My Name is Gemma Kendall
There’s only one thing I've had in common with anyone I've ever met: I've never felt sorry for myself, and they’ve never felt sorry for me either. Whatever the hell life throws at me; I just grin and bear it. Then I wipe the smile off my face. My name is Gemma Kendall.
The desk I'm sitting at is full of dents and bad graffiti. The classroom I'm in is full of test papers and retards. The teacher’s not here. It’s five past two so the teacher’s five minutes late now. I wish he’d hurry up. Most of my classmates are at the back of the room. They’re talking about something and sitting on desks and laughing at something while they sit on the desks. I'm sitting in the middle of the front row and staring forward. The chair is unpadded and hard and I really don’t blame them for sitting on their desks but I wish they wouldn’t because it means I can hear them more loudly and they're more likely to notice me. Next to me is Tommy. His nose is running. On the other side is a quiet girl whose name I don’t know – but she doesn’t matter.
I take one more look at the clock. The minute hand has found its way to the seven minutes past mark. The hour hand is still lumbering at two. On the white board below it had read the following message: ‘I’ll be late to arrive to today’s lesson, so please begin your tests in silence and I’ll be in soon – Mr. Jenkins’, but someone rubbed it out with a few swipes of their hand. The girl next to me is diligently scrawling something on her test paper. We’re meant to be in a Geography lesson so it’s probably about streams or people or Earth. I’ve not turned mine over.
To my right, Tommy has snot sliming down his philtrum. He’s seventeen and he has snot sliming down his philtrum. He’s wearing glasses that magnify the size of his eyeballs so that he looks permanently surprised and his mouth hangs open ever-so-slightly in a way that makes him look completely gormless. I have tissues. He could use one to wipe his nose. I’d offer him one but it would be easier not to.
I look back around to escape Tommy’s all-encompassing snot. A few of them have moved some other desks closer to the middle of their group so the neatly arranged classroom is no longer as neatly arranged. Their laughter seems to have dried up. They’re running out of things to say.
Shit. I think I just made eye contact with Sarah. Retreat. Retreat to Tommy’s snot. I turn my head back again quickly. Hopefully she still has a few bad jokes to crack and hopefully they’ll go down well which I'm sure they will because all the boys want to sleep with her and all the other girls want to be her friend. I don’t want either and she knows that and she hates it.
“What are you looking at?” I hear behind me.
I could hear them laughing at something one of them called Bryan did, but she cut his story short and now they’re silent.
I can feel their stares on the back of my neck. I can feel the hairs there rising in defence. I can feel the oxygen leaving the room as Sarah sucks it all up, ready to spit it back at me through a mouth of polished ivory.
“I’m talking to you, you fat bitch,” she says to my back. “Gemma. Why the hell were you staring at me?”
Silence. I know that if I keep staring forward she’ll just get more oppressive. But that’s what I do.
I tilt my head minimally to look back at the girl to my left, who’s continuing on with her test and secretly thinking how glad she is that what’s about to happen to me isn’t about to happen to her instead. To my right, Tommy’s philtrum is clean. I can see the snot on his sleeve and a bit of it is left on his cheek, which is red and chubby and, actually, absolutely covered in the snot.
I look down at my desk. I can hear Sarah approaching me behind my back. My exam paper is still overturned and I can see a faint outline of some sort of geographical diagram on the last page. I turn the test over and pick up my pen. Eyes down, I see her enter at the far right of my peripheral vision. She’s wearing white-laced sandals. Her toes are perfect and tanned, with nails stained by a red polish without cracks. I can see up to the knees of the white jeans which reach her ankles. Next to them, I can see my own shoes. They're black and shoelacey. My thighs look like two slabs of whale meat next to her poles. Two generous portions, crammed into black jeans and wrapped up in a black and white belt secured tightly through the second hole.
The test is homemade. The front page just has the word “Name” printed in the middle followed by a colon and seven full stops. I try to write Gemma Kendall on the full stops but before I get to the second ‘e’ she’s snatched my pen and thrown it on the floor. For some reason, her friends laugh.
Palms flat on the table, I look up at her. I'm taller than her usually but she’s standing and I'm sitting so she’s towering over me. She’s perfect. About 5 foot 7 with blonde hair that covers about a third of it. It’s wavy at the top. Curls at the bottom fall like melted white chocolate around her breasts, which are hidden by a white woollen jumper which rests just above her belly button. All of her features are small and petite and slight and perfect except for those breasts, which are much larger but still just as perfect.
I look straight into her eyes. I am a mere reflection in two hazel chasms. I am a fat pale smudge wound in black, deep at the heart of her pupils.
Somehow her words are beautiful. Her voice is as soft and wistful as it is merciless. I can see her friends starting to gather around us now. Even Tommy stands up to join in the fun. Next to her he looks pathetic.
I get up slowly. I push out my chair and I push my hands against the table and I get up. I can see the bruises on the backs of my hands and the cuts around my nails. At least my wrists are hidden. I drag down each of my sleeves in turn to keep it that way.
Now standing, I look into her eyes again. Even in the reflection I think I look pale. I’m sure my eyebrows look unkempt, that my hair looks greasy. Eventually I’m standing up straight and I’m taller than her. Bigger.
Without a word, she slaps me. She slaps me, and everyone laughs. Some people cheer. She slaps me round the face and I wince and she looks over to her friends and I wonder what it feels like to have hands so slender, so tanned. I don’t notice my cheek is bleeding until she slaps me again in the same place and it stings more than it should.
“Every single person in this school hates you, you fat ugly whore,” she says, emphasising the last three words.
People are egging her on. The room has suddenly come alive. The teacher still isn’t here and she pushes me with full force. I trip slightly and fall onto my chair which skids out from behind me until I'm on the floor.
On the wall behind her, a fly. I focus on it. All my attention. I watch it rub its arms together. I hope it knows, somewhere inside its tiny brain, how much I’d love to kill it. To squeeze it between my thumb and forefinger and watch its wings splutter until it dies.
But it flies away.
Sarah grabs my hair. She’s pulling my hair and it really fucking hurts. I can feel hairs tearing at my scalp and it’s agony.
“Heard about what happened to your dad.”
I say nothing. That bitch can’t mean what I think she does.
She drags my head down and thrusts her knee towards my face. Only, before her knee connects I stick out a hand and swipe it away. The silly girl is so weak. So small compared to me. The damage I could do to that face.
“I’d probably kill myself too if you were my daughter.”
And then I finally begin to do it.
First I push her. She takes a couple of shocked steps backwards and puts her hands on the desk next to her for support. Some of her hairs fall out of place. I like that. She steps towards me again and I find myself pushing her back again, harder this time.
“Who the hell do you think you are, you fat slut?”
“Just leave me alone.”
“What did you say?” she asks, her finger pointing rigidly into the middle of my face.
I bat her hand away and she tries to slap me again. Only, I slap her first. I push her and slap her again and she falls to the floor weakly. From the floor, she puts her arm up to me in surrender. I can see tears in her eyes. I hope they're the sort of hot, painful tears that you think you can hide but which everyone can see, and deep down you know how pathetic you look to be crying like a perfect little bitch in front of everyone after a round of the same fight you’ve started hundreds of times before.
I squat down, each of my whale blubber thighs on opposing sides of her chest, and smash the fists I didn’t feel myself clenching into her face until they redden with blunt trauma and her blood. I get three punches at her before I'm dragged up by each arm by two boys. I'm screaming at Sarah now. Something about dad. They can probably hear me in every classroom in the sixth form but I don’t care.
Mr. Jenkins sprints through the door, panting and holding a powdered doughnut, and looks at me, still yelling, being held back by two boys, then at the perfect Sarah on the floor, covered in blood. He darts in between us both and turns to me. My lip is bleeding and there are scratches on my cheek. There are tears in Sarah’s eyes but none in mine. Mine are all long gone.
I've already turned to leave by the time he gathers up the composure to try and deal with the situation.
“Get the hell out of my classroom,” he snarls, “right now.”
I don’t realise till I reach the door that I've forgotten my pen. I decide there and then to leave it behind.
It isn’t long until I'm back at my house, putting the key in my front door and turning it to the right and swearing before remembering it’s the wrong key. Eventually I’m inside my lounge. The curtains are closed and the television is muted and its light is spilling out onto the carpet to illuminate the woman who is my mother, whom I wish was asleep. I try to ghost past her but the slamming of the front door has alerted her to my presence and before I know it she’s standing up and holding the phone in her hands and I’m wondering if she still cares if I can tell she's been drinking.
“Sit down,” she commands. I sit.
An LED blinks on the phone in her hand. She recounts the call. The students’ testimonies of me attacking a girl for no reason. The lessons I've been skipping and the detentions I've had and the grades that’ve been slipping and how I can’t use what happened as an excuse anymore because I'm too old for that. Before I have a chance to ignore her, she’s telling me again, this time remembering to add that I make her sick.
“The school had to convince that girl’s parents not to press charges. It’s fucking serious, Gemma,” she says, emphasising certain words with a slight slur. “It’s fucking…serious.”
I look past her at the television set displaying a silent version of the How I Met Your Mother episode where something funny happens. If only it was off. I wish its light wasn’t spilling out into the lounge. I wish we were both in complete darkness, and then I wish she was gone. I can see an empty glass bottle on the floor and I can see her face and that’s worse.
“I…don’t want you living here anymore.” Nothing. “Since Graham died, I…” she trails off. I still don’t help her out. “It’s been difficult, but I’ve tried so hard to keep this family together, and you don’t even care, do you?” An ad break starts on the television. “Do you? Answer me!”
I look up at her, almost seeing a caring mother fighting to break out in those eyes of hers. Then I twitch my nostrils a couple of times and a whiff of apple vodka brings me to my senses. The advert changes.
My mother goes to the bar in the corner of the lounge and pours something see-through into the tumbler she picked up from the floor before going over there. She turns her back to me so I can only imagine her taking a sip to test it’s as strong as she likes it.
“I want you…gone. In the next seven days.”
She’s facing the wall and I can hear a glugging again so I can only assume she’s drunk the drink in one go and now needs another.
“You’ve been permanently suspended. They don’t want you there, Gemma. And I don’t want you here.”
She steps towards me until she’s so close that I can smell cheap vodka and microwave lasagne on her breath. I look up at the smoke stains on the ceiling.
“You’ve got a week to get yourself on benefits or a job or something. After that you’re on your own. Go live at your boyfriend’s, I don’t care. You’re not worth the trouble anymore.”
I bite my knuckles.
“You never were,” she adds.
I peel myself from the sofa and trudge upstairs to my room, where I lock the door, relight my last half-joint, and smoke it.
My boyfriend is staring at me with doped up eyes, using all his brain power to grasp what I've just told him. He takes a puff of the weed he’s far too stingy to share.
“So…” he mutters, smoke billowing as he speaks, “when are you…going back?”
“It’s a permanent suspension, Russell.” He sucks on the weed again. “The clue’s in the title.”
I lean forward and snatch the joint from his mouth before he has a chance to ask me what the word permanent means. Putting it to my lips, I close my eyes and breathe in, wondering whether I’d bother fighting it if the smoke piling into my lungs began to choke me to death from the inside out.
Russell twirls half-heartedly on a desk chair in the middle of the room. The weed hasn’t hit me yet. Stray wisps of smoke float in the light of his desk lamp. I close my eyes and slow my breathing and try to block him out and why am I still not high? I want my mind altered. My personality split in two. Memories lost to ethereal nothingness.
I nudge my right leg to dislodge one of the pizza boxes clinging on for life at the other end of his bed. Shifting my weight until I'm lying sideways, I stare at him. I wouldn’t say my boyfriend is unattractive, but I’m thinking it. He’s taken the weed back from me now so I'm trying to hold what little I nicked off him for as long as possible. For a second or two, he stares dimly at me, the lighting so low he’s almost featureless.
“Do you care?” he asks.
The last few particles of weed float away as I murmur.
“I dunno. Your mum being a bitch? I guess, um, getting suspended? That Sarah girl getting away with tryn’a beat you up?”
“No. Course I don’t. Why would I?”
“I guess it just seems unfair. Who cares though, right? Don’t they hate you there, anyway?” He takes another toke. “I mean, like, everyone there despises you, right?”
“Only the ones who know I exist.”
I pick at a scratch on my cheek and wince.
“Oh. You gonna…you know…appeal, or whatever?”
“There’s no way I’m calling an…no, I’m not.”
There’s no way I'm calling an objection on the verdict that let me walk out of prison. Everything that happened in that room today – in that room for years – every punch I’ve taken and every lesson I’ve skipped out of fear and every brain-dead teacher who’s looked past the scratches on my face and told me that I need to buck my ideas up or I’d amount to nothing: I couldn’t care less anymore. It’s over now.
And so what if I amount to their definition of nothing? I’d rather be nothing on my own than everything with them. I wish they were never born. I wish they would all just fucking die.
“I’m just glad it’s over.”
Russell nods slowly and turns to his PC.
“I’m gonna try and take a nap,” I mumble.
I shut my eyes and try to fall asleep, although I know I won’t be able to.
I wake up the wrong way round on Russell’s bed to the sight of him tapping away on the PC and the scent of smoked weed at my nostrils. The light is still gloomy and dank; I can't have slept for more than an hour or so. I cough a little and sniff a couple of times to let him know I've woken up.
“Thought you might’ve died,” he says, spinning around on his desk-chair.
“Better luck next time,” I sigh, conscious of a smile forming. “You got anything left to smoke?”
“Nah, sorry. I'm barely even high myself now.”
“Well I’m starving. You got anything to eat?”
He finds a tiny bag of Doritos somewhere and chucks them at me. I hate sweet chilli, but I eat them in record time.
“I hate sweet chilli,” I tell him, pouring the salty dust from the bottom of the packet into my mouth.
“Stop being such an ungrateful bitch, Gem.”
“Sorry,” I murmur, scrunching up the packet and flicking it to the floor. “It’s your fault I'm fat.”
“Yeah, well, you can lose weight when you’re dead.”
He chuckles at his own wit. I wish he wouldn’t.
“Oh, shit,” he exclaims, “I forgot to show you—”
Russell's mother knocks once and walks in holding a cup of tea in a chipped mug. She takes one look at me, sighs just loudly enough for me to hear, and places the cup of tea in an empty space on Russell's desk. Silently, she kisses him on the cheek and picks up a couple of the spare mugs and plates and Monster Munch packets scattered around his desk before heading back to the door.
“Aren’t you gonna offer Gemma anything?” Russell asks, gesturing to me as he speaks.
His mother stands there, frozen, with one high heel in the safety of the hallway and the other planted squarely on Russell's carpet. She looks to me and offers a sickly smile through caked-on red lipstick.
“I’m sorry, darling, but I didn’t realise she was here. Didn’t hear her come in. We’re…out of tea bags. I’m sure you won’t mind sharing?”
“Then I'm sorry, Gemma.”
She flashes me that same smile so I send one back.
“And please can you take a few of these bowls and plates downstairs occasionally, Russell? It doesn’t have to be perfect in here, but it looks like someone dropped a bomb in a pig-sty and it smells –” she lifts her nose and audibly sniffs, “– disgusting in here.”
Without waiting for an answer, she turns away and closes the bedroom door, cutting the light once more in half. Russell picks up the mug and drinks a tiny amount of tea. He slurps. His t-shirt is baggy. I’m wondering when he last showered.
“Get up and come see this,” he says, breaking the silence, perhaps aware I'm passing judgement again.
I drag myself off the bed and perch on the edge of his lap. His legs are bony and hard. I barely fit, but he doesn’t offer me a pillow - or even seem to notice how uncomfortable I feel on top of him. There's a YouTube video up on his PC. Russell's desk lamp is trained on a plate holding half an old sandwich which I'm sure is mouldy but I tell myself it’s probably just the lighting.
He double clicks on the video to make it full screen before I have a chance to see the title. I'm treated to three-and-a-half minutes of people blowing up plastic figurines with a lighter and some explosive powder called tannerite, which a voiceover claims can be bought legally. I turn my head to see the illuminated face of Russell, who’s still staring at the screen and grinning like a retard. I grab the mouse and I click it.
“I think I’ve seen enough.”
“Oh, right, yeah, sure.” He looks disappointed. “Well guess what?”
“You know how they said it could be bought legally? Yeah? Well…”
He wraps his arms around me and opens the drawer underneath his desk. He does well to navigate my body’s circumference. In the drawer, I can see spare batteries and an old computer mouse and wires and a couple of condoms and some empty baggies, which he digs his hand into to retrieve a smallish white pot. He moves his arms away from my waist and, unscrewing the cap, thrusts a tub of grey-white powder in my face.
“Guess what this is?”
“No idea…flour? Cocaine? A midget’s ashes?”
“What? No. It’s the stuff from the video I just showe—”
“I’m not retarded, Russell.”
I’d make more jokes but he wouldn’t get them.
“Apparently,” he tells me, indifferent to my indifference, “they replace, um, aluminium powder with…something else. So you can get it going with a lighter.”
“Which, yeah, is cool.”
He taps the bottom of the pot again and peers an eyeball down to see. I lean to the left slightly, hoping that if it spontaneously explodes he’ll at least make a decent human shield.
I look back at the freeze-frame on the monitor.
“I need to get out of here, Russell,” I tell him.
He leans back slightly in his chair.
“Out of my room?”
“Out of my life. To a city that’s not London. Birmingham.”
“Where’s this coming from?”
“Where do you think? The highlight of my day was watching that shit!” I say, gesturing to the monitor.
I can feel him nuzzling his face into the back of my neck. I don’t know if he wants to comfort me, get me naked or wipe his nose. Whatever he wants, I ignore it.
“I've been kicked out of school, y’know? What am I still doing here? My mum hates me, wants me gone; your mum hates me, wants me gone. You’re my boyfriend and I'm not sure if you even like me. If you want me gone or not.”
“I do like you,” Russell says, burying his nose deeper into the back of my neck, “sometimes. And no, I don’t want you to go.”
He kisses my neck. I giggle silently and whisper for him to stop, unsure if that’s what I really want. I can hear the pot of whatever-it’s-called fall to the floor as he wraps his arms around me, and he won’t stop kissing me, and I think I'm starting to enjoy it, and I'm thinking that he's not that bad looking really as he slides a bony hand between my whale blubber thighs.
I close my eyes. For the first time that day, I don’t fight back.
I wake up sometime during the night, wide awake and embarrassed to have let my guard down. The room is silent and still, alive only with the lingering stench of stale sex. Russell's breath is hot against my lips as he lies there next to me, completely asleep, hidden somewhere amongst pitch black darkness. My right arm’s dead under his body. I reach down to the floor with my left and fish out my phone from a mountain of clothing. A cracked screen reads 1:27am. Russell stirs a bit and says hey, beautiful and I apologise for waking him up with the light of my phone and I mean it.
“It’s alright, I'm up now,” he whispers, half groggy.
We look sickly and green in the phone’s light. He leans forward slightly and tries to kiss me on the lips. I don’t stop him.
“How long have you been awake?” he asks, scraping a fingernail or two down my thigh.
“Not long. I've just been thinking.”
He moves his hand silently off my leg.
“About what?” he asks, probably not hoping for an answer.
“How I'm getting out of here. I'm thinking my mum’s wedding ring is worth at least a few hundred quid. Enough to get us a train ticket to anywhere we...”
“What are you talking about?”
“…want to go and she has no right wearing it still anyway. What do you mean what am I talking about? Russell? What does that mean?”
“I just thought that before, when you said that shit about leaving, you were...frustrated, y’know? That’s why I figured you’d want me to—”
“You thought you could fuck the restlessness out of me?!”
I forget to whisper during the last sentence. I already know where this conversation is heading. He’ll choose staying here and rotting with his mother over me.
“You know I didn’t mean it like that, Gem. All I'm saying is that it’s over now. And you’re here, in bed, with me. And it’s been a nice night and I don’t want you to ruin that.”
I let that one go. If he could see my face properly, he’d know to shut up.
“Just live for the moment, y’know? Yesterday’s gone. Enjoy now.”
Live for the moment? Living for the moment is jumping off a building because the fall looks fun. Sipping poison when you’re thirsty. Spending enough money on weed that you’re forced to live with your bitch mum for the rest of your life instead of moving out and becoming a man; it’s taking your own life during the five minutes things get tough, even though your daughter needs you.
It’s weak. Fightless.
“You’re full of shit, Russell.”
“It doesn’t matter.”
We lie there limply, staring at the black voids where each-other’s eyes should be and listening to the rhythmic hum of each-other’s breathing. His breath still smells like weed. He rubs his eyes. I think he’s about to fall back asleep before I want him to.
“I always planned on getting them back.”
“Christ, Gemma,” he sighs. “I'm not as stupid as you think I am, ok? Can you stop talking in riddles? You gonna, what - I dunno - shoot up your sixth form? Blow yourself up in the reception? Hunt down and kill your teachers one by one?”
He laughs and I hate it.
He needs to shut up. I've changed my mind. I don’t want to talk to him after all. I retrieve my right arm from underneath his body and turn onto my back. Half of my leg hangs over the bed and it’s cold and I’m pissed off now but it won’t matter as long as he takes the hint and falls back asleep so I can sneak home and be alone. My arm’s gone numb. I clench my fist.
“Just let it go then. Stop fighting a group of people who won’t even realise you’ve gone.”
“But they don’t deserve to forget me!”
I tried to ignore him but couldn’t. My eyes are starting to sting and it’s humiliating.
“And you’re right,” I choke, “they won’t realise I've gone. Unless I make them.”
“Why does it matter so much?”
Forcing the lump in my throat down my gullet, I take a couple of silent breaths. I kill my phone so even the greenish outlines of Russell's face disappear.
“It matters because I say it does, ok?”
“But why does—”
“Ok, fine, sure, whatever. It matters. I'm sorry. Let’s go back to sleep? Ok? We’ll talk in the…”
“I'm gonna burn it to the ground.”
“You heard what I said.”
I can sense his heart plummeting. His cogs turning. So fast I almost hear them clicking. I bet he’s wondering if I’m capable of arson. Does Gemma have it in her to drop that lit match? To step back and smile? To watch her prison glow orange until it’s nothing more than black ash and bad memories?
I’d been wondering the same thing, but now I know the answer.
“H-how, Gemma?” He’s stopped whispering.
“With that tannerite shit you bought. And I'm sure my mum’s got a plastic thing of petrol somewhere in the garage. I can get it without even waking her up. We’ll do it tonight…”
“…and the school will burn to the ground. No I won’t stop it! I’ll do it tonight. With or without you.”
“Where’s this coming from?”
“It’s always been there, Russell. You know that. And what you said was right, and it got to me, and the people at my school won’t just forget I existed.”
“Tell me you’re just fucking around.”
He doesn’t know what I'm capable of. Justice? Revenge? I don’t give a shit. I'm going to do this because I want to. Then, with him or not, I'm leaving.
And I’ll never come back.
I hate London. The smell, the sights, the people. I hate that it’s half past two in the morning and there are still people driving, clutching their steering wheels, the occasional burst of their headlamps the only thing separating me from near-total darkness.
I'm walking to the school. Every burst of icy wind is blowing fresh tears into my eyes. I can feel and hear my teeth chattering. Earlier, I picked up the pot of tannerite from Russell's floor and told him to meet me at the school. Then I went home and got the container of petrol from our garage. There’s some left - not much - but I found some firelighters, too, and they’re in my pocket. Through a crack in the curtains I saw my mother, passed out on the sofa, surrounded by bottles.
The school’s at the other end of the street. The road’s fairly busy, but that won’t save it. I can sneak into the school grounds, and after that it’s still a few hundred yards to the actual building.
I hear cars travelling in the same direction. Each time one approaches I shut my eyes and walk blindly, praying that one of us will spin out of control and end up on the wrong side of the pavement. I urge speeding metal to careen into my body. I want my death to be painless and absolute and sudden and now; my body nothing more than a smudge on the tarmac; my spirit an occasional thought at the back of the mind of whoever hits me; my suffering over before I commit an act of revenge I know I’ll regret.
I get to the end of the street and I'm still breathing. It begins to rain.
By the time I reach the school it’s absolutely pissing it down. Kamikaze raindrops are smashing one-by-one onto the concrete beneath me. I lean against the school wall and drop the petrol can to the floor, where it lands with a damp thud. There’s just one streetlamp. It’s dark enough that I can barely make out the rows and rows and rows of white-framed windows on the brick behind me. My clothes, completely soaked, are clinging uncomfortably to my skin, but all I can think of is Russell.
I check my phone. No texts. No missed calls. No credit. I dig out the lighter and my last packet of cigarettes. None left.
I toss the packet away in disgust. The wind picks up and drifts it to the surface of a nearby puddle. Ignoring the water and wet hair in my eyes, I look down at the lighter and run a finger down the ridges of its mechanism. It’s ice cold and slippery. I push down, more and more firmly, until it clicks to life. Against the backdrop of constant, never-ending rain, a flame appears. It’s floating, flickering, dancing in front of my face. Battered by rain it fights on. Raindrops force it down, try to kill it, but it fights on.
And it wants to grow.
I turn back around to face the school wall. I cram the lighter into my pocket and retrieve my phone. It’s three-thirty AM, it tells me; Russell should’ve been here fifteen minutes ago. I made it clear to him: three-fifteen at the school. Then I left without saying another word - before he had a chance to say no.
He’ll come though. I'm sure of it.
I need a way in. Feeling around on wet concrete, I eventually find what I'm after. I pick up a rock and grip as tightly as possible, then turn to face the window of the classroom I’d been perched against for the last few minutes. I squeeze with both hands. So hard it begins to hurt. So hard I'm sure the cuts around my fingernails are re-opening and the bruises on the backs of my hands are swelling and I'm wondering whether the liquid pouring down my sleeves is rainwater or blood.
I stare at the window. On one side: my reflection. A fat girl in a hood, above whom a streetlamp floats dimly. My face is bathed in shadow black enough that only rainwater can penetrate it. Beyond that, desks and unpadded chairs litter an abandoned classroom. I stare in silence at the pane of glass and watch my reflection raise the rock skywards.
I grip more tightly than I ever thought possible. Harder than the strength I have left should allow. Wounds re-open. My knuckles burn from where I punched Sarah. Rainwater fills tiny fresh cuts. With one last, loud intake of breath, I swing down with full force. The window shatters.
At first there’s just one jagged hole, so I keep swinging, downwards, until even the noise of billions of raindrops is masked by the sound of smashing. Glass flies in every direction. Stray shards catch the light of the streetlamp as they rise, all around me, before succumbing to gravity. Then, like dying fireflies, they fall - and what was once full of light and beauty is again just broken glass at my feet.
When the sound of rain returns I'm out of breath. Every inch of me is shaking with cold and trepidation. I'm soaking wet and my hands are throbbing. Ignoring it all, I throw the petrol container through to the carpet below, lift up a leg, and dig my shoe into a gap between two slices of glass along the window-frame. Reaching to the side, I hoist myself up. Wind whistles through the broken window, brushing an icy breeze against the back of my neck as I drop into the classroom.
Somehow, it’s even colder inside. In the darkness, I pace the room, occasionally crashing into a chair leg or the edge of a desk. Each time I clatter into plastic or metal I stop, frozen, convinced that a wandering passer-by will hear the commotion and call the police. I realise I need to calm down. To stop being such a bitch, slow my breathing. No-one is around for hundreds of yards. All I need now is an escape plan.
I creep to the far corner of the room, the sharp edges of the rock in one hand and the smooth surface of the wall against the other, and eventually find the door. A silver sliver of light is all I see of the handle, which I force down but of course it’s locked. I wipe a bead of sweat from my forehead and raise the rock once more above my head. It’s getting heavier. Gravity, not me, guides it to the door handle. I hear the clatter of stone on metal, but when I reach down I'm still locked in.
Dropping the rock to the floor, I take a few seconds to catch my breath. I turn away from the door and look through the shattered window at the other end of the classroom. I look past the streetlamp, the school gates, the road. I think of all the world out there, beyond everything I've ever known. I think of the people I’ll never meet; the friends I won’t find; the infinite number of experiences I’ll probably never have. I think of all that might be out there, and all that is out there, and for the first time tonight I’m wondering if this is worth it.
I'm soaking wet. Violently shivering. My hands are burning. Every inch of skin feels bloody and bruised. I'm standing in the deepest, darkest corner of an empty prison cell, locked behind a closed door, feeling more alone than I have in my entire life.
And I don’t think I can do it.
I whisper a swear word under my breath. I call myself a coward and grab my phone from my pocket. I press a button and the screen lights up, blurred slightly by lingering rainwater and the sprinkling of fresh sweat on my fingertips.
Nothing. Not even a text.
Suddenly, just as I'm about to throw the phone to the floor in blind fucking rage, it starts vibrating. I answer straight away, before Russell has a chance to settle himself into talking to me. Hand trembling, I bring it to my ear.
“Where are you?” My tone is hushed, even though there’s no-one around to hear me for hundreds of yards.
He tells me it’s a bad idea. Begs me to stop. Says something about the police - but I’m not really listening anymore. I hang up. He was always gonna let me down. The pussy. The cunt.
I march back to the window, not giving a shit what I bash into or who’s around to hear it. I'm whispering under my breath that I hate him. More than I hate this place. More than I hate myself. More than I hate my father, or my mother for failing him, or those pricks at my school for using it against me.
I barely notice the shards of glass cracking below me when I reach the window. The rain is deafening; heavier than I've ever seen it. For a second, I almost believe there’s a god hidden up there. That after all these years He’s finally noticed me, and even He’s conspiring against me, dropping His heavens to try and douse the flames I haven’t yet had the chance to create.
Well He can fuck off.
Clasping the lighter in my pocket, I take out the pot of tannerite and shove in a couple of firelighters. I fling that to the ground and pick up the pot of petrol, which I’d left by the window, and unscrew the cap.
Every breath’s a battle. My diaphragm rises and falls aggressively. My throat feels like it’s closing in on itself. Raindrops smash against the roof of the school like a hundred million hammers. It’s dark and my eyesight’s blurry, but I'm grinding my teeth together with a sense of determination stronger than anything I’ve ever felt.
Petrol sloshes around in the container. More raindrops fall. An icy breeze licks my face. With one last, heavy breath, I pour petrol to the floor. I'm soon frenzied, spraying it everywhere. I spit it in every direction, with every last ounce of force. My hands continue to thrash the container around long after it empties. Eventually I’m satisfied enough to throw it full-force to the floor in front of me, where it skids into the wall with a soft hollow thud.
I take a couple of steps backwards. Even in darkness the room glistens, the blinds sparkle, the ceiling shimmers with anticipation. I take out the lighter and hold it against my last firelighter, which fizzes to life in my hands. For a split-second, I watch the flame. Then, beyond hesitation, I toss it to the floor below the window. Fire swirls instantly in front of me. A wave of heat hits my face. The blinds erupt. The ceiling is on fire. Even the floor is alight.
Scalding heat envelops the room. The fire crackles and spits. I watch for a few seconds, my forehead instantly drenched with sweat, as flame snakes its way up to the ceiling. Suddenly, my eyes are stinging. Smoke is prickling my tonsils. I shield my face with my hand and blink a couple of tears down my cheek, unsure if it’s the smoke making me cry or the freedom.
I look out at what I’ve created - what I've destroyed - and begin to smile. So wide it hurts. Like my own lips are trying to break free and escape from the rest of my face. There’s no time for regret. Not yet. This, right now, is my moment.
And I'm going to savour every last molten drop.
All I can do is stare, teary eyed and mesmerised, at the fire, the flickering flames, the beautiful watercolour that every passing moment has suddenly become. And it’s lucky that the blare of a siren snaps me out of it, because I could have stayed here forever. I would have stayed, and stared, and smiled, until the fire and the smoke consumed me.
Instead, I throw the lighter into the blaze and turn to the door, which is suddenly completely visible in the light of the fire. The whiteboard beside it has returned, too, as has Mr Jenkins’ scrawl and a neat pile of test papers, already blackened and curled at the edges due to the heat, on the rematerialised desk.
I find the rock, lift it above my head, and swing down effortlessly at the door handle. It breaks off instantly. I push at the hole and hear metal fall to the floor on the other side of the door, which opens with just a hard shove. Heat still blazing at my back, I step into the corridor. The flames’ roar gets louder.
In front of me is another window. I pick up the rock and smash down a million times more than I need to and eventually clamber outside, uncaring whether or not the remaining shards of glass take chunks of my skin as I go.
I can still hear sirens, but I'm outside now. And I can feel the rain again. And I know a shortcut home through the school field. And I know I’ll be home long before they begin to even search for a perpetrator.
Halfway out the school grounds, I turn. Smoke is billowing into the sky. Flashing lights are in the distance and an alarm is ringing, and I think I can even make out the wail of police sirens already. It must have been Russell. His final fuck you.
I look upwards. Rainwater pours down on me, soaking me further, washing away any remaining guilt with the smell of smoke. I raise both arms to the sky and begin to laugh. I want to stifle it, but I can’t. I'm laughing harder than I have in my entire life. My diaphragm rattles with the force of it. My body contorts. Suddenly I'm crying. And I can't stop. And the tears are heavier and more meaningful than any I've cried in my entire life.
I stop laughing. I stop crying. I open my mouth and it’s instantly full, and so are my nostrils, and it’s in my eyes, and it almost feels like I'm drowning.
My phone tells me it’s four-twelve AM when I get home. I push against my front door, which creaks open with a dull whine, and instantly notice my mother’s head leaning on the armrest of the sofa. For a moment, I'm convinced that I can see the shadowy figure of a police detective there next to her, ready to take me away to a maximum security prison and lock me up and smelt the key and sell it for scrap metal.
Then I take a second. A deep breath. I realise that the TV’s still on, and my mother’s asleep, and unless Russell grassed there’s no way I’ll already be so much as a suspect.
My hoodie sticks to each soaking inch of my skin as I peel it off. I wipe rain from my face with my hand. Aside from my own shivering body, everything is still. Aside from the ringing in my ears, everything is silent. I wrap my arms around my chest and take a few more deepish breaths. The ringing in my ears begins to subside, replaced instead with the high-pitched electrical whine of the dead TV channel which a message informs me won’t return until tomorrow at 7pm.
Different features of the room come slowly into focus. I can just about make out a plastic lasagne tray beside the sofa and, if I concentrate, the smell of smoke on my clothes. I look at the window, hidden behind the thick, white curtains, and I can still make out the rain pattering against the glass like an irregular heartbeat. I pan my gaze across the room to the sofa. My mother’s breathing seems awkward, hurried and uncomfortable. She coughs dryly.
Running my fingers through soaked, knotted chunks of hair, I step forward and look down at her. My mother’s right arm is resting on her forehead, palm up. Her left arm trails down towards a red wine stain on the carpet. I look at her half-curled fist. The three upright bottles beside it. The gently shimmering ring around her finger.
Her hand slips from her forehead to the cushion below and I see her face in its entirety. I revel in her imperfections. Laud the grey hairs and the wrinkles and everything else that’s wrong with her that isn’t yet wrong with me. A tear slithers out her closed eyelid to the headrest below. For a few seconds I stand there, still dripping with precipitation, and stare. Then I bend down beside her and wipe away the tear with the back of my index finger. Smiling softly, I smear it on the scratchy woollen sleeve of her right shoulder.
I run my fingers down her body. To her chest. Down her stomach. Around the contour of her breast and then down her other arm, more aggressively. When I reach her lower arm I'm practically digging my fingers into her skin. She's instinctively trying to move her arm but I'm pinning it down.
I reach her wrist and slow down, smiling at the slow repetitive drumming of her pulse. I dig into her skin until she whimpers, then take my fingertips down to find hers, which close in around mine until she’s holding my hand.
Prising her fingers apart with my other hand, I stroke her golden wedding ring with my thumb. Deliberately, I curl my fingers around it; the constant reminder that she sees herself as the victim in all this. The cold, metallic accusation that my father’s fate was more my fault than hers. A ring around a finger, pointed in my direction.
I look back at her face, feel the ring against my thumb, and start to twist.
At first it doesn’t budge, so I twist harder. She winces in pain as one hand twists the ring to the left and the other twists her finger in the opposite direction. Our fingers interlocked, I look once more at her face. I study her exposed neck, which is permanently contorting with swallows and coughs as she struggles more and more for breath.
Her nostrils flare. She tries desperately to take in fresh air. Suddenly she’s choking, coughing, spluttering on nothing. All I can do is watch, intrigued, at the constant movement in her face as the muscles flex and contort and do everything they can to help her accomplish the instinct to breathe. Suddenly, she’s convulsing. I hear a gurgling sound from her throat and I look down at my own mother, who I think might be fucking dying in front of me.
She makes another retching sound. I stare, fascinated, at her face. Her eyes are still shut. Her entire head is bobbing forwards and backwards like she’s gasping for air. I hear a belching from her throat and, inches away from me, she’s sick. I jump backwards, disgusted. Clear vomit covers her face. I see it drip down on either side of her lips and ooze onto the sofa below her and fill her mouth and she gurgles but it’s still filling her mouth.
And I just stand there, frozen, watching her drown on her own vomit, watching her chest rising sharply up and down and wondering how much she must have had to make it smell more like alcohol than bile. Soon I realise, in horror, that I don’t think I'm going to help her. I put my hand to my mouth and stand there, wondering why I won’t help, perfectly positioned to watch my mother die.
And then, somehow, her eyes open.
And through the pools of tears that have collected, I'm sure they turn to me. They perfectly reflect the light of the television and I'm convinced that, even though she's nothing more than a drunken ghost, I see recognition. Suddenly, it feels like there are two of us in the room, and before I know it I've launched myself over her body and pushed her to the side and got her sick on my bare arm which barely bothers me.
I grab a cushion and wedge it against her head, propping it sideways so she can vomit freely. She throws up onto the floor and takes three, four, five huge gasps of air. Then she gradually slows her breathing. Her eyelids close. And aside from the putrid smelling pool of alcohol seeping into the carpet below her, it’s as if nothing ever happened.
I bend down, warm heavy tears collecting in my eyes, and kiss my mother on the clean side of her head. I fish her left hand from the floor and hold it in my own for a couple of seconds. I look one last time at her face, peacefully sleeping, covered in imperfections and vomit and sweat, and wrap my fingers once more around the wedding ring. Lubricated, it slips easily off her finger. I wipe it on my t-shirt and scrape my bruised and beaten hands on my soaking wet jeans as I pocket it.
I head upstairs and change clothes. Then I chuck a few pairs of jeans in a backpack and head back down. I look at the window and the rain seems to have stopped. A few shards of sunlight are creeping into the room through the crack in the curtains. Whispering a goodbye to my mother, I open my front door.
I look once more at the message on the television as I leave and smile softly; no-one has any idea where I’ll be by 7pm tomorrow.
A few hours later I'm on the 0835 to Birmingham. I've spent my last £50 on the ticket and I don’t know what I'm going to do when I get there but I'm escaping. I'm toying with the ring in my pocket and I'm wondering how best to sell it and I'm escaping.
I'm opposite a grey man in a suit. He looks old enough to have retired three times. But I've got a window seat. And I'm at a table, with a window seat and a little pot of salt and vinegar Pringles and a chicken sandwich, and it doesn’t matter that the grey man is staring at me. Or that I probably smell of smoke. Or that I can see my face in the reflection and I hate the way it looks.
For a second I think back to last night. And then I stop.
The train starts to move. Slowly at first. The people on the platform slide to the left, along with the platform they stand on. And then there is no platform. And I'm looking at shrubbery and a few abandoned trains and a play area behind the track and some barbed wire which quickly disappears, and then all I see is a pulsating green splodge below some electricity pylons. Thoughts and memories blur into the hypnotic green smudge. My eyelids become heavy.
I pick up the sandwich and eat most of it and then the rest. I feel and enjoy the sun on my face. I put my elbow down and my face on my palm and my knees against the edge of the table, which is covered in dents and bad graffiti that I don’t read. My eyes close and my mind wanders, but as a particularly warm shard of sun creeps across my body, I realise that it doesn’t really matter whether or not I get caught.
If I get away with it, great. And if I don’t? Well, at least then they’ll remember that my name is Gemma Kendall.
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