It’s always been about two pairs of red gumboots, waiting side by side in the entry hall. An installation in a tiny gallery. A silent tribute to mothers and daughters. But sixteen year old Charlotte must smile, laugh as if she doesn’t care about anything or anyone. Keep those cords tightly in place. Because no one would understand her grief.
On the outside Charlotte Emily Campbell is a queen, top of the social tree at Harlington High and the spoiled only child of Professor Robert Campbell. Her subjects watch her avidly as she wields her sceptre and speculate about who will be next to suffer her acid tongue. Charlotte herself has to be perfect, never making the slightest fashion mistake. And always watching, for her position is perilous. She has to be beautiful and clever and merciless. There are no allies, no truces, just these two things only - position and respect.
And then, quite suddenly, everything starts to fall apart.
Day one, Term one. Alone in the girls’ toilets Charlotte leans in to the mirror and stares open mouthed in horror at the blemish on her perfect cheek. It’s not a red pimple. It’s sort of grey around the edges. Like some kind of… illness. Or infection. Her hand shakes as she dabs concealer onto the spot. Girls are laughing outside in the busy hall, coming nearer. The outer door bangs open gushing her two friends Abbi and Tessa, a profusion of blonde hair and noisy heels into the white tiled sanctum.
“Charlotte, we’ve been looking for you everywhere!” says Teresa, eyeing herself in the mirror. She pushes up her boobs in their tight, apricot-pink corset that passes for a top. Beside her, Abbigail expels her chewing gum with her tongue and drops it into the bin. In her trademark low, disinterested voice, she says,
“That guy you like, you know, Evan? Apparently he’s switched from Geography.”
Tessa pulls on Charlotte’s sleeve. “Come on! If we hurry we can get front row seats in English by the time he gets to the door. Quick!” Calmly, Charlotte dabs concealer on the blemish, as if she’s got all the time in the world.
“Are you all right?” Abbi looks her over critically. “You look a bit pale, Honey.”
You’d like that, wouldn’t you, Abbi? Charlotte eyes her friend in the mirror, raises a brow of indifference.
“I’m fine. Got my period. That’s all.” Charlotte keeps her voice flat, like she’s bored with being a woman already, at seventeen.
“Oh, me too! I was in ABSOLUTE AGONY this morning!” Tessa expounds.
Shut up Tessa. Charlotte pushes up the sleeves of her jacket to just below the elbow. Adjusts the thin scarf. They exit.
The hall is awash with the expectant noise of first class of term. Orange metal lockers rattle and slam as bodies spear through the wedge of crowd. The three girls instinctively link arms, thrust their heads high with fashionista confidence and make their way to the other side where a classroom door stands open. Someone smashes into them and they break apart, staggering on their killer heels.
“Sorry!” A solid looking geek boy grins awkwardly at them while his puny companion, dressed completely in yellow, scrabbles wordlessly at their feet collecting books and papers, laptop and pens. Abbi shrieks, as if she’s being invaded by bugs.
“Ew! Get off my shoes!” Tessa exclaims, shaking her foot in horror. “They’re Dolcciani!” The other boy tries to help, but ends up knocking the yellow boy’s belongings out of his arms again. It’s like a scene from a bad comedy. Charlotte turns her head slightly, feeling eyes upon her. Another geek is watching them from the sidelines. Tall, with tousled dark hair and ridiculous glasses, he’s watching Charlotte calmly; not in a lame, shy, geeky way - he looks right at her, like he’s unafraid.
Abbi is losing it. Charlotte switches instantly to diva bitch.
“Get lost, freak! Can’t you see you’re holding us up?” She steps over the yellow boy, piercing his hand with her stiletto heel. He shrieks like a girl. Internally, Charlotte winces, almost feeling the pain. But she must keep moving. Don’t look back, as if you care about him at all. They’re all watching.
Miss Haflinger is writing notes on the board as they enter. A plain, thin woman in her thirties, always in a floral print cotton dress and outmoded glasses, she nods nervously at Charlotte and continues writing up notes no one will copy down. Charlotte and her entourage seat themselves right near the door so they can eye off incomers. It’s the first week of term and they have to establish their territory. A few lesser girls come through the doorway and lower their eyes respectfully after a murmured ‘Hi Charlotte.’ Abbi is still fuming about the yellow boy. Tessa is fussing over her turquoise suede shoes.
“They are stunning,” affirms Charlotte blandly, flicking her gaze downwards briefly.
“You really like? Three hundred big ones.” Tessa wriggles her pink painted toes.
“You deserve it, Babe,” replies Charlotte, knowing those particular shoes cost only one fifty. Tessa beams. She’s always anxious to please, to be seen with Charlotte, Queen of Harlington High.
“Is this English?” asks a guy’s voice. Charlotte looks up. The tall, dark haired geek from the hallway is standing right in front of her desk, looking straight into her eyes. He’s wearing a checked shirt and jeans. The torrid gaze of Abbi and Tessa washes over him, like he’s some homeless guy in rags. But he appears immune to their disgust. Abbi turns to Charlotte. Her eyes clearly say, ’Do not talk to him.′ But something in Charlotte wants to rebel. His face is so calm. His eyes, behind the stupid glasses, are clear and green. But the most fascinating thing about him is that he has no fear of her, or her friends.
He waits, like he’s got all day, a slight smile on his lips.
“I, er...” Charlotte feels her face flush. She can’t seem to coax words onto her tongue. What is happening? Beside her, Tessa gasps faintly. Charlotte knows, without even looking at her, that Tessa’s face bears a shocked expression, that her idol is actually conversing with a nerd.
“Get lost, creep,” snarls Abbi, pointing a blood red nail at him. But the geek boy ignores her. He’s still waiting for Charlotte to answer him. His arms are folded, biceps tight under the sleeves of his shirt.
A geek who works out? Charlotte’s mind is whirling.
Just then the boy in yellow walks timidly through the door, his yellow shoes squeaking on the shiny, linoleum floor. Beefy Geek follows. Yellow Boy tugs timidly on Tall Geek’s shirt and looks up at him like a drowning man looks to his rescuer.
“There are seats up the back, Gabe.”
The guy called Gabe turns to him.
“Sure, Bird,” he says in a low, reassuring voice. “Let’s go.” Gabe gives Charlotte one last look; more like a challenge, a dare flung down between them, then turns away. The nerds file past. Beefy Geek is grinning at Charlotte. The one called Bird casts frightened glances around the room, clutching his laptop and books to his chest. Charlotte’s mouth is still slightly open. She snaps it shut before any drool falls out. Idiot! You let him unnerve you like that! Who the hell does he think he is? She realises her own pulse is slowing down to normal, as if an exciting disaster has just been averted. Tessa giggles.
“What is with that yellow canary?”
“Fricken weirdos.” Abbi says darkly. “Right Charlotte?”
“Sure.” Charlotte says, distracted. Normally a bunch of geeks entering the room wouldn’t even register. But that Gabe guy is different. He must be new to Harlington. She’s itching to turn around and watch him, but that would be social suicide.
Sitting in her sporty car at the traffic lights Charlotte is held tenderly in a familiar dream. She’s eight and running beside her mother at the beach, the wet sand cool underfoot, the rhythmic rush of the water over the sparkling shore like the ocean’s heartbeat. They’re holding hands and laughing, dodging the waves. The breeze prickles her arms and lifts her mother’s hair in dark strands around her beautiful face. Charlotte’s nose stings with salt.
A car beeps behind her.
Charlotte gasps, blinking back memories. On impulse, her foot clamps down and she breaks free of the traffic lights, like a life pod being jettisoned into space.
The sun floods through the sunroof, warming her hair as the sleek, red sports car, a gift for her seventeenth birthday, glides along the roads. Normally Charlotte would relish the looks of envy as she flashes past - waving, laughing, caught up in the freedom of being young and wealthy in a mostly working class town. But today she feels tired, pulled down by the weight of social expectation. Exams are coming up at the end of term and she has a tightrope to walk - keeping her father happy and maintaining her facade of fashionable disinterest for the benefit of her peers. A consummate performer, Charlotte channels her intellect into areas where she will gain the most respect - fashion and bitchiness. And that distant part of her brain that screams faintly at the futility of it all is silenced firmly with a stiletto of logic. It’s survival, after all.
Turning left into Finchley Way, she enters the sacred suburb of the wealthy - Elvet Hill. The streets are wide and lined with hundred year old oaks. Her stately home of pale stone sits on a slight rise, with views of St Mary’s University, where her father wants her to study after high school, and Lake Marion behind it, to the north-east. A stylish two storey house built ninety years ago, Charlotte’s home is a mansion of good taste her Biological Scientist father can well afford. The sweeping drive, flanked by immaculate lawn, leads to three garage doors hidden behind flowering shrubs. The flower beds are always full of colour, cared for by a nameless gardener. Her manicured nail presses a button, the garage door slides up and her new baby glides in. The engine growls one last time, its voice echoing in the dim interior, then reluctantly falls silent. Charlotte gathers her things, emerging as the garage door thumps down, sealing the darkness. Charlotte’s eyes adjust as she heads for the small square of light - a glass panel in the cloakroom door. Opening it she pauses in the tiny vestibule, her head bowed, her eyes averted. Two sets of red gumboots hold her there in breath-choked stasis. One pair belonged to an eight year old Charlotte, the other belonged to her mother. The grief tightens across her chest like a strap, disinclined to let her go. Charlotte blinks slowly, sucks in a breath and clasping her bag tighter, surges on through the kitchen door.
“Dad, you home?” Her small voice reverberates in the empty space of the modern kitchen; a chamber of white, chrome and black with a touch of red. On the opposite wall, Ellen Campbell stares benignly at her daughter from within a large black photo frame, her red lips in a half-smile, her eyes sad, her dark wig luxurious. “Hi, Mum,′ whispers Charlotte, with a quick look of guilt, then turns abruptly away. The pain nestles in her throat. This is her reality. She is shielded from prying eyes and gossiping tongues, but she cannot escape the emptiness, right here. Familiar footsteps, with a clicking ankle bone, approach. Her father, Robert Campbell, walks in from the hall - a tall man with brown hair and serious, kind eyes. A renowned geneticist, he is a distractible man, often thinking about his work, but a doting father. Unlike his fashion-obsessed daughter, his style could best be described as ‘hiker fashion.’
“Hi, Darling. Sandwich?” He kisses her hair. He’s always trying to get her to eat more. She realises she’s still holding her stuff and dumps her bag on the kitchen bench, beside the breadboard. He removes it to the table without a word. His hand rests briefly upon her shoulder as he walks past, as if to reassure himself that she’s really here. He opens the fridge and gets out the pickles, cheese and butter. Charlotte has already begun carving a fresh loaf into thick slices. They work silently for a moment, their hands crossing over in a well-rehearsed play.
“Good first day back? I bet everyone was envious of your new car.” He grins, leaning back against the bench, chomping on his sandwich. She takes her plate to the table, sits down and takes a bite. She doesn’t want to talk about it. He wouldn’t understand the perilous life she leads. She fought to stay at the public school, when her father would rather she attend a fancy boarding school a hundred kilometres away. Losing her mother was hard enough. Being away from her father was unthinkable. She’d known, in his easy resignation and exhale of relief, that he’d wanted her to stay.
“You’re home early today,” she says casually, keeping her back to him.
“Have to go back to the lab later but wanted to have dinner with my girl.” Charlotte can feel his gaze upon her, hear the forced smile in his voice. There’s a moment’s pause. “Ok. Out with it,” he says. She shrugs and crams bread into her mouth so she won’t have to answer straight away. “Charlie?” Dad’s voice is soft. Afraid. The bread is dry and sticks in Charlotte’s throat. She forces herself to swallow. She’ll have to give him something. He won’t let up until she throws him a titbit to gnaw on.
“Some days I hate school.”
“Really?” He seats himself beside her. “I thought you loved it. Don’t you have lots of friends?”
“Yes, but sometimes it’s hard to tell who your friends and who your enemies are.”
“Doesn’t sound like the kind of friends you need.”
“Well, friendship can be overrated Dad.”
Her father looks concerned. “I can’t agree with that, Charlie.” He shakes his head. “A true friend should be there when you need them the most. And sometimes people can surprise you. Things aren’t always what they seem on the outside.”
“That’s for sure,” she mutters, thinking about the tight rope she walks every day to maintain her facade of confidence, while small tears in her heart rip an inch or two wider every day. It’s lonely and cold being at the top. No one understands what it’s like. Especially those who are scrabbling desperately to take her down. What do they know of it?
“Sometimes it’s hard to fit in,” he says quietly. “So why not bury yourself in your studies? Think of the future. You’re so bright, Charlie. You could do anything with your life. And school is just the beginning. You used to love school. Especially Science.” His eyes stare at some distant imagining. With a half-smile he says, “I’ve still got that dream of our own lab one day.”
Charlotte rolls her eyes.
He holds up his hands. “I know, it’s my dream, not yours. But let a father have his fantasies for his only child, huh?”
“Fine.” It’s an old argument. Not that they argue much. There’s an unspoken silence that often stretches out between them, like another person is speaking, part of the conversation, and they must wait their turn. They don’t always agree, but there’s never any shouting. Just the silence, thick and grey and gloomy.
“Are you feeling ok? Want me to check you over?”
She pulls a face.
“You haven’t checked me over since I was about eleven, Dad. And I don’t want you to start up again. I’m fine. If I need help with any... girl issues, I’ll go to my own doctor.”
“You’re so independent, Charlie. I need to know you need me. For something.”
His honesty strikes her, full in the heart. They only have each other. That’s all that’s left. But she resents it all the same. It has such power over her. And Charlotte Emily Campbell does not like being controlled by anyone or anything.