Lucy tossed the car keys up and down in the hope that Mum would take the hint and drive her home.
“You can go sit in the car if you want,” she said without turning. “We’re not leaving until I’ve spoken to the head of sixth form but, if you ask me, it’s bloody embarrassing for a sixteen-year-old not to be able to bring themselves to discuss their own education.”
“I brought myself here, didn’t I? Lucy snapped; she knew it was unfair not to take more responsibility for things which concerned her but she hated being back in a school. She hated the way school felt, the way school stared at her. She had seen enough of the place, enough to know that she would probably survive two years of it, and she had no inclination to linger once that had been established. “Anyway, I spoke to him already, in my interview.”
It was true; Lucy had been the one to initiate this change and it was true that she had been contained within a poky office for the best part of fifteen minutes, manacled into polite conversation. Interviews for college, Lucy had observed from the interview she’d undertaken for the sixth-form of her current school back in January, were mostly nonsense and niceties.
In that interview she had not bothered to be as civil as she had in this one. Recently she was trying to provoke herself into caring about things and some of the time it worked. In truth, she’d always cared; she simply hadn’t generally had the honesty or the opportunity to realise that she cared. She cared because – despite all evidence on the contrary – she did not want to repeat her father or remain as what he’d made her.
Breaking the rules and breaking people with spite was hard work and it had drawn her closer to her father’s image rather than purging her of him.
“And do you think you got a good feel for what it’ll be like? Do you think they’ll take you?” Mum persisted. She had seized upon this slight indication of regeneration that had sparked in her daughter and it had run away with her. She hoped both for her own and for Lucy’s sake that this prospective new start might be the last new start necessary.
Attending this particular sixth-form on this particular August morning was arguably the sole positive change Lucy had ever initiated. She had decided that her scholarship was not making her any happier – it only served to dig her deeper into a life she did not like – and that she wanted to look for a new college to educate her next year. She needed to escape again; they had been fleeing something indiscernible ever since they learned the truth about dad and Lucy recognised that she was called onwards yet again.
Besides, she did not want to return to school with kids who were potentially going to attach her to the death of an innocent girl. She had given herself a lengthy look in the mirror and realised that she was the fly in amber.
She had trawled the internet to find herself a place that she could accept and which might accept her in return, she had contacted the number given for applicants and she had booked herself this tour and interview. She had endured the depersonalised interview and greatly appreciated the fact that it was more interested in her grades and her academic facts – reading her like a spreadsheet – than asking for explanations and suggestions as to how she would make their sixth-form a sunshine place.
She had known that she was realistically far too late with her application but the target grades with which she presented them had apparently managed to sway them in her favour. Her interview would probably be the last they would take before results day trashed everyone’s plans and caused them to run in search of new places to escape to.
A small part of Lucy managed to regret how blasé she had been two months ago as she filled in the papers. The other, and far more substantial, percentage countered this with the reassurance that she had always been smart enough in the past and that she’d never struggled with mocks and that at least she didn’t get dragged down into that scared-shitless and witless state most had succumbed to.
She realised Mum was still expecting an answer and so shrugged lightly.
“I don’t know,” she said evasively. “They said they’d send me a letter home if I got a prospective place and then I’d have to contact them with my results to get it confirmed.”
“And that’s all you want to find out?”
“What more am I supposed to do?” She’d tried. She’d worked her way inside somewhere which might otherwise have been nothing more than an un-opened book left un-purchased in a shop window. She had even managed not to complain as she toured the school, trying not to notice how the buildings frowned at the thick-bodied, thin-skinned lump of sullenness that she was comprised of.
Mum sighed a sigh that was full of let-downs and which did little to please Lucy. It was another of those hideous ‘I’m not angry I’m just disappointed’ performances that she had been subjected to throughout her teenage years. Was even this level of effort not enough for the woman who made aubergine pie? Could the pair of them not simply remove themselves now and forget that law conscripted her to at least another year of education? What more had to be done to satisfy her mother?
She said as much but to little avail.
“I still have some questions about the systems and policies here. If you took some interest, you might find that you have too. You don’t want to come across like you can’t be bothered.”
“What, like ‘pastoral care’ and ‘behaviour policy’ and crap?”
“It’s not crap, Lucy. Maybe it hasn’t done much for you in the past but doesn’t that make it all the more important to you that they’ve got some decent support going on?” She paused looking a little strained as she tried to voice her thoughts and Lucy decided that Mum said it because ‘some decent support’ was what she had wanted all this time.
"…and it’s important to take an interest.”
“At the end of the day my being interested is not going to change whether or not I get a place. It’s the same at any school, they say they want enthusiasm but really they just want kids who’ll boost their reputation. I’m not really gonna do that am I? So what’s the point?” Lucy shook her head and glanced towards the virtually empty car park which was graced only by the cars of the unfortunate few authoritative figures in the school whose presence was required during the summer. She saw herself as a seesaw perched between problems and assets: on one half, her leaden past weighed, brandishing a repulsive history of crime and expulsion; the other half was raggedly suspended by the fact that she could harbour intelligence when she put her mind to it. She had capacity to be something, were she to try – were she to disassociate herself from what she’d been at thirteen. The way the seesaw swung was down to luck and an envelope full of alphabet letters.
“You tell me what the point is, Lucy, you’re the one who suggested this.”
“Can’t we go?”
“Does it really not mean anything to you?”
“I’m going to the car.”
“So am I supposed to get you your education too now? First I’m the one who gets you your job and then you leave me to speak to your potential teacher, what’s it gonna be next? You gonna spend your life waiting for me to find answers for you?”
She wanted to sit in the car. She wanted to turn the radio on and calm down. She could feel the anger rising and was desperate to prevent it from reclaiming her. She hated being attacked, no matter how necessary the attack was.
“So you don’t bother to act pleased when I try to change myself,” she snarled, “you just set the standards a little higher so I can’t satisfy you anyway?”
“I thought you might be sick of people setting their expectations of you at rock bottom.”
Can’t you even keep yourself together for two minutes? Do you really not have any self-control you effing piece of-?
And then she exhaled and a few painful shards of honesty were forced out with the air:
“I am. Of course I am but I’m also crap at talking and me going back and imposing my general social inability upon him for a little longer is more likely to dissuade him than persuade him.”
She remembered Emma in the village ‘police station’ telling her that she spoke like a book and she realised that she did. Or at least, she did when she spoke more than monosyllabically which was, admittedly, rare and if it were not for the marked difference between her accent and the crisp snootiness of her current classmates’ she might have sounded as posh as the Kent-dwellers she enjoyed mocking.
She also remembered telling Emma that she had to move on. She remembered that she needed to stop being a hypocrite for once.
“Don’t tell me you’ve set your own expectations as low as everyone else,” Mum said and Lucy shrugged.
She could feel herself tearing in two. It didn’t hurt; she could feel old and ugly garments peeling back like sunburn. She was pressing herself out of the shape she’d cut for so long.
“OK.” She said. “And then we’ll go home afterwards.”
Lucy was insatiable when it came to crisps. They seemed to draw her fingers back again and again; enslaving the parts of her she was too weak-willed to take control of. Not that she minded much anymore. She’d been overweight for so long that she was accustomed to it, if not to the words that came with it.
“Sit,” she commanded Mum. “Yesterday we did your thing… today we do mine. OK?”
It was one of those interminable August evenings over which the dusk seemed to stretch forever before finally submitting to the night of creeping chill. As with summer, she could never quite discern when the evening begun and ended but it spanned like elastic above any attempt to fill it.
The lounge was not quite light and not quite dark and, having conceded to her mum’s ardent love for courgettes and Monopoly the previous evening, Lucy had filled it with bowls of Doritos and a box of pizza. The first disk of an old box-set was in the DVD player and the sofa house was hushed with anticipation for its beginning.
“It’s been too long since we watched anything together,” Mum said with care while Lucy’s finger hovered over the play button, “It’s always you on your own shut up in your room on your laptop. I can’t tell you how nice it was yesterday to not have you disappear off to the internet after dinner.”
Lucy was calm enough to realise that this was not intended as an insult and she acquiesced vaguely.
“Yeah,” she said and set the disk running. The television set let out a round of customary clicks of static as it got to work. It probably ought to have rendered the lounge unsafe but they’d learned not to worry themselves too much with it over the years.
They only got through the first thirty seconds of logos, however, before Lucy realised that she was crowded with things she wanted to say and so permitted her finger to twitch back to the remote.
“I’m sorry, you know.” She apologised for every crime she’d committed with the speed of a blunt pencil. “For being unsociable. And for all the other stuff.”
“Oh, Lucy, no. You-” Mum didn’t seem to have many words; Lucy had too many and she could not fit them through her lips.
“I mean it; I hate how separate we are but we left it too long and it became habit and I always feel so guilty for how I left you cleaning things up on your own but – no matter how much I wanted to cross back to you – there was too much distance in between.” She stared at the crack in the sofa cushions which divided them and it seemed to her that the tectonic plates stood there beneath them, for once pressing rather than receding. “You can’t understand it because you’re a decent person and you’ve never been what I’ve been but I know that I stopped being able to think of words to say to you and I stopped being anything more than someone else’s daughter to you and you stopped being anything more than someone else’s wife to me. And for a while now I’ve hated how the things we don’t say to each other are louder than the dumb, pointless things we do say.”
“It’s OK, Mum. It’s my fault.” Mum was like a piece of homework that she wrote down and then forgot about or procrastinated over until she could almost believe that it didn’t matter.
“It seems stupid to tell you this now but I feel like saying it anyway so… The truth is that the kids at school back in London bullied me after Dad got sent down and so I did the only thing that I could think of to stop them. I tried to make them scared of me instead of me being scared of them – and of Dad. And that’s when I started screwing everything up. If you go upstairs and look in the top drawer of my cupboard you’ll find a couple of cigarette packets. And I’m sorry. And – no matter what everyone might think – I’m not proud of them. But, at some point between the time that we stopped being mother and daughter and today, they became too much of a habit not to keep buying them.”
She returned her attention to the seismic crack between the two of them.
“I’m sorry. You wanted something decent and you got a shitty husband and shitty daughter.”
Mum breathed as though she had slipped while sewing and punctured her finger. The injury was not a big one but it was painful and shock made it catch in her throat.
“I really wish you wouldn’t use that word to describe yourself, Lucy,” she said and she sounded like a teacher correcting curses despite the love she dealt the words with.
Lucy scowled and hoped the conversation was not about to get sentimental. Regardless of what Mum said, it was true; she had spent her childhood shadowing her father and so it was only natural that she had grown into his carbon-copy.
“I meant it, Lucy.”
They left it at that and, whilst unconvinced of her mother’s conviction, Lucy appreciated that she had not had the arrogance to claim the blame for how their history had happened.
“We can talk more if you want.”
Lucy had not entered the library since her arrest. She suspected that Judy would – upon hearing the scandal – have given up on the bewildering plot that had led her to employ a difficult and sour teenager in the first place. She therefore suspected that she was doing both of them a favour by staying away; it saved them from the embarrassment of Judy attempting to show her the way out in kindness.
It was better, she had decided, to leave quietly and not make a scene. She did not want to have to face Judy’s gentle half-smile and her timid reluctance to get her hands dirty. She was sweet but she wasn’t the kind of person who’d want to touch something that might stain her floral cardigan.
If it had not been for the rain, she might not have ever returned. She would have been forever dodging out of the village’s sight, trying not to tarnish its inhabitants.
The weather, however, had other ideas. It was raining in its murderous mid-August way and, as such, Lucy’s jeans had absorbed the weight falling from the sky to the extent that they resembled armour. Her shirt grew steadily stickier and more translucent as drops of water oil-slicked off her nose and chin. She was at least ten minutes from home and her canvas shoes were sloshy.
The library door to her left opened and ejected a plastic-wrapped fossil who bore a golfing umbrella. The man did not notice her as he shuffled away with his head tucked down but she noticed him and the lights in the building behind him.
Necessity overrode resolve and so, after hovering for a moment of indecision, Lucy chose to step from one source of discomfort to another.
It would be best to stay to one side, she thought, hiding among the books. That way she could make a quick getaway if she needed to and might conceivably avoid making any eye contact with her former employer. The longer she rifled damply through pages, the less satisfied she felt with the shelves she was trying to burry herself in. There was no redemption or relief in the words she skimmed around; each blurb sounded lamer than its predecessor. For too long she’d kept herself half-way content by putting her problems on hold and reading them out of her head.
Steam-drying in the warmth, she edged her way closer to Judy’s desk. At first she told herself that this migration was in search of a worthy novel but the only argument that convinced her was the alternative. The alternative argument was that she dared to want to solve something for once.
“Erm, excuse me?” She cleared her throat although there was nothing to clear from it and Judy raised her eyes from the ink stamp she was changing.
“Lucy,” the recognition was crisp but not hostile, “I was wondering when you’d remember that you have a job to do.”
“I – I, erm. I was, like-”
Judy, removed her glasses and made a show of wiping them clear. Lucy’s uneasiness rendered her fascinated.
“It’s quite remarkable, isn’t it, the way everything grinds to a halt?”
Lucy did not know what to say, so she squelched her toes inside their socks.
“Lucy, I know why you kept away but I don’t employ you to stay at home. I took a delivery of some additional books the other day and they’re out the back waiting to be dealt with.”
“Right, I’ll er-”
Her shoes were, she noted, like swamps.
“They’re – how should I say it – a bit more up-to-date.”
“I thought classics were essential,” Lucy could feel a smile reaching out of her, a smile she never realised she had in her, and she didn’t know whether or not she ought to bite it back.
Judy shook her head, “An intelligent employee taught me otherwise.”