I’d never realised war could be so quiet. The National Service letters had whispered through our doors that morning. Such thin pages, it seemed the paper should tear under the strain of such a heavy message, like wet kitchen roll. I didn’t get one. Not yet.
I was still 17. My time would come.
Even now, as we shivered in the school car park despite the afternoon sun bright and hard above us, there was no sound. The last thing we wanted to be doing when so many of us had our own call-up papers crumpled in our pockets was honour the dead, but not one of us would have refused. We stood unspeaking as we waited for the military vehicles carrying their sad cargo to appear. The silence chilled my skin like snow.
I scanned the crowd, my gaze flickering over Gavin leaning by the doors, face too pale but dark eyes bright and hard. To his left stood Alec. Our eyes met for a moment before he looked away without acknowledging me.
I crushed the sliver of hurt and looked back to the road.
The slow convoy would roll down Grammar School Lane and onto the High Street. The shops would have emptied there, the people waiting in silence at the kerbside. I had seen them often enough, the old women clutching garden flowers, willowherb, poppies, foxglove, to throw under the wheels of the hearses. “English flowers, dear,” an old lady once said to me. “The scent tells our boys they’re home.” To her, our troops would probably always be ‘boys’ but these days as many women were on the front line as men. I wondered who lay in these wooden boxes, where they had served. Whether they had families watching and waiting for them, as their bodies were flown back into Britain and welcomed home through our tiny village.
The highest-ranking member of the veterans would be standing to attention at the War Memorial, ready to call the salute. The roads were closed to other traffic.
I squeezed my eyes shut and let my thoughts drift away but all I could see was Amber’s puffy face as I had slid into my seat next to her in class that morning.
“Joe?” I murmured. Her brother was 18, a year ahead of us.
She nodded. “He’ll be in the first wave. September birthday.”
“Is he OK?” It felt stupid to even ask, but I didn’t know what to say.
Her lip trembled slightly. “No. Not really, Callie. He’s putting on a brave face for Mum, though. She can’t stop crying.”
She straightened up and pushed her hair back. “Well, there’s nothing we can do to stop it. I say we go out tonight.”
I frowned. I’d been going to bury myself in a book. I always hid in someone else’s story when things got rough. I didn’t get to answer though because our head teacher, Mr Patterson, slipped through the door, his apologetic body language at odds with the sharp rap of his heels on the tiled floor. He spoke of his sorrow but he didn’t need to; his mouth was thin as a pencil line and his cheeks and eyes had developed new dark hollows along the bone.
He told us the things we knew: the oil wars. Russia and China squaring off. Ongoing conflicts in Iran, Afghanistan, the Middle East. “We, of all people, don’t need to be reminded of the cost of those wars. But I also want you to know that not everyone who has been called will go to the front line; some of you will be in counter-terrorism units in the UK.” He looked around the room, his eyes on every face, as if trying to ferret the necessary bright side from one of us. If so, it wasn’t working. He swallowed.
“Remember, wars also stop. Eventually. And life goes on.” He tried for a brave smile, but it just made his face wrinkle into old age. “Life goes on. Don’t forget that. Don’t stop living today because you are worried about tomorrow. The India-Pakistan peace talks in London could change the mood of all of this.” He paused, searching. “You all have futures,” he’d whispered. “Don’t give up.”
As the purr of engines and rumble of wheels on tarmac brought me back to the silent crowd, the girl next to me started trembling. I didn’t know her but after a moment I took her hand. She held on without looking at me. I followed Amber’s gaze to Joe, standing with his friends. They looked so young, each face a blank page.
We watched the hearses with their Union Jack shrouds roll past us. It seemed in that moment like they carried our futures, our voices. And they left us nothing.
I turned to Amber. “Screw it,” I said. “Let’s go out.”
The music pounded through Miasma, the one club in York where the bouncers didn’t check IDs too carefully. I sipped a drink and pulled out my phone to text Amber. Dead, and not just the battery. It smelled vaguely of burned plastic. Damn it. Well, too late to worry about it now. I searched the crowd instead and found her on the dancefloor. Arms over her head, she sashayed and twisted like a mesmerised snake in the press of bodies.
The ground beneath my feet rocked and trembled with each thunder roll of the bass and the spotlights swinging through the darkness swirled huge shadows onto the walls. It’s an ocean storm, I thought — I’m Viola from Twelfth Night, shipwrecked and thrown onto a foreign shore.
Amber jokingly draped her arms around some boy’s neck, laughing. I should join them. Dance. I so envied my friend’s easy confidence. She didn’t even need courage, she just did the things she wanted to do, without ever feeling self-conscious. If anyone was watching her she would laugh and invite them to join in. For me, there was this invisible barrier; if I stepped onto that dancefloor I would feel like one of the spotlights was suddenly all mine, that everyone was watching, and I’d shrivel like a bug in a jar.
Amber only thinks when she needs to. I over-analyse everything.
Like now, when I should be dancing.
Pull yourself together, Callie, I urged myself. Time is short. You have to live while you can.
Joe seemed to feel the same way. I could see him at the edge of the chill-out, kissing some redhead like his life depended on it.
I shrank until my shoulder blades hit the exposed brick wall, and I noticed a guy sitting at the bar, dark hair shrouding his face. He looked out of place, older than the teenage crowd that frequented Miasma. He watched me for a moment and I dropped my gaze, unsettled, stepping back into someone’s arms.
I disentangled myself, each of us doing a frantic two-step, before I recognised Alec. He swallowed and after an awkward moment, gave a curt nod. “McKenna.”
McKenna? Where did he think we were, Eton? “Carstair,” I replied sarcastically, and he moved past me to the bar.
I crushed the unbidden memory of Alec laughing, meadow grass waving above us as we lay on our backs making up ridiculous lyrics to love songs. Of a summer spent hanging out. Of talking. Of a single tentative kiss. I’d thought it was the beginning of something.
Then school started.
Forget it. Whatever unspoken consensus said we needed to have fun, to savour these last moments of freedom, it clearly wasn’t working for me. Even the sweaty air of the club held a tinge of desperation, the voices an undercurrent of fear beneath the frivolity. My evening was done. I grabbed my bag and coat from under the table and started to push my way through the bodies by the bar. Ever noticed how people are soft and warm individually but all elbows and hardness en masse? I wriggled and squeezed and excuse me’d, tugging my bag after me through the tangle of legs. I didn’t see the guy who threw the first punch or the face of the boy who flew backwards into me, winding me as we hit the floor.
“Stay the hell away from my girlfriend,” someone yelled and the prone lad crushing the air from my lungs disappeared, yanked away by an unseen hand.
The fight spilled out across the floor and those closest staggered back. I scrambled aside and peered over the sea of heads to try to find Alec or Amber, my back aching from the impact with the tiled, sticky floor. I pulled myself along the bar, gripping the beer-slick edge with my fingers, trying to stay upright as the crowd surged against me. The dancefloor had become a melée. The strobe-lights pounded on, throwing blades across cheekbones and slashes of flesh before plunging us back into momentary darkness. I forced my way forward, catching snatches of arguments as I went — “always looking at other girls—”
“She’s always been a cow, even in nursery—”
“You always say that — why do you always bloody say that?”
An elbow caught me on the jaw and I spun, my fall broken by a girl who wept as she tried to gather the scattered contents of her handbag from under stamping boots. I tried to push myself back onto my feet but legs pounded into my sides. I grabbed a male leg and tried to claw my way to standing.
A bottle smashed against the wall, the fragments sparkling in the disco lights. I looked up instinctively and dropped back to a crouch. On the stage, oblivious of the shower of beer and broken glass, stood two men, their faces unmoved and their eyes blank, scanning the crowd. They looked too old and shabbily dressed for a nightclub, but I couldn’t explain the thrill of terror I felt. Their heads moved mechanically, back and forth across the room, as though the all-out chaos was irrelevant.
Something smacked me on the head but I didn’t even turn. My heart thundered, my breath came in serrated sobs. I dropped to the floor and scooted backwards, crab-crawling blindly until my back pressed against the bar. I should have stood, fled, but I stayed, paralysed by the unshakeable, irrational thought that they were looking for me.
If I moved they would see me, like owls hunting a mouse. I shrank down further, shaking, camouflaged by chaos. Huddled next to me the other girl sobbed, her mascara bruising her eyes. She looked like a doll in the rain, abandoned and ragged.
I didn’t give her another thought. I didn’t think about my friends, I didn’t pray that Amber was unscathed, or look for Gavin to emerge from the bedlam and rescue me. I couldn’t think. My heartbeat and the noise and the still-thumping music became one terrifying backdrop of sound and it was all I could do to breathe. I forced myself, by inches, to look up and, as I found their faces, my heart stopped.
Both gazed straight at me, unmoving. A fluorescent light shattered above me with a blinding bright flash. As I cowered and blinked the explosion from my vision, their eyes appeared white and empty.
I opened my mouth to scream but, before I had time to make a sound, a strong male hand grabbed my arm roughly and dragged me back towards the door. His momentum pulled me to my feet but I stumbled, staggered. I pushed my feet in front and braced myself against him but it was like water-skiing, my feet sliding helplessly in his wake. He turned and bellowed at me: “Move. There are more of them behind.”
It was the guy from the bar. The one who had been watching me. I half-ran, half-fell after him through the crowd. He shoved people aside easily, carelessly, his grip biting into my bicep. We were almost at the door when a biker, seemingly enraged with everyone, swung into our path and threw a savage punch towards bar-guy’s head. He let go of me and his first blow left the tattooed bear gagging and clutching his throat. One more blow to the back of the head and the biker’s face hit the brickwork with a sickening crack. I shrank back but bar-guy grabbed me again and I hesitated for only a moment. Whoever he was, instinct said he was better than what was behind me.
We spilled out onto the street and he released me. My arm felt bruised, the back of my head throbbed and a deep aching pain, like the worst toothache ever, spread up my left jaw but, curiously, my fear started to subside — at least the gut-wrenching-panic part of it.
“Come on. We need to leave.”
Suddenly I felt fear of a whole new kind. The kind of stranger-danger fear parents pour into you from the first time you go to the shop alone.
“Who are you? Why were you watching me in there?” He could have been waiting for a chance to prey on someone.
“Calm down. I’m not your enemy. We have to get away from here.” He sounded American.
“I’m not going anywhere with you. You’re a complete stranger.”
He considered this. “Maybe. But I won’t kill you. They will.”
I struggled to collect my thoughts. “Look, whatever that was, it had nothing to do with me. Only a drunken fight. Everyone’s kind of tense around here.”
“That’s what you felt in there? That it was nothing to do with you? When they looked at you?”
I wished I could pretend I didn’t know who he meant by ‘they’. I swallowed. “I admit I was scared. That kind of brawl isn’t normal for York, you know?”
“Oh, it certainly wasn’t normal. However, it has everything to do with you. And the war. We have to go.” He scooped my bag up on to my shoulder and I took a step back without thinking. This guy was some kind of crazy.
“Look, erm, thanks. It was really kind of you to … help me out of there. I’ll get a cab. I’ll be fine now, thank you.”
I could hear sirens in the distance. Actually not so distant. They must be really shifting. He glanced around, seeming suddenly nervous. “Look, I don’t have time to debate this. Let’s get you in a cab.”
“I’m fine really, I—”
“You’ve banged your head. Making sure you get home is the least I can do.” He propelled me forward down Micklegate and, almost before I knew it, shoved me into the back of a taxi.
He handed the driver something. “Low Cottage, Lifley, please.” He turned to me and thrust a small package into my hands. “Don’t read it. Just keep it safe,” he said.
I was speeding away, leaving him small on the pavement behind me, before I managed to ask him how he knew where I lived.
Dad was out. Not that it would have made much difference. We’d barely spoken in ten years, unless you counted the occasional burst of parental paranoia.
I raced to my room, dropped the bag on the bed, and checked that the door from my room to the garden was bolted. Then I sank to the floor, bruised and exhausted, tugging my bag down after me. I took out the package, peeling back the layers of tissue until I caught glimpses of blue leather and glints of gold-tipped edges. Finally it lay in my hand like it had always belonged there.
It was a book.
It seemed so old. Creased blue leather and yellow parchment. I vaguely wondered if I should be wearing gloves. The corners were broken and peeling slightly, the folds in the spine white with age. The inside was beautiful. Pages of curling, handwritten text nestled at the centre of an explosion of colour. Red, gold, searing blues and greens so bright they hurt my eyes. It reminded me of a miniature prayer book, a tiny version of the illuminated manuscripts the Lindisfarne monks had created.
I was entranced but, at the same time, something in my stomach shuddered and tightened. I scanned the first few lines and then more. It was poetry, how old I couldn’t tell. The style changed again and again, verse to verse. It was like someone had tried to cram rock, pop, soul and gangsta all into the same track. Bits of it seemed really old, others modern. Yet it kind of worked. A raw, surging music thrummed under the surface. Maybe someone had kept changing it. Updating it?
I gave up reading and sat until my legs cramped, poring over the images. They were strange but so rich with detail, animals and plants, biblical scenes. It was thick with them, stitched into the borders, clustered in corners, sometimes four or five to a page. A woman grasped a snake by its throat, its tail lashing around her legs; an antelope leapt, its back legs moments from the lion’s jaw. They creeped me out.
Enough. I slipped the book under my pillow and climbed into bed, trying to ignore the curtains which rustled with every breath of wind and the creaking of the tree outside. I had grown up in the countryside and its noises and darkness had never frightened me before. Yet, for the first time, I wished I didn’t sleep on the ground floor. As I closed my eyes I imagined blank eyes staring in, probing the corners of my room like searchlights, looking for me.
The London chapel nestled in silence. Cardinal Henry Campbell lowered himself heavily, his knees and the worn kneeler both creaking in protest, and began to pray. He asked for comfort and compassion, not for himself, but for the soldiers fighting across the globe. “Dear God, please bless those in danger. Let your grace and wisdom guide the leaders of our peace talks, that sanity might prevail.”
He sighed, wishing he was not so old and useless. But even had he had the strength to go out into the world again, he feared he would only make the same mistakes. He touched his rosary to his mouth and, rising, genuflected and walked to the statue of Our Lady. As he did every morning, he lit one candle and closed his eyes for a second in remembrance of the young woman he had failed to save so many years ago.
“Callie.” My father’s voice sounded rough with sleep. “Callie, wake up.”
“Huh?” I sat up in bed, my shirt stuck to my back with sweat. “I’m sorry, Dad. Did I wake you?”
“You were screaming. Shouting for your mother.” He looked at me keenly. “You haven’t done that in…”
Years. Not since the crash. I shook myself, scourging my mind of the images. “It wasn’t about Mum. Only … I don’t remember.”
“The dream wasn’t about your mother?”
He looked worried.
“Maybe. I don’t know. OK? Just your standard run-of-the-mill nightmare.” His frown deepened. “Seriously, Dad, there’s enough going on to give anyone nightmares.” His scrutiny was embarrassing.
“OK then. It’s almost seven. I’ll start breakfast.” He closed the door behind him.
I put my head in my hands. I hadn’t exactly lied but I had a flavour of blue and gold pages in my head, a memory so strong I could taste it. A sense of my mother. A voice whispering. I didn’t know what else.
I slid a hand under my pillow for the book. I dropped down beside the bed, feeling blindly for the loosened floorboard. It seesawed up obligingly and I drew out the small tin I’d had since childhood. It didn’t hold much. A few pictures of my mother, and her wedding ring which Dad had given me when she died. I picked up her ring and held it for a moment. Then I threw it back in the box. She’d gone. No sentimental moment could change that.
The book slid in with the other stuff and I clipped the lid in place, returning the tin to its hidey-hole. I felt inexplicably better with the small volume out of sight.
The Today programme burbled in the background as I followed Dad into the kitchen; something about troop movements in the Sinai and further unrest in Egypt. I knew it was important and I should listen but the flavour of the dream wouldn’t leave me. I watched Dad stirring scrambled egg and buttering toast.
“Why won’t you talk to me about her?”
He stiffened slightly, his back to me. “You remember her.”
“Yeah. A six-year-old’s memories.” A hand guiding mine into soft brown earth to find potato treasure; such warm arms circling me I knew I was safe. It was an illusion. She died. My safety ended there.
“You need to get dressed.” He sounded weary.
I bridled. “I’m angry at her too, you know.”
He wheeled around, stared at me for the first time. “What?”
His face folded and unfolded into different shapes but I couldn’t read them. Confusion, dismay … hurt? Oh.
“You’re not, are you?” I said softly. “I thought maybe you were angry with her for leaving us. Like me. But you’re not. You’re angry you were left with me.”
He took a step towards me. “Callie, you don’t know what you’re talking about…”
I didn’t need an explanation. I escaped to my room, and leaned my forehead against the cool plaster of the wall, telling myself, over and over, it wasn’t anyone’s fault. Not hers. Not his.
Later that morning I sat in a corner of the IT lab by myself, like the class dunce. The rest of the students were all working on the network which, last lesson, I had spectacularly managed to blow up. I’m not joking. I’d opened my file, typed about ten words and bam: my computer exploded and everyone else’s screen shut down like there’d been a power cut or something. Wrecking technology was becoming a habit.
This lesson Mr Hill was taking no chances. “Shoes and socks off, feet up on this board,” he said.
I peeled my feet bare reluctantly. “What is this meant to do for me?”
“Computers are electrical systems. People are electrical systems, too. Usually that’s not a problem but sometimes — “ he slid a rubber mat under my keyboard, “people build up excess static and that discharges into the computer and bang. Ever run a magnet over a TV screen?”
“Good, well, don’t. Screws up the whole thing. Static, electromagnetism, lots of things can stop computers and other devices working and one of them is doing exactly that whenever you touch my kit. So we’ve got you off the nylon carpet, lost the polyester sweater and insulated the keyboard.” He stood back, satisfied. “One way or another we will fix you, Ms McKenna.”
“Gee, thanks.” I picked up the mouse, logged into the school intranet and waited as the little circle spun. After a moment the cursor blinked back.
“And you’re in,” said Mr Hill contentedly. “Any problems and—” he paused as the door swung open. Someone tucked their head round and whispered to him.
“OK,” he turned back to the class. “Mrs Chambers, who takes many of you for biology, is off today so if you make your way to the sports hall later, one of the TAs will keep you out of mischief.”
“Hey, is it true there was a massive fight at Miasma last night? Were you there?” Gavin asked Amber, ignoring Mr Hill’s attempts to start his lesson.
“It was terrifying,” she said. “They think the drinks were spiked cos everyone went nuts.”
“Or everyone got completely pissed because we’re all being sent to a war zone,” said Gavin. No one responded.
I turned away and pretended to be fishing in my bag for something. I hated this kind of gossip, the sudden fizz of excitement when someone got injured or heartbroken and everyone pawed over the details like dogs with a bone. Besides, my stomach still clenched with fear at the memory.
“Callie,” Amber whispered.
“If you’d all settle down please. That includes you, Ms Wentworth.”
I opened my IT project — a dismal game for children — and tried to push the thoughts of last night out of my mind. I didn’t care about the fight itself so much — although I had rainbow bruises on the small of my back — but those white eyes were so vivid in my mind that I wanted to keep checking over my shoulder. I rubbed my left arm, feeling the tenderness where my rescuer had gripped it.
“I heard six people ended up in hospital,” Gavin whispered, his head ducking around the side of his monitor.
The bright light of the screen seemed to burn my eyes but, when I shut them, the pounding strobe light of the club beat on my eyelids and I heard again the screams and the sickening crack as the guy who’d grabbed me threw the biker out of the way.
Behind me, Amber said: “You know that thug in practical sciences? Pod someone. With the motorbike? Someone put his face into a wall. All the way into the wall. Callie, did you hear that?”
I couldn’t hear anything else. I sank my head onto the keyboard, heart hammering and the white eyes filling my vision. There was a bang and all the lights went out.
“I don’t think they’re going to let you back in there,” said Amber as we walked to the sports hall.
“They have to. It’s discrimination to keep me out of the IT lab. That reminds me.” I rummaged in my bag and pulled out the melted wreck of my mobile. “I need you to go online and buy me a new phone.”
“How is it discrimination? You break anything hi-tech.” She took the phone between finger and thumb as though it was contaminated. “And you can’t do this yourself because…? You’d blow out the computer and your dad would see the bill,” she answered herself, nodding. “How many phones is it this year?”
“Only three. I don’t break stuff deliberately. I’m disabled. I haven’t been able to use Google or Facebook for months.”
“You never used Facebook, Callie. You’ve never been that normal.” Amber was joking but it still stung. “Anyway I have a better idea. Use this.” She slipped her Nokia out of her back pocket.
“I can’t use your phone. I’ll knacker it. Oh…” I said as realisation dawned.
“Yup. If that piece of junk is in the least capable of making calls my mother will never let me have a smartphone for my birthday. See the sweet symmetry of this plan?” She pushed open the double doors to the gym.
“Well, if you’re sure. When did I become the place where technology goes to die?”
“Hey, I love you anyway. You’re just a genetic throwback. I thought bookworms were extinct.”
“No, they aren’t but even in libraries they’d like them to be.”
“Hey, it takes all sorts, right? Geeks are cool.”
“You can’t be a geek if you can’t use the internet without crashing the national grid.”
I turned to her, a hand finding my mouth as the realisation hit me. “Oh God, I am officially the most useless person in the world.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t say that,” purred a voice behind me.
I turned and let my eyes travel up the shirt and over the chin to the green eyes, dark hair. It was him. The guy from the club.
He smiled apprehensively. “Callie. Hello. I didn’t get a chance to introduce myself last night. I’m Jace Portman. New teaching assistant.”
“What?” My thoughts went to the book he had pressed into my hands, his words: “Don’t read it. Just keep it safe.” He had rescued me. So why did I feel vulnerable?
I tried to pin down all the feelings fluttering inside me. Definitely fear — a hot shock of panic went through me at the sight of him. And, at the same time … embarrassment. Because where last night I had seen the stubbled jaw, the hesitant smile, the chest broad enough for billboard advertising, I hadn’t paid attention. Now — when I knew he was a member of staff and that little hot pulse inside my belly was way inappropriate — I was paying attention.
Fear was a much safer option. Go fear.
I curled my hands into fists and, blushing, wheeled around into the girls’ changing room. I sank down by a locker.
My heart thumped.
“Are you there?” Mr Portman wandered down the row of lockers until he was looking straight at me.
“No,” I said, more aggressively than I should. “I’m not here. And you shouldn’t be either. It’s a girls’ changing room.”
“Yeah,” he said. “I get that. I was worried about you.”
“Is the book safe?”
“Okay then. I better get back.” He shrugged and turned.
My palms were singing with pain and I realised that I’d been digging my nails into them. I had to be rational about this. There was no danger here. “Mr Portman?” I called.
He wheeled around. “Yes?”
“About last night. The book. What you said.” I had so many questions I couldn’t find a place to start.
“We will talk, Callie. But not here. Not now.” He pushed the door open with his foot. “Soon.” And he was gone.
Amber, Gav and I worked in the library ‘til six, finishing homework. It was the price of going out on a school night. Normally schoolwork was second nature to me, particularly English. Some of my best friends were books. Today, though, my thoughts kept bouncing around and somehow Henry James’ Washington Square had never seemed less relevant.
Thoughts tumbled in my head like kids on a bouncy castle. God, national service. All the plans we’d made, all the assumptions about jobs and colleges — all gone with a handful of speeches in parliament. For a moment the image of myself holding a gun in some sweaty desert dominated my vision but as a thrill of fear rippled over my skin, the image changed abruptly to something far scarier — white eyes seeking me. Suddenly national service seemed like tomorrow’s problem. I swallowed hard. As I shook it away, another image, this one of a tall, rough-chinned stranger, claimed me.
Nope. This guy — Mr Portman — was trouble, and we had enough of that already. No, not trouble — a teacher. Of course he’d help students and probably even give them books — kind of a raison d’être for the teaching profession, right?
Although not many teachers would say: “Don’t read it.” And throw a punch like a hammer blow.
“We will talk Callie. Soon.” I shivered involuntarily. He had a great body. Like he worked it.
More important things. I dragged my errant mind back to the conversation.
“What I don’t understand,” said Amber, “is why they need more troops anyway. I thought modern wars were all smartbombs and hi-tech planes.”
“We’re in too many countries abroad,” said Gavin. “And there are too many terrorists here.” Gavin, my sweet dark-eyed friend was definitely president of the nerd club. Probably the national nerd club. He read foreign policy magazines and could tell you the main seasonal crops of Burkina Faso or other countries you’d never heard of and would never visit. He had a mind like a magpie, always collecting shiny new facts. As a geek myself I kinda liked that about him. We fitted.
I pushed the fire door open and we began the endless trek across the fields towards home. We hadn’t taken this route for months but springtime had worked its magic on the puddle-strewn tracks and made them more or less passable without a snorkel.
“I thought we’d be safe here. Living in the sticks,” said Amber.
“Let’s get a move on. It’ll be dark soon.” I put my head down and strode forwards.
“What is it with you? You’ve been as jumpy as a cat all day.” Amber shook her head. “I can’t believe you ran out on that TA. It was mortifying.”
Oh please. “What, mortifying because I embarrassed you or because he came after me and you didn’t get him all to yourself?” I regretted it instantly. “Look, I’m sorry, alright? It’s been a really weird couple of days.”
I cast around for something neutral to change the subject — something we could all agree on.
“Alec’s still treating me like I have leprosy.” I sounded deliberately casual. I didn’t need to tell them how much he’d hurt me. There were my friends. They knew. Besides, I reminded myself, I should have seen it coming. No guy would pick me over blonde, busty Jessica Rabbit. “You’d think he’d get over himself eventually. I mean, isn’t growing up inevitable if you wait long enough?”
“Not for men,” said Amber.
“Oi,” protested Gavin. “Less with the gender stereotyping. Alec’s problem is not that he’s a man. It’s that he’s a dick.”
We paused at the flashing red lights of the rail crossing. A train rumbled slowly past, laden with dozens of tanks. Muddy drips of camouflage paint ran down their sides and the NATO blue flags hung from the gun turrets, to protect them from friendly air fire as they passed through allied territories. I wondered what it must feel like to know your own side could have you in their sights.
“Forget him, Callie. I think that new TA could be a wonderful distraction from all the current crap. Have some fun for once.”
I remembered the feel of Mr Portman’s hand cutting into my arm, his effortless violence as he pushed us to the door. “I don’t think so,” I said.
“Oh for God’s sake. If I can be cheerful, you can,” she snapped.