Eventually, the nurse woke from her trance and sent me back to lesson. By that time though, the bell had rung for lunch, so I headed outside. Most people prefer to stay inside as winter worsens, but for me the attraction of the freezing air only grows as the world rushes towards darkness. There’s something about the fresh taste of the chill that draws me from the relative comfort of centrally heated buildings. I’d say it reminds me of home, but that can’t be it. All I’ve done for the last few years is try to forget my old life, I don’t need another reminder.
I lean against the oak, its silvery trunk now seeming somehow more real than before. Though rough, I prefer its bark to any bench or chair. I let my legs relax, sliding to the ground and coming to rest in between two great roots. The grass has mostly returned to its muddy green, though this patch has so far been in the shade, so retains its shine for the time-being.
To my left, the uninviting monotony of a school I dread, to my right, a perfect view over my hometown, a place I dread equally. The streets are all regular, planned out carefully back when this place was the home of one of the largest factories in England. Of course, it closed long ago, forcing the workers to live in poverty or search for new jobs closer to the city centre. Things haven’t really changed; very few people live here by choice. The school was built in an attempt to bring more people to the town to try and kick-start a recovery. In reality, the build boosted the rich districts, creating an even larger divide between my lifestyle and that of my peers.
I can recognise my street from here, the collapsed chimney of the house opposite mine and the caved in roof of the neighbouring house mark it out as the poorest, most neglected of all. We didn’t start off living there, the council gave us a newly-built apartment when we first moved, but of course, we couldn’t pay the rent. We were moved to lower and lower quality buildings, until eventually we found the derelict wreck we live in now, abandoned and unwanted – for good reason.
Footsteps stop my thoughts there, as Abi joins me under the branches. She sits, shuffling so that our shoulders are just touching.
“Do you live down there?” she asks. I nod slowly, looking at my hands now, still clutching Ellie’s invitation. She shifts her weight slightly on to me, leaning closer, trying to catch my eye. I let her keep trying for a while, before relenting and turning to face her.
I immediately notice what it is she wanted me to see. Blue hair. It makes a huge difference to her appearance; I no longer see any resemblance with my sister. Of course, her eyes are still the same, but they no longer contrast with her hair. Instead they match perfectly, exactly the same shade. The conformity somehow moves the emphasis away from her eyes and to her warm smile.
She notices my gawking, I feel my cheeks glow but she doesn’t seem to mind.
“You noticed then?” she says with a laugh.
“It’s quite a big chan-n-nge,” I manage. She laughs to herself, but stops quickly, looking at the ground in embarrassment. She seems to switch between this sheepish state and the most excitable I’ve ever known. She glances between me and the earth, hesitating.
“Do you like it?” she asks, her voice shaky. Her eyes lift to meet mine; I look again at the new Abi. I hadn’t really thought of it in terms of ‘like’ and ‘dislike’ but more ‘different’. Now I think about it, I probably never noticed that her cheekbones are slightly more pronounced than Naďa’s ever were, I probably never noticed how pale her skin is, I probably never noticed how thin her lips are. Simply by dyeing her hair, she has allowed me to see past the similarities and stop comparing her to a girl I will never see again.
“Yes,” I reply. My simple response is enough to prompt a grin.
“Thanks V! I wasn’t sure about it at first so I hid it, then everyone in my class told me it looked nice, so I thought I’d show you before next lesson. Have you had anything to eat?” she replies. I’m not sure what to say, aside from answering the question that ended her rushed response.
“N-No,” I say.
“You should really eat,” Abi replies. She opens her bag and starts rummaging for something. Her statement is a little unnecessary; I know I should eat, that doesn’t mean I want to.
“I’m n-not hungry,” I say, as plainly as I can.
“Eat,” she says, managing to replicate my bluntness. She hands me a sandwich from the lunchbox that she eventually found, after tipping the rest of her things onto the damp ground. I take the food reluctantly and take a small bite.
I hadn’t realised just how dry my mouth was, or how long it has been since I had something to eat. It takes much more effort to swallow than I remember, the bread irritates my throat, making me want to cough it up again, but I manage to keep it down. I keep eating as Abi watches, which I find a little odd, not that I’d say that to her. She has given me the first meal I’ve had for far too long, I’m not about to risk insulting her.
The last bite is interrupted by the bell, which makes us both jump. I thank her for the food, gratitude she refuses to accept, then pick up my bag and run to my next lesson. I hear her do the same.