Dinner was at seven. At home, we’d always had dinner unnecessarily early, between five o’clock and five-thirty. My parents both balanced high-paying jobs in the government on top of looking after Isabelle, and it was one of the only times of the day that both of them were free for long enough to sit down and do something other than working, like eat. My parents always wanted us to eat together as a family, no matter what. They told us that it strengthened our bond, and other crap like that. Like they were in training to become inspirational gurus or something.
The four of us – Isabelle, Mother, Father, and I – sat making small-talk around a large, circular table, with this flimsy fake marble over the top. The bottom of the table was made of something very close to cardboard, and my mother always used to warn us that if we sat on the table-top, the entire thing would crack into a million shards and smithereens, and we’d be the ones who had to pay to repair it.
That didn’t stop me from sitting on the table-top, of course, and it never did crack once.
Dinner at Belnesse was very, very different. For a start, the table wasn’t circular.
There were four different tables, all abnormally long and all abnormally rectangular. The one furthest away from the door was for the staff, and the other three were for the girls. Although there were places set for about one hundred and something of us, I was only ever going to have to interact with the girls on my table. (There were thirty-seven of them, not including me. I counted, one time, when I was bored.)
Girls were divided into tables not on age or on crime but, I supposed, on acadamic ability. It’s not like we just sat and plotted and schemed every day: we actually did have classes, and they were hell. Even teenage criminals need an education, after all. They didn’t ever explicitly tell us that the girls on one table were cleverer than on another, but when one set of us gets handwriting practice and another is told to hurry up and solve five different simultaneous equations in four minutes, I figured that it wasn't exactly difficult to work out.
The tables you were in were also the lessons you were in and the dormitories you were in and the common room you congregated in, so I was on the middle table – which I took to mean I was of average academic standard – headed by Sorianne and Joan.
It was kind of insulting, actually, as I’d always thought of myself as pretty clever. I suppose when my teachers messaged Belnesse with my levels they must’ve thought differently, but I don’t exactly know why. I was a good student, before I dropped out to go to criminal camp. Not straight A’s, but definitely in the top ten percent of my year.
When we filed into the hall we were in a queue, like one for school dinners. It was odd, because I was expecting criminal girls to be the opposite of polite, but we went up to the canteen one by one, most people saying thank you to the fat old woman who served them. The staff were already eating when I finally got my meal (this weird, lumpy mashed potato and gravy concoction) so after I’d fallen down into a seat beside Sorianne I didn’t care about how gross the food looked and just wanted to eat. I’ve found that food makes even the worst situations a little better, even if it is as disgusting as it is at Belnesse.
Sorianne stopped me as I reached for my fork, knocking it out of my hands and clattering on to the table. It was plastic – as if whoever had set the table had been terrified metal cutlery and murderous teenagers would lead to nothing short of dead bodies strewn across the floor like decoration.
“Not yet,” she said, her voice this confusing shade of scathing that I knew immediately to be wary of. Then she went back to her conversation with Joan, ignoring me.
The girl opposite me leant forwards, grinning sympathetically. “You can’t start eating until they tell you to,” she said, gesturing over to the staff table. “And they don’t usually tell us to start eating until they’re half way through their own food.”
“Don’t you think that’s sort of unfair?”
“Life’s unfair,” she said shrugging. “Everything’s unfair.”
“Oh,” I said, because I didn’t know what else to say. The girl sitting across from me looked even more sympathetic, which was actually a bit annoying. I didn’t want sympathy – I’d rather have just been ignored, if I’m honest.
“I’m Rhian,” she said, smiling slightly. Her voice was more refined than I’d expected, which wasn’t a bad thing. She had probably gone to a really good school or had parents who actually properly cared about her or something. It was a bit weird though, as all the time I’d seen criminals on the news and stuff they were always really tough looking and lived on council estates or on the streets. Rhian was small, and definitely wasn’t the sort that’s ever had to struggle for money.
“I’m probably the least criminal criminal in this place,” continued Rhian. She nodded her head as she spoke, saying the words like an achievement. It was a nice change, to see someone proud that they hadn’t screwed their life up as completely as the next person. Sorianne had told me she was a pyromaniac with the sort of tone of voice that told me I was expected to be jealous of the fact. And she’d laughed when I told her I’d poisoned some people, like poisoning people was the sort of mundane thing her little sister did on weekends.
“What’d you do?” I asked Rhian, both because I was actually interested, and it would have been stupidly impolite just to pretend she hadn't spoken.
Her smiled turned kind of wistful. If my life was a movie, that would have been the moment she gazed off into the sunset and started sobbing like her tears were going to water the dying earth. Obviously though, my life isn’t a movie (I mean, who would want to watch a movie about a teenager murdering her sister?) and at a behavioural centre like Belnesse there’s a 99% chance you’ll get beaten up if you start crying and wailing about sunsets for no apparent reason.
Rhian rested her chin in her hands, ruffling her hair. It was blonde and curly, falling around her shoulders like soft, yellow feathers. “I cheated on an exam. Like, a really big exam. My parents thought I needed some time out, so they sent me here about three months ago.”
“It’s no big deal, really,” she said, fiddling with her earlobe. “I mean, it wasn’t just that. I was…um…I had some friends that were into...um…you know, drugs and stuff, and then I fell out with them and they ended up framing me so my parents got really, really pissed off… And then when I cheated on the test they decided that if they didn’t send me to Belnesse I’d end up as a street whore or something. “
The girl sitting next to her twisted round, beaming at me. She’d been listening to the entire conversation, but didn’t bother to introduce herself as well, which was kind of rude. “Sorry, is she scaring you?” said the girl, indicating Rhian.
“What?” I asked, jumping back in my seat a little because I think that things like people interrupting conversations used to scare me a bit, back then. After a week at Belnesse I got used to it, because conversations being broken in half were facts of life, there.
“I said, is Rhian scaring you?” the girl drawled easily, smirking at Rhian so that her eyes scrunched up into her face. “She’s a very scary person.” The girl laughed. It was this hoarse, throaty kind of snicker that I couldn’t help but smile at. The girl’s laugh sounded kind of like a frog farting out happiness.
“I am not scary!” cried Rhian, in this kind of indignant way, even though it was obvious she didn’t really mean it. She probably liked it, to be honest. People all tend to deny the stuff they like most of all, in an odd attempt not to show that they’re happy. I suppose happiness is so rare in so many people these days. It would make everyone else jealous if people showed they were feeling like they could jump across oceans with their joy. And that’s sad.
Rhian shrugged at me like I was some sort of afterthought, pointing at the girl next to her. “This is Meela.”
Meela pulled a face at me. “What’re you looking at?” Then she laughed again- a kind of wheezing cackle- and I could tell she was delighted with herself.
“I’m Haydrienne,” I replied, but no one answered because suddenly Meela and Rhian were kissing and I was too shocked to say anything else. I mean, I was in a room with over a hundred girls – and it made complete sense that they weren’t all heterosexual. It was just that I’d never seen an actual girl who enjoyed kissing other girls in real life, and I was sort of surprised that I’d never really fully registered that non-straight people existed until now.
I watched them in a kind of fascinated haze for about three seconds, before I decided girls exchanging saliva in public was just as gross as any straight couple exchanging saliva in public.
I’m not exactly a public displays of affection kind of person, I guess, no matter who’s kissing who. I never have been.
Meela pulled away from Rhian, still smiling. “Sorry,” she said to nobody in particular. I wondered if everything she ever said was a joke, because she looked anything but sorry. “I couldn’t help myself.” She paused, raising her eyebrows at me. “What did you say your name was?”
“Haydri-” I started to say, but Ms Cassels slamming down her cutlery and bustling to the front of the hall cut me off.
“Okay, girls!” Ms Cassels called. Everyone in the room - including the staff - stood up, scraping their chairs against the cold, grey linoleum. I stood up as well, a few seconds too late. Meela giggled under her breath until Rhian poked her to tell her to shut up.
“Girls,” said Ms Cassels, her words swimming languidly in way too much lipstick than is acceptable for a middle-aged woman. She blinked a couple of times, waiting for absolute silence, and then continued. “Darlings, before you start eating, remember that assessments are in a week’s time. Hopefully, you’re all prepared. If your parents want to come for visiting hours next week, please see me in my office and I’ll contact them. Visiting hours previously arranged are tomorrow, of course - oh, and don't forget about the off campus trip in two weeks.” She tilted her head back, nodded triumphantly, and made her way back to her seat.
Everyone seemed to take this as the cue to start eating, so I did too. My potato was cold, and even more revolting than it had been freshly made.
I raised an eyebrow critically at Rhian, who seemed the person most likely to actually answer my question. “Why did we have to wait so long just for her to say that?”
Rhian rolled her eyes good-naturedly. “Discipline, I guess.” She ran her hands through her hair, her face colouring this slightly sheepish shade of red. “Sorry - you’re going to think I’m a total idiot for not remembering, but what did you say your name was? I don’t think I quite caught it.”
“I’m Haydrienne,” I said. “Don’t worry about it.”
From my other side, Sorianne pronged me in the shoulder with her fork, pausing her conversation with Joan. “You’re allowed to leave before any of us,” she said, jutting her chin out in the direction of the exit. “Because you’re new. You get a room to yourself until you’ve settled in.” She paused. "You're allowed a week to settle in. And then that’s it."
I didn’t feel like I was ever going to settle in and I said so.
“Whatever. You can go, now. You’re finished. We all leave the mess hall half an hour later. Look-“ she gestured to the clock, “we leave at half eight. And you get to go now. I showed you your room before.”
“Why half an hour later? That seems kind of excessive,” I said, and wished immediately afterwards that I hadn’t. Sorianne glared at me, her brow furrowing. “I – I, what I mean is that I don’t see why you guys have to stay here for half an hour more even when you’ve all finished as well. It seems a bit unfair, don’t you think?” I stopped, scratching at the back of my neck just so I had something to do other than argue. “Are you lying to me? To get me in trouble or something?”
I think Sorianne probably hated me then, though it wasn’t like I knew why I had to leave earlier. “I’m not lying to you,” she said slowly, and then she didn’t say anything else. She just stared at me, glaring and glaring and glaring, and I scraped back my chair and speed-walked out of the mess hall up to my room. I didn’t get in trouble – no one stopped me or anything.
When I got to my room, I sat on the bed in silence and cried. I don’t cry much anymore, but I wasn’t the same person then. I didn’t really care about anything but surviving, when I first came to Belnesse, and now I want so much more. The way people change so much, so easily is weird.
Half an hour later I heard the other girls coming back from the mess hall, and I wondered again why I had to leave early.