Extract from a novel
We lie in the scrubby grass at the bottom of the garden, Lizzie on her back with her head in the shade of a rhubarb leaf, me on my stomach, watching columns of ants trickle around the roots of Grandma’s hydrangea bush. Since we couldn’t find any lollies in the freezer, I bashed some ice cubes out of their tray instead, and now we’re sucking their cold water from the gaps between our fingers.
Lizzie sighs, hard, and I can see all her ribs rising and falling through the thin cotton of her top. ‘This is pathetic.’
‘What is?’ I say without raising my chin from the itchy patch of lawn it’s pressed against.
‘We are. This day. This summer. It’s like a million degrees, and everyone is at the beach, or having sex, probably, and we’re in Loserville, Isle of Wight, eating ice cubes.’ She spits hers out onto the grass between us, a pale, half-melted moon.
My back is boiling so I roll over and expose the slope of my belly to the sun. I’m annoyed by her implication: that we’re losers, that I’m a loser. Of course, I know it’s true – I’m not an idiot – but it’s not like she has anything better to do. If it weren’t for me, she’d be spending all day at home playing PlayStation with her dad.
‘I mean, why don’t we just go to the beach?’ she whines. ‘I could get my mum to drive us to Ventnor. Then at least in September I’d have something to say when people ask me what I did this summer.’
I don’t know who she thinks is going to be interested. ‘We can’t go to the beach. You know who hangs out there? Ella and her friends. Can you imagine, me in a swimsuit, and Jamie Gilbert? It’d be like wrapping my naked body in bacon and climbing into a tank of piranhas.’
‘I bet Ella’s having an amazing time. Sneaking out and getting drunk and kissing boys. That’s what summers are meant to be like. We’re wasting our youth!’ Lizzie practically wails.
‘Can we not talk about Ella?’ The thought of my sister ties my stomach into sick, angry knots. When I think about what happened on Monday I have to fight back the urge to dig a hole in Grandma’s floral border and hibernate there for the rest of the summer, maybe forever.
‘At least her life’s interesting.’
More interesting than you realise, I think. The thought of what I saw last night is nagging at me, buzzing round my head like a fat, biting fly. And because I’m bored, because I can’t think of anything else to say or do, I tell Lizzie: ‘I saw her last night, you know. With a man.’
‘As in, a man, not a boy. Old.’
‘Really? Who?’ She sits up, propping herself on her elbows behind her.
‘I dunno, Lizzie, I don’t know any men. But he was properly old, like forty maybe. He dropped her off on our road really late last night.’
‘What were they doing?’
‘Hugging, I guess? Maybe kissing.’
‘Ugh, that’s so gross,’ she says with delighted disgust. ‘I can’t believe she’s letting some old guy hump her. She’s so pretty.’
‘What?’ The melted ice cube I swallowed earlier feels like it’s re-freezing inside me, a cold hard brick rising in my throat. ‘You don’t think they’re doing it, do you?’
‘Duh. What other explanation could there possibly be?’
‘God, you’re so sick-minded. There’s plenty of other things that could be going on.’
Lizzie’s shaking her head at me and smiling in that infuriating way that she does when she thinks I’m being particularly babyish and she’s being particularly grown up. ‘Of course she is. She might not want to, but she knows she has to if she wants him to be interested in her. That’s how it works. What else would a man that age want with her?’
I feel sick now, my stomach fizzing with something sour and horrible. ‘That’s awful.’
‘That’s men for you,’ says Lizzie, head bobbling sympathetically. ‘Besides, she probably deserves it, after what she did to you.’
I weave my fingers through the grass and pull it up by the roots in handfuls. I know Lizzie’s probably talking shit, but there’s something inside me, something dark and ugly, that wants to find out more. ‘I don’t believe you.’
‘Bet you I can prove it. Come on, she’s at work all day, isn’t she? We can start with your room.’ She’s pulling herself to her feet, an excited pink spot blooming on each cheekbone.
I stand and follow her through to the gloom of the house, because what else am I going to do? Somewhere in that deep, dark part of myself, I’m starting to form a plan. If we find what we’re looking for, maybe there’s some way I can use it against Ella. Maybe I can do to her what she did to me – rip her world to shreds.
‘What exactly are we looking for?’ I ask.
We stand in the space between Ella’s bed and mine. Grandma swept through here already this morning, pulling the duvets straight and clearing dirty mugs from the bedside tables, sucking up long golden strands of Ella’s hair with the hungry mouth of her hoover. She poked her head round the door just now and said she’s going over the road to see her friend Pat, the one who has to sleep in her armchair since she broke her hip and can’t climb the stairs up to bed anymore. Grandma likes to go and fuss around her, make her cups of tea and plump her cushions. I think she just likes having a captive audience. So she should be out of our way for a while, but still my breath keeps catching in my throat, my eyes watching the handle of the closed bedroom door for any flicker of movement.
Lizzie sits down on Ella’s bed and slides her hand under the pillow. She pulls out Ella’s nightie, crushed into a crumpled disc, and drops it onto the floor. Then she pulls the covers off, balling them up at the foot of the bed.
‘What are you doing?’ I hiss. ‘Don’t make such a mess!’
‘Chill out, I’ll put it all back when I’m done.’ Lizzie puts her face to the mattress and sniffs.
‘What are you checking for?’
‘What? As though you’d be able to tell.’
‘I can too. My mum and dad used to stink of it on Sunday mornings, before they stopped sleeping in the same room.’
‘Well, she’s not going to be doing it here, is she? I share a room with her, you moron.’
‘Fine.’ Lizzie tosses the duvet back onto the bed, although without the geometric precision Grandma arranged it with earlier. I flop over and try to straighten things out while she moves on to Ella’s wardrobe. ‘Which one’s her knicker drawer?’
‘God, you really are a lezzie, aren’t you?’
She turns to me with her cheeks blazing. ‘People hide things in their knicker drawer, Thea. I’m not doing this because I enjoy it.’
I sigh. ‘It’s the second one down.’
She pulls out the entire drawer and empties it onto the bed. Bras and knickers everywhere: little lacy thongs, satin push-up bras, stretched-out boyshorts with the days of the week on them. Lizzie rummages through them delicately, using the tips of her fingers like tweezers. ‘Hmm. Well, she definitely has some sexy stuff in here,’ she says, looping her pinkie through the flossy ribbon of a purple thong and holding it up for inspection.
‘That doesn’t mean anything,’ I say, trying to slide the drawer back onto its runners, straining my ears for the click of the lock that will signal Grandma’s return. Or even worse, Ella’s.
‘Not necessarily,’ says Lizzie, holding her nose up to the purple satin and having a good sniff. ‘But it’s a start.’
I look at the scraps of silky cloth laid out on the bed and think of my big pale mollusc body forced into something like that, the string of the thong lost somewhere up my enormous bum. It’s too depressing to contemplate.
Lizzie pockets the purple thong. ‘What’s that for?’ I ask.
‘DNA testing,’ she says.
She considers a light blue bra, holding it up against her skinny chest. ‘Don’t just stand there, give me a hand.’
‘I don’t think my sense of smell’s as good as yours.’
‘I mean, have a look through some of her other stuff.’
‘Like what? You’re the mastermind here.’
‘Does Ella keep a diary?’ Lizzie asks.
‘She used to. I don’t think she does anymore.’
I’d spent many empty afternoons lying on her bed on my stomach, leafing through entries that said stuff like, ‘Got the best mark in maths today, haha, bet Chloe was gutted I did better than her,’ and ‘I HATE HATE HATE THEM!!! (By them of course I mean my stupid family, especially fat crybaby Thea.’ But as far as I know she lost interest in it over the last couple of years.
‘Where did she used to keep it?’ Lizzie’s throwing fistfuls of pants back into the drawer. It looks a mess. No way is Ella not going to notice. I reach past her and try to fold some of them, smoothing them flat with sweaty palms.
‘Top bedside drawer.’
‘Have a look, then.’ She’s flicking through the clothes on hangers now, reaching out and scrabbling about at the back of the wardrobe as though she’s hoping to find Narnia.
The top drawer of Ella’s bedside table is full of makeup, dozens of little bottles and compacts all scattered in haphazard layers. Something’s leaked at some point and it’s left a layer of grease and powder that comes away on my fingers. I don’t know how she has so much; she’s always going on about how little pocket money we get and how her clothes are so much worse than all the other girls in her year.
Lizzie’s behind me, chin perched on my shoulder like a parrot. ‘Anything?’
‘Nah, just a load of lipstick and stuff.’
She reaches over me and picks up a gold tube. ‘Where did she get all this? It looks expensive.’
‘I dunno, Boots?’
‘No way can she afford to get all this stuff for herself. Either she’s nicking it, or someone’s buying it for her.’
In the bottom drawer we find a box of tampons, which makes Lizzie laugh hysterically for some reason.
‘How does it go in?’ Lizzie makes a little hole with her fist and tries to shove the cardboard tube in sideways. ‘There’s so many parts!’
‘There’s instructions in the box,’ I say. Any reminder of periods is a painful thing for me at the moment, which luckily Lizzie realises and stops trying to talk me into going to the bathroom to try one out.
Lizzie pockets the unwrapped tampon as well because we don’t know what else to do with it and Ella might spot it in the waste paper basket. The other things in the drawer are: some charms off a broken bracelet, a fluffy hot water bottle, a few gritty coins and a white plastic box that a mobile phone came in. Hardly incriminating stuff.
‘I’m hungry,’ I say, starting to close the drawer. ‘You want some lunch?’
‘Hang on.’ She picks up the box. ‘Why’s she kept this?’ She takes the lid off and tips it out onto the bed.
Multicoloured foil squares scatter on the top of the duvet. With their zigzag edges and slight bulge in the middle they look a little like ravioli, and my stomach rumbles. ‘What are those?’
Lizzie holds one of them up and reads the words off the wrapper: ‘Durex, one latex condom.’ She looks at me with triumph flashing in her eyes. ‘See? She’s totally doing it.’