I had no idea what had happened during that night, after I’d fallen asleep inside my scratchy cotton sheets and the only good pyjamas I’d packed. I’d only packed enough clothes to last me about a week, because my mother had told me we’d be given a regulation uniform fairly quickly. Naturally, I’d had visions of garish orange jumpsuits or delicate handcuffs looped to look like bracelets, but the reality wasn’t so bad. The girls at the centre all wore black, like whichever twisted idiot designed it wanted to give some weird kind of insight to their souls. The uniform at Belnesse basically consisted of loose-ish trousers and a baggy t-shirt, but some of the girls I’d seen earlier had tightened their t-shirt with hair bobbles and elastic bands.
Fashion matters everywhere, I guess. Even in prison. It’s been much too ingrained into our lives not to matter – it’s unthinkable not to care about whether you look fat in this dress, or whether this suit brings out your eyes enough.
I had no idea what had happened from the point when I fell asleep, to the point just before I woke up. I'd say I was sorry for getting distracted - rambling on about fashion - but really, I'm not the slightest bit apologetic at all. I like distractions. They make life more interesting – make me realise that a conversation, and a person, and a life can make unexpected turns in unexpected directions at any time they feel like it.
I sleep like someone who’s never going to wake up. I heard nothing that first night at Belnesse, and I saw nothing but the parallel reality of my dreams. I suppose part of that might have been because I was in a different room to the rest of the girls, so was much less likely to hear anything during the night. Still. It's not like I'd have heard anything if I was in the dormitory, anyway. Besides, when I did sleep there, I didn't hear anything until it was too late. Like I said, I sleep like the dead. Like the spring beneath the snow. Even in prison.
When I woke up, at last, I got changed into the clothes sitting on my bedside table - my uniform, as if Belnesse was some sort of fancy prep school. The suitcase I'd taken with me from home had been removed to God knows where, and only my toiletries and hairbrush remained. They sat on the seat of the solitary chair in the corner of my room.
I removed them, and sat down in the chair with a creak, and then I thought about home.
I missed home. I missed my parents. I missed Isabelle.
I loathed Belnesse. Not because it had done anything particularly offensive to me as of yet, or because I'd discovered some underhand, government-run conspiracy theory running inside it. I loathed Belnesse just because it was there. Just because it had answered my parents' phone calls and analysed my records and decided I had a place here.
Someone knocked on the door, not being polite enough to wait for my answer before pushing it open. Meela stepped through, rubbing her bare arms as if she was cold.
"You awake?" she asked, as if it wasn't obvious.
"No," I said, and she laughed like I'd told a funny joke. I forced a grin, but I think it came off more like I was baring my teeth or whatever. Meela tailed off to stand silent, and I think she was waiting for me to say something else. When I didn't - because I didn't really know her, and what was there to say? - she sighed, propping her body upright on my doorframe.
"You slept through the alarm," said Meela. "They let you, as well, 'cause you're new and all that. I wouldn't have been allowed to."
"Oh," I said, because I still didn't know what to say.
"You missed breakfast," Meela continued helpfully, but I hadn't even begun to register the hollow, hungry feeling at the pit of my stomach.
"Oh," I said again. If it was Sorianne and not Meela talking to me, she'd probably have hit me or something for being so steadfastly monosyllabic, but Meela was a much more easy-going mould of person.
"Anyway, visiting hours are almost over," drawled Meela. "And lessons are starting soon." She gave me a pointed look, which, if she were Joan or someone, would most certainly have been a pointed punch. "Come down when you're ready. Don't, like, put yourself out rushing or whatever." She rolled her eyes and stomped out of my room, leaving the door wide open.
I rolled off the chair and slammed it shut.
I hated, hated, hated Belnesse, and I hated, hated Rhian, and Meela, and Ms Cassels and everything about the place.
I wrapped my hatred around myself like a sort of black-trimmed blanket. Hatred was not very flexible, as it objected to becoming my shroud. By that point, though, I was too unimpressed to care about that sort of thing as I forced my way into my uniform. It was kind of hard to do so, because it was a little too tight for me regardless - and the additional hatred made it almost ready to split down the seams. Once I was dressed, I didn't bother brushing my teeth - I was in prison, and hygiene was clearly the least of my concerns - and then I trudged through the door and down the steps, following the sound of brusque chattering.
I didn't bump into anyone on my way downstairs, but when the noise led me into the mess hall, the place was overrun with people like private schools are overrun with unhappy students with too much money. In the mess hall, there were not just adolescent girls like usual, but also adults and whining babies and shifty-looking boys of varying ages.
I realised pretty quickly that visiting hours hadn't quite finished yet.
It was weird, just standing there in the entrance. I was watching everybody talk and laugh and ignore each other, and I was noticing all the tiny, stupid little things like the way one girl wouldn't stop tucking her hair behind her ears and the fact that her brother?boyfriend? had odd socks on. And yet, no one in the hall noticed me watching them. It was as if the whole universe had inexplicably forgotten about me, as if I were only someone else's black biro stuffed into a pocket without a second thought.
I couldn't decide whether to feel sorry for myself, or wonder at the phenomenon that the world will continue on until it burns, regardless of me.
Ms Cassels was not there, so she was probably sitting at her desk, but several other members of staff circled the room like hawks, searching for anything weird or unusual. Had I been required to grade myself against a spectrum ranging from out-of-place to fitting-in, I would be on the very bottom rung. I just stood there, awkwardly, and people hurried by like the waves.
When I took another step into the room, I sort of expected the spell to come crumbling down about my feet and everyone to notice me. They didn’t, and I guess it was about that moment when I first started to realise that people are too interested in themselves to be properly interested in other people.
Someone on the other side of the room started shrieking, and at first I just assumed it was probably someone’s ignoramus baby. I’ve always hated babies, but I’ve also always been kind of curious, so I followed the noise like a stalker follows pretty ladies until I ended up on the other side of the room. It was a little bit horrifying when I noticed that it wasn’t an infant screaming, but actually a strained-looking fat woman with the most hideous bouffant hairstyle the 21st century has to offer.
I was pretty unsure what to do, partly because I’m terrible at comforting other people, and partly because Belnesse made me want to shriek myself. I wondered if I should cast down proper etiquette and join this random woman in a shrieking contest, but I’d had a proper upbringing with respectable parents, and it had been drilled into me from a very young age never to start a shrieking contest in the middle of a crowded hall. Especially not a shrieking contest with a middle-aged adult who I didn’t even know.
Because of my respectable upbringing, I decided it be a lot more reputable to simply approach the woman and ask her if she was okay. I had to push through a crowd of people, because it turned out that a lot of people were just as curious about the yelping lady as I was. I think I probably annoyed a lot of people, because I kept feeling myself standing on their toes. I reckon I murmured ‘sorry’ at least a dozen times. I say sorry a lot, as a rule. And then when people decide to tell me off for saying sorry too much I end up apologising for saying sorry. Sometimes it’s kind of embarrassing.
When I got to the front of the little circle forming around the woman, I saw that Rhian and Meela were also in the crowd. They were holding hands; Rhian’s hand was much daintier, a creamy white colour. Meela’s hand was much stronger and larger, and was a smooth chocolate brown.
No one spoke as the continued woman screeching.
The man stepped forwards, putting his hand on the woman’s arm kind of tentatively; like she might turn and cut it off if she wasn’t careful. “Madam,” began the man. “Madam, do calm down. Are you quite alright?” the man said, and then the man didn’t say anything else because the woman began to cut his arm off with her icy jet-spray of words.
“Piss off,” said the woman, her voice suddenly quiet and quavering like a leaf when it leans into its first kiss with the ground. The better parents in the crowd covered their younger children’s ears like swearing was contagious.
The woman shook off the man, who forgot about being comforting and stalked away from the crowd. Then she stepped closer to Rhian and Meela, holding out her hands in this kind of imploring begging.
“Mother,” said Rhian slowly, the words taking longer than they should have to ease through her lips. When I was standing there watching in the crowd like her life was some kind of messed up reality TV show, the first thing I thought was that her mother was objection to her sexuality. It’s a cliché – overly religious mother stuffed with 80s prejudice rips into her gay child like there’s something wrong with being gay. I mean, Rhian was bisexual, but whatever. You get the point.
I figured she must’ve been hooking up with Meela before they both somehow landed up in Belnesse but it turned out that she only met Meela after she’d been in the centre for a few weeks. The person she’d been going out before Belnesse was a boy called Oscar or something, and she’d loved him just as much as she adored Meela.
The woman – Rhian’s mother – lowered her hands, her face twisted into the bitter sort of plea that no one likes but you can’t help feel sorry for. “Please,” said her mother. “Rhian.”
And then I thought that maybe it was racism, and Rhian’s mother couldn’t bear her daughter associating with people of a different skin colour. Some parents are like that. It wasn’t, though.
The woman gestured at Meela in distaste, her face wrinkling and creasing like crumpled lined paper. “Did you know about this?” she asked Meela. “Did you try and stop her?”
Meela scowled at the woman, ready to defend Rhian. “For God’s sake, she wasn’t taking any drug.” Rhian looked down at her shoes, but she nodded.
Her mother threw her hands in the air, her voice bubbling up to a simmering high. “Then how do you explain the needle marks in her arm? This place was supposed to stop all that, all the drugs! It was meant to –“
“Mother, I’m not on drugs!” shouted Rhian, and although she’d been quiet every time I’d heard her speak before, now her voice shattered through her mother’s voice like words were glass. “I told you at the time that I was framed and I have never been on drugs but you won’t ever believe me, even though I’m supposed to be your daughter and-“ She stopped, a sob creeping up on her and swallowing her words whole.
The hall had quietened down now, enough that Rhian’s conversation with her mother was the loudest thing in the room. The staff had obviously noticed, and were making their way through the crowd, ready to stop the conversation if it escalated any higher. I was silent because I’ve never been the type to interfere in other people’s arguments, mostly because I’m too scared to and also because I like to think of myself as at least a little bit considerate.
A staff member grabbed hold of the woman’s arm, attempting to soothe her despite the absence of hot tea or blankets. “Excuse me, Ma’am, but you’re disrupting everyone else, and I really think you should try and calm down for the benefit of your daughter and everyone here…Visiting hours are over soon, and everyone would like to make the most of them, I’m sure.”
Rhian’s mother shook her head. “My daughter is taking drugs. Here. This was meant to be a safe place for her, but there’s needle tracks in her arm and I…God almighty, just, please…Search her room or something. I won’t stand for her throwing her life away like this!”
The staff member laughed, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone look as affronted as Rhian’s mother did then. “Oh, that? All the girls had to have a series of compulsory medical injections, Ma’am. You signed a form about it – I’m sure you’ll remember. She certainly isn’t taking anything illegal.”
Rhian’s mother sighed in relief, and then paled. She spun around on herself in a fluster, and she probably meant to apologise to Rhian like any decent person in her position would. She let out a small moan, and then let the staff member escort her out of the mess hall.
Both Meela and Rhian had disappeared from the crowd.
I turned away, dragging myself over to an isolated corner of the room.
I’d felt sort of weird, and awful, when I was standing in the crowd. It was like I’d been intruding on someone else’s private conversation. Despite the fact that the ‘private conversation’ was in the middle of a busy mess hall and I had every right to be there and watch the exchange like there was nothing good on TV.
Someone barged me with their shoulder, and I turned around and tried to look like I was strong enough to break their neck. A boy, slightly taller than me, stood with a slight smile slung across his face.
“Bet the old bat feels awful now. Right?” he said, jerking his head at Rhian’s mother. The crowd around her was beginning to melt away. I wondered absentmindedly if under any circumstance people would actually melt, or whether they’d just burn like the Sibylline Scrolls.
“Mhm,” I answered sagely, because I was kind of surprised, my thoughts being interrupted so suddenly and everything. I decided that the boy didn’t look particularly menacing, and I shrugged. “Oh. Yeah. I feel so sorry for her daughter.”
“Do you know her?” asked the boy.
“Ish. I think her name’s Moira or something,” I said, even though I knew her name was Rhian. Sometimes lies just escape from my lips like my mouth is a prison cell – I can’t help it, it just happens.
“Cool,” the boy said, and I knew he didn’t think it was cool in the slightest. When people answer you with ‘cool’ it generally just means that they don’t care, which is funny. In school, the coolest people are always the ones that don’t ever seem to care about grades or detentions or reports or stuff.
“I’m Gabriel,” said the boy, still smiling.
“Cool,” I said, because I didn’t know what else to say. “I’m Haydrienne.”
“What?” I said, because I suddenly felt like I had to be defensive in front of this boy that I didn’t even know. I think I blushed, and that made me blush more.
He pushed his hair out of his eyes, frowning slightly. “Um…Is my hair sticking up?” he muttered, as it fell into his face again. He had quite a nice face, if I’m honest. He looked sort of like a mixture between a dog and a horse, but in the nicest way possible.
“What?” I asked again, because I knew he hadn’t answered my question.
“My…um…” He bit his lip, but he must have chewed it too hard because it started bleeding, just a little. His neck was beginning to colour a deep red, matching his t-shirt, and his ears were going the same way. “My hair. Is it sticking up?”
“No, I mean before. Why did you look at me like that?” I asked him, and I think I must have looked a bit too angry because he held his hands up in mock defence.
“Oh. I…” He rubbed the back of his neck and looked down. When he turned his face back up to look into mine, he was smiling again, just slightly. “I just… What kind of a name is Haydrienne?”
“A unique one.” I rolled my eyes, puffing my cheeks out. It’s not like I’d never been asked about my name before. When I was younger I’d always tried to think of something witty to say when people asked me about it, but I’ve never been the kind of funny quick-thinker who can pull stuff like that off.
The boy tried to raise an eyebrow, but ended up looking a little like a constipated squirrel. A constipated squirrel-dog-horse. “Seriously though? Haydrienne?”
I snorted. I can be something close to hostile when I feel like it. “It’s not like you’ve got the world’s best name or something.”
Gabriel’s lip quirked. “Yeah, but I mean at least my name’s normal. Yours is…kind of weird.” He paused. “No offence.”
“None taken,” I said, and then I inflicted the most scornful glare I could on him because it’s obviously not done to insult people’s names when you’ve just met them. If someone had looked at me like that, I probably would have run off to hide in the toilets or something, but the boy just stood there. Looking at me. Like I was some new exhibit in a zoo.
“What’re you looking at?” I asked, squaring my shoulders and moving to walk away.
He smiled. “It made you look kind of pretty, the way you suddenly got so wrapped up in your own thoughts.”
“Thanks,” I said, because that was the automatic response I always gave to compliments. Or I complimented the person back, but I didn’t feel like searching for something good to say about Gabriel. I looked on his compliment as payment for being rude about my name.
“I think it might just have been a trick of the light. You look perfectly average now.” He grinned at me, showing his teeth.
I groaned, both inwardly and outwardly, and then stormed into the classroom Sorianne had shown me yesterday, waiting impatiently for lessons to start. Pretty quickly, visiting hours ended and the small room filled up with girls.
I concentrated on the lesson and I sat next to Meela and I forgot about Gabriel.