Chapter Twelve - False Impressions
Emerging from her beautician’s salon, ‘Beautiful You’, nails sparkling, Charlotte feels a bit more human again. Her father thinks she’s at school but Charlotte can’t bring herself to go. She’s hiding out at Kingsgate Shopping Mall. The pseudo Victorian clock above the fountain says three twenty five. Her stomach flipflops. School kids will be arriving any minute and Charlotte doesn’t want to be seen by anyone from Harlington High. She’s heading for her car, past all the glittering shops she loves, weighed down by shopping bags. Retail Therapy. Works every time. She smiles to herself, her stunning new Clarissa Storm boots are drawing admiring looks from women of all ages. She feels good.
“There she is!” Shouts a child’s voice and suddenly a little girl flings herself at Charlotte. She looks down. Ruby Reynolds is looking up at her with adoring eyes. “This is the lady, Mum!” she says, clutching Charlotte’s dress. Panicked, Charlotte tries to pull away, but Ruby hangs on, calling her mother over. Charlotte recognises the woman who ran out from the ground floor doors of her apartment building screaming Ruby’s name.
“Sorry,” says Jean Reynolds, grabbing her daughter. She laughs. “She almost knocked you over!”
“That’s ok.” Charlotte smiles nervously, her eyes flicking to the exit sign nearby. “I have to go.” She starts walking away. But Ruby’s shrill little voice follows, echoing off concrete, off shop windows which just now seemed so dazzling and wonderful.
“But Mummy, that’s her! It’s the lady who saved me!”
Charlotte keeps walking.
“Um, excuse me, sorry to bother you but...” The woman’s voice has an urgent edge to it. Charlotte closes her eyes, swallows. Slowly, she turns.
“My daughter insists you’re the young woman who... I know this sounds ridiculous, but...” Jean Reynolds is barely holding back her tears. Charlotte clears her throat.
“I’m sorry, but I don’t know what you’re talking about. Have a nice day.” Charlotte swings round and marches off before the woman can continue the conversation.
“Where’s she going, Mummy? Hey, nice lady! Come back!” Ruby calls. Charlotte breaks into a run, bags banging against her legs, heels clacking on the marble flooring. Don’t fall over. Just don’t fall over. People are staring as she makes her undignified exit to the lifts. Panting, she presses the button repeatedly, looking back over her shoulder to see if Ruby and her mother have followed. The doors open and four haughty looking year ten girls from Harlington High are standing there in the lift. Oh no. Charlotte sucks in a breath, stands taller, tilts her chin and waits for the girls to walk out. But they cluster about her, like hyenas surrounding their prey.
“Charlotte Campbell. Saw your cat fight the other day.” The dark haired leader, Shona, is renowned for her trips to the Principal’s office. An evil-eyed girl shoves Charlotte, causing her to lose grip on one of the shopping bags.
Another girl grabs it and looks inside.
“What are you doing here?” says Shona. “I’m surprised you show your face in public.”
“Yeah,” demands a third girl, who has a slight lisp. “What grungy stone did you crawl out from this morning?”
“Are those Clarissa Storm boots? What in the hell are you doing wearing those? They’re for girls with style. Like us,” says the evil-eyed girl.
“Yeah, not sluts who can’t keep their hands off other girls,” says the fourth girl, who’s taller than the rest. Evil-eyed girl has pulled out Charlotte’s brand new jeans and is holding them up.
“Look girls, new jeans. Armanio too.” She holds them against herself. “They’ll fit just nicely.”
Charlotte finally finds her voice.
“Put them back!”
“Or what? You’ll punch me? Oooh. So scared!”
Charlotte takes a few seconds to look the girl up and down. Her eyes are too close together. Unattractively so. Charlotte knows this will be a sore point.
“Nothing will make a squinty eyed pig like you look better,” she says calmly. The girl’s face goes white. Charlotte grabs the jeans and stuffs them back in her shopping bag. She glares at Shona.
“You’re the slut who slept with three different boys at the Petra Nova party.” Shona is momentarily stunned, eyes wide. Charlotte grins. Ah, so you thought the boys wouldn’t tell. “Never trust boys not to brag,” Charlotte says, giving advice and twisting the dagger simultaneously. The fire inside her, the will to fight, is returning. This is a turf war, a battle for domination and she is not used to losing. She pushes past the others and enters the lift, presses the ‘Basement’ button. The doors begin to close. Charlotte maintains eye contact with Shona, staring her down. You’re not going to beat me, you bitch! The doors are inching together, like two trains in slow motion. Come on! Come on! Then a hand thrusts between the doors and they open again. Shona’s hands are on her hips and the predatory look on her face causes Charlotte’s heart to skip a beat.
“Abbi has a hate journal. And you’re the star of it, you stupid cow! Don’t think you’re coming back to school any time soon.” She lowers her voice to a growl. “You’re as good as dead.”
“Yeah. A dead chick, who hangs around with freaks,” says lisp girl, triumphantly. A well-dressed couple carrying their groceries get into the lift and press ‘Level1’.
“Fricken NERD!” shrieks the evil-eyed girl as the doors finally start to close again. “Loser BITCH!”
Charlotte takes a shaky breath and flicks an apologetic half-smile to the couple in the lift. Tinny music trickles in through speakers as the lift takes an age to reach level 1. Finally, the doors open and they walk out. Charlotte presses ‘basement’ again and stares morosely at her new boots.
“Need any help with those?” says a guy’s voice. Her head snaps up. Gabe is inside the lift, leaning against the wall.
“Where were you thirty seconds ago?” she says irritably. All she can hear inside her head, echoing over and over is Nerd! Loser bitch! She dumps the bags, puts a hand to her head. Why didn’t I just use my powers? Make them explode or something? The tinny music continues cheerfully as the lift moves.
“You all right?”
“Up or down?”
“Down. Basement car park.”
She looks up at him. His bewitching green eyes are serene as usual. Does anything ever bother him? The doors open. A lone plastic palm tree in a hideous pot slumps crookedly at the entry. The air smells of car fumes and urine. Gabe, carrying all the bags, follows Charlotte to her car. The tail lights flash and the boot opens. Gabe places the bags inside, goes round to the driver’s door and opens it for her.
“You right to drive home?”
He stands awkwardly, his hands in his pockets. He tosses his tousled dark hair. “Would you mind dropping me off somewhere? It’s on the way.”
She looks at him and frowns. “Weren’t you just going into the mall?”
He shrugs. “Changed my mind. Found something better to do.”
“Hm. Get in then.” She turns the key and her car purrs to life. “Where to?”
“Potter’s Bank Road.”
“I live there.”
“You live at St Mary’s University?”
“With my parents. Mum is a PhD student in Psychology. Dad lectures in Medieval History. He’s an Arthurian specialist.”
“Uh huh.” What the heck is an Arthurian Specialist? She turns out of the Kingsgate Shopping Complex and onto North Bailey Road. His hands are restless upon his knees.
“If you, uh, go via the Framwell Gate Bridge, rather than the Elvet, we could stop and have a coffee at Cafe Nero,” he says, pointing at the sign. She hesitates, but only for a second. Why not? A distraction right now would be great.
“Ok,” she says firmly as they stop at the traffic lights. Charlotte looks at him squarely. “Just so we’re clear, this isn’t a date.”
“Why would you think that?” His smile is sly, transforming an angular face into a handsome one, even with those silly, dark rimmed glasses. Charlotte’s heart flutters. She turns on the radio.
Stop it! He’s a geek. This is ridiculous. She sneaks a look at him again. He’s tapping his fingers on the sill of the open window, in time to a new song by Junket - ‘Hold Me Forever’. The muscles in his forearm flex and bunch. Does he spend every spare minute in the gym? It seems incongruous, a geek in the gym, but she can easily picture Gabe Murray boxing, or sprinting on a treadmill, or gliding through the water, sleek and well-muscled...
“Ahem. The lights are green.”
“Oh! Sorry.” She puts her foot down, almost missing the turn-off to Cafe Nero. The car swings into the carpark of a rustic miller’s barn, hundreds of years old, positioned on a sharp bend of the River Weir. The steep roofed red brick building is a relic of Harlington’s flour mill days, when the river powered the mill and took heavily burdened barges to nearby towns. It still houses the giant grindstone and water wheel. Inside it’s sleek and modern. They find seats near the large windows, looking out over the wide, green river bank and glistening water. Charlotte orders a hot chocolate. Gabe takes off his glasses and smiles at the waitress until she blushes. Then orders a coffee.
“You took your glasses off.”
“You’re very observant. For a girl.” He grins. Charlotte can’t stop staring at him. It’s like a different guy is sitting opposite her. A hot guy. His tee shirt stretches across his chest. His hair is well, perfect, in a tangled, hippy sort of way. But his eyes...
“I... You...” She gives up. There’s no point trying to speak. She’ll only say something stupid.
“So, what happened thirty seconds before I got into the lift?”
Charlotte looks down, letting her blonde hair cascade to cover her flushed face. “Nothing,” she mumbles.
“Didn’t seem like nothing. You had that ‘I’m gonna fricken kill you’ look on your face.”
Charlotte looks at him side-on. “You seem to know so much about me, but I know nothing about you.”
He shrugs. “I’m a geek. What’s to know?”
“Ha! I don’t believe that.”
His mouth twists. She’s struck him with a precise dart. It feels so good to see him squirm for a change! He shrugs. “Ok. Ask me. Anything.” Their drinks arrive. While Gabe pours in two sachets of sugar and stirs it methodically, Charlotte sips her hot chocolate, savouring the chocolate dust on top and the taste of this awkward moment for the unflappable Mr Murray.
“Where did you grow up?”
“Here. In Harlington.”
“Have your parents always been at the university?”
“No. I mean yes.”
“Well, which is it? No or yes?”
He sighs and looks out the window at the Weir River, winding lazily past on its journey to loop around the entire shopping district of Kingsgate, creating a sort of island. Six bridges fan out to the mainland like tentacles. Sunshine sparkles on the water as small boats slide leisurely past. Gabe’s coffee cup waits on the table. She’s surprised to see a look of melancholy upon his face. He’s chewing the inside of his cheek.
She blinks. “Ok. Was not expecting that.”
“My biological parents are... not around anymore. They couldn’t look after me.” His eyes follow the boats with longing, as if he wants to leap through the window and sail away from this conversation.
“Oh. That sounds... difficult. Did they...”
“No. They’re not dead. They’re just... not around.”
Charlotte frowns. She doesn’t want to pry, but what does ‘not around’ mean? She sips her drink, thinking back to his journal. No wonder he writes with such... depth and feeling. It makes sense now. And she’s been right about Gabe Murray all along.
He is not what he seems at all.