‘And this will be your room . . .’
The room my aunt, Sarah, leads me into is tiny. Smaller even than my room at home, like a little box room. The walls are bare. There’s nothing but a bed, some drawers and a wardrobe. I walk over to the window and put my fingers to the glass, checking its exit potential. The window is on a latch and it’s barely a foot down to the concrete below. Perfect.
Apparently I’m not being enthusiastic enough about this tiny room in this little flat I’m being banished to in a city I’ve never even visited before.
‘Do you . . . like it?’ Sarah asks. Her voice is hopeful but hesitant.
Why does it matter if I like it?
‘Sure,’ I say, but I don’t turn around. The garden is quite nice. There’s a tree with bright pinky purple flowers by the wall. ‘Thanks.’
‘It’s great,’ Brian says. My brother’s voice is cheerful, but I hear the firmness in it and know he’s directing it at me. Apparently I’m not being enthusiastic enough about this tiny room in this little flat I’m being banished to in a city I’ve never even visited before. ‘Do you want to help me carry your stuff in?’
‘You and I can do that,’ Sarah says. ‘We’ll leave you to get a feel of the place for a few minutes, OK, Suzie?’
They both leave and I spin in a slow circle, taking in the room. It smells musty in here, and everything has happened too fast for Sarah to disguise it as a teenager’s potential bedroom instead of the overlooked guest bedroom it clearly is. The bed has a flowery cover on it.
I sink down on to it and pull my legs up underneath me, squeezing my ankles to help keep myself calm. It still hurts to breathe, so I can’t get upset. I can’t get upset about the fact that three days ago I lived in Reading with my family, but now I’ve been ‘rescued’. I can’t get upset about my broken ribs or my battered face or the way I didn’t say goodbye to my mother.
I pick up the pillow from the bed and hold it against my chest, like the doctor suggested. I close my eyes and breathe out slowly. Here is what I know: my ribs will heal on their own; the pain will ease. The bruises on my face and my chest will fade by the time I start at my new school. I have been rescued. I am safe. I live in Brighton with my aunt, who will take care of me.
‘Zannie?’ Brian’s voice comes from the hall. I put the pillow back on the bed and slowly uncurl myself, sliding off the bed and standing beside it.
Because this is just too much, really; the fact that he can say something like that to me, after everything he saw, everything he didn’t do.
He opens the door with a smile, but I see his face flinch instinctively when he sees my face. Something I don’t know: how bad my face actually is. I haven’t looked in a mirror for days.
‘Look, this is going to be fine,’ he says quietly. ‘You’ll love it here. Everyone loves Brighton. And Sarah’s great. This is a fresh start.’
How can this be fine? How? In a couple of weeks I’m meant to be starting Year 11, and now I don’t even know what school that will be in, if I get accepted by a school at all. And even if I do, what will I tell people? I’ve spent my life lying about my home life and my family. If this is a fresh start, does that mean I have to be honest now? Tell potential friends that my stepfather used to beat me up?
They will look at me with horrified sympathy. They’ll say things like, ‘God, that’s awful . . . I’m so sorry . . .’ but they’ll be thinking, ‘But you must have done something,’ because people always do. They’ll never see me. They’ll see a victim.
‘Zannie,’ Brian prompts. His voice is so soft it makes me want to throw something at him.
‘I’m fine,’ I say.
‘I know it’s hard.’
‘The most important thing is that you’re safe.’
I look at him then, and he stares back before the guilt overtakes and he has to look away. Because this is just too much, really; the fact that he can say something like that to me, after everything he saw, everything he didn’t do.
I want to say, screw you, but I can’t, because then he might leave too, and I’d have no one. And victims are meant to be grateful after they’ve been saved, so I’m not allowed to be angry, to be raging, to be swearing at the only people who still love me.
‘Will you be able to stay a few days?’ I ask. ‘Before you go back to Reading?’
‘Of course,’ he says. ‘However long you need, OK?’ He steps forward to hug me and I jerk backwards. Pain shoots up through my sore chest and I yelp, then try to cover it with a cough, which hurts even more. And after all that, he looks hurt, because I didn’t let him hug me. ‘I’m not going back to Reading this summer anyway,’ he says. ‘I’m going back to Cardiff early. I can’t be at home with them.’
Everything’s a maybe now, in this new life. I can’t count on a single thing.
Is this meant to be some show of solidarity? Is this something else I’m meant to be grateful about?
Why am I so angry? I was never this angry before.
‘I might do something with the walls,’ I say.
‘Oh yeah?’ Brian nods casually, but I see the relief on his face. ‘Like what? I could help you paint them before I go.’
‘Maybe,’ I say. I’ve never been allowed to do anything with my bedroom walls before. I could paint them purple. Purple with silver stars. ‘Do you think Sarah would let me?’
‘Definitely,’ he says.
‘Or I could put posters up,’ I say. ‘Make, like, a wallpaper out of them or something.’
‘That would be cool,’ Brian says. ‘I bet Brighton has some good vintage shops for stuff like that. We could go looking.’
I don’t really want to go out into the bright August day where people can see me, especially not somewhere like Brighton, where it’s crowded with tourists even on cloudy days. Everyone will stare at me, and not in a good way.
‘Maybe in a couple of days,’ I say.
Sarah comes in holding two mugs of tea, which she puts carefully on top of the drawers by the bed. ‘How’s your chest feeling?’ she asks me. ‘Do you need any more painkillers today?’
‘Maybe later,’ I say.
Everything’s a maybe now, in this new life. I can’t count on a single thing.
Sarah finds me a school. She buys me my new uniform and speaks with my old school to get my reports and grades transferred. She registers me with a GP and, for the first time in my life, social services. I’ll be assigned a social worker. ‘This time,’ Sarah says, ‘we’re going to do this all properly. No more hiding, no more lies.’
I sit in front of the mirror and practise a carefree smile. In Brighton, I decide, people will call me Suze.
Brian stays for four days before he goes back to Cardiff. He presents me with a gift box on the morning he leaves, and it’s filled with postcards and vintage posters and handwritten playlists. When I flick through it, I find they all relate to things I love. There’s sheet music for The Beatles and Johnny Cash; Marilyn Monroe reprints; portraits of dogs from old wars.
‘So you can make your own wallpaper,’ he says, and when he goes to hug me I let him, even though it still hurts a little. I almost hug him back.
I spend my days covering my walls with life. I write my favourite song lyrics on Post-it notes and stick them everywhere. I print off Allie Brosh cartoons and maps of fictional worlds. Every time I stick on something new, part of my heart soothes. The bare walls disappear. I hang fairy lights over the ceiling and turn the main light off. The room is cosy and safe and mine.
The night before I start Year 11 in my new school I listen to the Manchester playlist Brian made me and scroll through old Facebook albums to remind myself who I was before it all went away. I sit in front of the mirror and practise a carefree smile. In Brighton, I decide, people will call me Suze.
Sarah makes me a bacon sandwich the next morning and I eat it in the car on the way to school. She keeps glancing at me sideways as she drives, as if she’s not sure whether to speak. Finally she says, ‘You look very pretty.’
‘You sound surprised,’ I say.
‘Not surprised,’ she says quickly. ‘You just look very different, that’s all. After the last few weeks.’
‘New start, right?’ I say. She drives into the car park and finds a space. ‘You don’t need to come in.’
For a moment she looks hurt. ‘Oh. Are you sure?’
She glances sideways at me, like she’s trying to figure out if I’m being serious.
‘Yep.’ I’m already unbuckling my seat belt. ‘I’ll just see you later.’
‘I don’t know.’ She looks a little worried. ‘I think I should come in. Aren’t I meant to come in, as your guardian?’
I turn slightly in my seat so I can face her. My ribs – the bruises have faded, the pain is almost gone – twinge a little, but don’t rage. ‘You can totally trust me,’ I say with a grin. I’ve barely smiled at her the whole time we’ve been in Brighton, and I see her eyes squint slightly, watching my face. My unbruised, normal, made-up face. ‘I have mad new girl skills.’
There’s still hesitation; I can see it. With one hand I open the car door, then reach out with the other to squeeze her wrist quickly. Her face breaks out into a smile and she takes a hold of my hand, clenching it tight momentarily, then letting go. ‘Stay out of trouble,’ she says, her voice light now, like mine.
‘Where’s the fun in that?’ I’m out of the car, closing the door, waving through the glass.
Inside the school, I introduce myself to the receptionist and get ushered into an office, where people talk at me for a while and hand me a folder full of orientation material I will never read. I’m just about to ask if there is actually anyone my own age at this school and, if so, if I can meet them, when there’s a knock at the door.
The girl who walks in is shorter than me with curly dark hair and a small, birdlike face. Her expression coming into the room is wary; it’s the look of someone who doesn’t trust teachers, maybe even people in general. I like her immediately.
‘Ah, Miss Caron.’ The woman who had been telling me about fire drills stands up, beaming. ‘Come and take a seat next to Suzanne here.’
The girl and I look at each other. I break out my perfected Suze smile and she returns a small smirk of greeting; though her lips are pressed suspiciously together, hey eyes betray an innate friendliness. Yep, I like this person.
‘Suzanne has just moved here from Reading,’ fire-drill woman is saying, as if I can’t speak for myself. ‘And she has the same timetable as you, so, if you wouldn’t mind, it would be very helpful if you’d take care of her today. What do you think?’
‘Sure,’ the girl says. ‘Um, now?’
‘Great,’ I say, grabbing hold of the folder and getting to my feet. ‘Thanks,’ I say to the woman, who blinks in surprise.
‘Oh. Well,’ she says, a little flustered. ‘Stop in at lunchtime to let me know how things are going, OK?’
When we’re outside the office with the door safely closed, I grin at the girl. ‘Oh my God, thank you so much for saving me.’
She glances sideways at me, like she’s trying to figure out if I’m being serious. Then she laughs. ‘No worries. Our form room is in the art block. It’s this way.’
‘OK,’ I say gamely, falling into step beside her. ‘I’m Suze, by the way.’
Her smile is real this time. She pushes a stray curl behind her ear and I notice that her stud earrings are little owls.
‘I’m Rosie,’ she says.