I make them stop their game just shy of them actually making out with each other. Megan pushes me back against the headboard and stands up, apparently frustrated by my prudishness.
“You’re so boring…” `She rummages inside her calico tote bag on the floor by the bed, and I have a good idea as to what she’s searching for. She looks up at me, eyes leering. “Anybody wanna waste some time?” She knows how much I love that line. It never fails to make me giggle every fucking time she says it. The familiar twinge of giddy, childish anticipation courses… The stuff is apparently called ‘Aveline’. Although it takes the form of white powder, it isn’t cocaine, or methyl amphetamines, or ketamine, or methadone, or any other narcotic I could try to mention. Megan’s story is that her chemistry student brother synthesises it in his kitchen at university, and he sends her a packet every month to buy her silence. It all sounds a bit too ‘Breaking Bad’ to be true, but it gets me buzzed on a regular basis, so I have no reason to complain (besides, she never charges for it). Lines are efficiently taken from the ceremonial ‘Requiem For a Dream’ DVD case. The three of us lie down side by side on my bed.
There’s a scene in Requiem For a Dream where Jared Leto and Jennifer Connoly are in love and they lie side by side. Split screen shows the intimate contact between them as they speak – fingertips brushing lips, navels, ears… He tells her that she’s beautiful and she says that other people have told her that before, and it was meaningless. But when he says it, she hears it. And he tells her that somebody like her can really make things all right for him. The whole scene dissolves me. The first time I saw it, I felt as if I needn’t achieve anything in life other than the acquisition of such adoration, of such mutual kindred beauty. But even when I was thirteen, I understood the tragic irony that subsequently plays out. Addiction breaks their beauty completely. Jennifer Connolly ends the film fucking other women in front of groups of men in exchange for heroin and even as I screamed at the screen, pleading with her not to walk through that archway into the room of disgusting perverts I couldn’t stand to look away as the photography scarred my soul and then Uncle Hank seethes that line and I’m crying, sweating and smelling of fear… I open my eyes and find myself on my bed, Gemma’s arms tight around me.
I’m stood at the window in my bedroom, looking out over everything. Colours glare, deeply saturated as if someone’s photoshopping the world in real time. I feel a pressure all over my body, but it’s benevolent and comforting, like the weight of an eiderdown duvet on a cold night… This is the feeling that I wait for every week. Glassy contentment, dazed serenity. Amazing. Then I see it. Right in the distance, emerging from the horizon. Inner tranquility turns to an acidic concavity, the convertible hatchback familiar despite the distance. What the fuck is she doing here?
“Who?” Megan sits up on the bed. I take a moment to realise that I’d been thinking out loud.
“Jennifer,” I blankly reply. Gemma sits up.
“I thought her and Harry-“
“-Yeah,” I interrupt, “They did…” My friends join me at the window. We all watch the car approach. Jennifer has a male passenger that I don’t recognise.
“Who’s that with her?” I ask. No one knows.
“Why would you bring some random guy to your ex’s party?” Gemma asks, though the question goes unanswered, becoming rhetorical.
“Her hair is actually retarded…” Megan states quite from nowhere, her straight black a stark contrast to Jennifer Ace’s multi-coloured windswept cluster-fuck. “But… just… I mean, who the fuck does she think she is?” I appreciate Megan’s sentiment, though I’m quite sure she’s just saying things to please me. She thinks that I don’t like Jennifer Ace because she broke up with Harry. Jennifer Ace did so much worse than that.
I dash down the stairs and wait behind the front door and I try to not answer it too quickly when the knock comes. I choke as I see Jennifer’s face – cutesy, achingly cool, rainbow hair framing clear, clear skin, cold eyes that I expect spiders to crawl out of… I recognise her male companion close up. Nicky Marsh used to be friends with Harry, though I’ve not seen him for years. I remember him being one of the most remarkably dull boys I’ve ever had the displeasure of meeting. I realise that I’ve been standing at the door for at least five seconds so I invite the pair of them in and point them in the direction of the lounge. I immediately notice the way that Nicky looks at Jennifer. He gazes after her like an entranced disciple. He wants her, and it makes me feel sick. My mind foams, but through the bilious swell I start to form a plan. I’m going to hurt Jennifer, just a little. Heart beating, I dart into the kitchen where I find Megan and Gemma perched next to each other on the central island.
“Meg, I need more Aveline,” I say, noticing a quiver come across my body. Megan smirks.
“And why would that be?”
“I need to calm myself down.” I say without assurance. Megan giggles. She’s such a perceptive bitch.
“And… why would that be?”
“I… I just do,”
“That’s not the right answer, El…” She’s practically grinning by this point, and I know she’s not going to relinquish, so I tell her straight out – I’m going to steal Jennifer’s passenger, because it’s what the dumb bitch deserves. My friends take a second to ingest the words, and then laugh with concurrent vigor.
“I didn’t realise you cared that much about Harry?” Gemma says.
“What? Oh, no… I just… really… hate her fucking stupid hair,” I stammer though nervous sniggers of my own, not exactly lying.
“Shut up! God, you slut,” Megan jokes? She slides herself onto her feet and gives me what I want.
I’ve seen Nicky a couple of times over the last hour. He looks dreadfully uncomfortable, anxious to get away with Jennifer, who herself remains in the living room socialising with all of Harry’s friends like it’s the most natural thing in the world… Hidden behind a doorframe, I watch Nicky steal a cigarette from the kitchen table. He also takes a lighter that I know doesn’t work. He wanders into the garden through patio doors, and I know that this is my chance. I study myself in the large framed mirror that hangs in the hallway by both the front door and the kitchen’s entrance. I sweep my long blonde hair over to one side of my face to show off my good side. I’m so much hotter than Jennifer fucking Ace. I can sense my pupils shaking, like my brain’s scared of what I’m about to attempt. I could be brilliant… I take the silver antique lighter from the cabinet next to the front door and walk through the archway. I approach him, a silent stalking tigress through long, unkempt grass. He looks surprised, as well he might. I light his cigarette. I smoulder like so many burning straights.
“I didn’t expect to see you tonight…” I say. I take Nicky in. His eyes are tired, and his skin unshaven, though I suppose he’s attractive in a particular manner. If only his layers of dull, dull, dull could be stripped back, like soiled 70s paisley carpets ripped up to reveal varnished oak boards… I move in closer, “You were always my favourite,” I lie. “You’re still so…” So what, Ellen? Go on? So fucking what? “Beautiful…” The word materialises nauseously and hangs awkwardly. I dare a hand onto his shoulder, but he recoils. He glances back at the house beyond me. He wants Jennifer to come and save him. Pussy. “You’re not actually trying to screw Jenny are you?” I wanted to sound cool and hard-edged but…
“Look, Ellen,” he starts, slowly and purposefully. I have potential? I should be top of the year? “What? No, Ellen, I said it’s none of your business!” His voice is stone. Whatever the hell my plan was or now is, it’s going horribly.
“Come along, Nicky… I didn’t realise that… having stupid multi-coloured hair and…” I stumble, “That sleeping around and…” I really, really stumble, “Sucking every cock in this pathetic town made a girl so fuckable these days…”
“She doesn’t sleep around!” Nicky baselessly insists. I bite back tears.
“Whatever,” I offer with as much nonchalance as I’m able to muster. I figure that it’s now or never – fight or flight. I stand on tiptoes, press my cheek into his and reach into the shallow pocket of my denim shorts with my opposite hand.
“I know that…” I fumble with the small polythene bag, “That you want to…” I empty I don’t know how many grams of Aveline into his drink, “Fuck me, yeah?” I can see the amber fluid carbonate out the corner of my eye… I just have to keep talking until the fizz stops… “So… just come in and… find me in a few minutes, yeah? I’ll probably be upstairs…” I do my best to turn an alluring tail and saunter, but I’m shaking too much to be sexy. I scurry through the kitchen and dash past Megan and Gemma who stand next to each other at the foot of the stairs, having obviously just watched me from a distance. I don’t say a word to them – I can’t speak through the glut of haze and heartbeat lodged in my throat.
“You fucking slut!” Megan jokingly calls after me as I reach the top of the stairs and slam shut my bedroom door.
I just about make it to my bed before collapsing under the weight of my own adrenaline. I’m lying on my back. My ears flash with tinnitus, which cuts through the room’s absolute silence. All I sense externally are the rapid movements of my chest and the blood that courses with ferocity about my extremities. Inside, I’m a maelstrom, every one of my brain’s neurons simultaneously misfiring. I have no idea what Aveline does if ingested, rather than being snorted. Could Nicky actually die if he were to drink his spiked beer? And what if he actually comes up here into my room? Was that even part of my plan? Am I actually going to fuck him? Did or do I even want him to? Is this how I want to remember my first time? I think about Jennifer… I want her to hurt so fucking hard. I want her to feel just a shade of how I felt when I saw her and… Where the fuck are my condoms? Because seriously, if he comes up to my room I’m going to need condoms but I don’t know where they are and would I bother to fake an orgasm for him or is he going to be too fucked to notice either way and what if it hurts like people say it does and what if he passes out when he’s on top of me and oh, fucking God, I’ve taken too much Aveline and my breathing’s transmuting into hyperventilation and all I can think about is that day – that fucking hideous day when everything shattered…
I had been at school, and had walked home from where I should have been picked up. The wind was bitter, whilst angry clouds above edged on the cusp of downpour. The sky was lint, and then onyx by the time I could see home. I walked up the gravel driveway, only to find both Harry’s and Mother’s cars absent, despite the fact that neither of them had come to pick me up… In place of these two familiar vehicles were two distinctly unfamiliar ones – my father’s black BMW saloon (which never made an appearance this early in the evening) and an old soft-top hatchback that I was sure I recognised… The brass knob on the front door took the top layer of skin from my fingertips – it was that cold – and the hallway was somehow colder still. There were no lights on, and I remember feeling incredibly scared, merely by all of these little things that shouldn’t have been sinister at face value. I mouthed a quiet hello, which went unanswered. I trod upstairs with absolute delicacy, shivering steam breath in my own eyes. And then I heard him… those sudden, desperate moans, echoing through the second story of the building, an anonymous female accompaniment willing him on, gasping perverted rhetoric, saccharine, laced with poison… I felt an immediate revulsion as severe as to make me vomit in my own mouth. I scurried silently to my bed, where I hid myself under the duvet, shaking and sobbing absolutely uncontrollably.
Ten minutes had passed as an epoch before I heard the opening of a door and the flick of a light switch. I recognised the voices that spoke on the landing, though my frozen brain was unable to translate the noise into language. The front door slammed. And then all hell broke loose. I stood at my darkened bedroom window and looked outside. There were three cars on the driveway – Mother had hit Jennifer Ace’s front bumper with her own, but the female screams and yells were more venomous than were warranted by such a small collision. I knew at that moment that Mother had caught Father and Jennifer red handed. There was physical scuffling out in the falling rain and the last I saw of the scene was Father desperately attempting to restrain the both of them. I reestablished myself under my eiderdown duvet and heard Jennifer race off into the distance. I spent the time it took to fall asleep listening to my parents fall apart in the most acrimonious manner imaginable, their kindred beauty well and truly broken.
Harry didn’t come home that evening, by good fortune or some other reason I remain unaware of. He was never told explicitly that Jennifer was Father’s unnamed ‘other woman’ – that Mother never told him was an indication that I too was to keep my mouth shut. I can only assume that Jennifer doesn’t know I was at the house that evening. Her nerve to come back here is inexplicable either way. I hear tires crunching on gravel. I steady myself and go to my bedroom window. I see Jennifer’s car drive away, top down, with Nicky in the passenger seat. Initially, I feel relief – sheer unadulterated relief. But other emotions creep. Whilst I’m happy that Jennifer’s gone, I’m pissed off at the fact that, yet again, she remains completely unpunished. And then I experience a weird blend of self-pity and self-loathing, as I realise that the thought of hurting her has become an addiction, and I can’t concentrate on anything because it’s all I ever think about. Maths lessons are spent imagining hurting her (it is indeed fair to say that I’m not applying myself) and I take this stupid white powder at the end of every fucking week just to calm me down. I think of poor Jennifer Connolly in Requiem For A Dream, selling herself in the name of her addiction. And then I realise that fifteen seconds ago I was lying on my bed waiting to… just to hurt Jennifer Ace… And that’s when it hits me. This has to stop, right now. I have potential. I could be brilliant. I could be top of the year. When Walker says it to everyone else, it’s meaningless. But when he says it to me, I hear it… I decide that I’m going to tell Harry everything I know. First thing tomorrow, when he’s (relatively) sober. Mother doesn’t stand a chance if her two children aren’t even on the same page. Besides, it’d stop Jennifer Ace from ever setting foot in my house ever again…
Megan and Chloe are surprised when they come into my room an hour later to find me lying on my bed alone. I don’t let them see the maths textbook that I slide subtly under my pillow.