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Got what was coming...
 
Chapter 1 – October
How did it all start?

Mali

‘Oh my God! What is that terrible stink?’
     Mali recognised the unmistakable voice of Abeba. She froze.
     ‘Smells like someink died in here.’ That was Chantelle.
     Stuck in the first cubicle of the Year 9 girls’ toilet was not a great place to be when Abeba and Chantelle were around, especially when it was after school and no one was near but the cleaners. Still sat on the toilet, where she’d gone after attending one of the myriad homework ‘catch-up-sessions’, Mali pulled her thin legs up as quietly as she could. She was terrified of any sound that might give her away, as they might peer under the toilet door and spot her incriminating feet in her well-worn trainers dangling down. They’d break down the door. Find her, like a raggedy furred bear in its cage, with a massive collar round its neck, to be sharply prodded at and made to dance while they laughed, holding tightly to her chain, yanking hard.
     ‘Oh look, it’s fatty…’ said Abeba, ‘wiv a face like yours, you shouldn’t be allowed out in public.’
     It was like a great cooling wave washed over her; she knew their viciousness wasn’t going to be directed at her today, as it could only be Jessica they were speaking to at the back of the toilets. Guilt at the thought that they’d found another ‘dancing bear’ before her bit at her like she’d sat in a red ants nest. She’d heard someone thud in just a moment before, so Mali reasoned Jessica had probably been trying to hide from them here in the first place.
     Keeping quiet, she wiped a hand across her face. It was sticky with sweat. What’d it be like to be Jessica? Oh no, she pushed that thought out of her head, flicked it out quick before it had time to form in her mind, ’cos she didn’t ever want to experience anything that Jessica might. Never, ever! It made her shudder with revulsion. How could she stand it? Being like that? It was horrible. Then she felt bad. Her Buddhist upbringing kicked in and kicked her one. Where was her compassion? Fled in fear under the toilet door?
     ‘Or’, said Chantelle, ‘you should be in a circus, ‘cos people would pay good money to come and see an ugly monster like you.’
     Mali held her breath, wondering if she could escape from the cubicle and run out through the girls’ changing room into the main school corridor, without them seeing her? She knew they didn’t like being observed when they were doing their ‘thing’.
     ‘Leave me alone,’ said Jessica.
     Mali grimaced. There was no way out for her.
     The two girls laughed. Abeba’s voice came closer to the cubicle door; she must’ve been right outside it. If she leant on it now, she’d realise that the door was shut and that there might be someone else listening in to this conversation. Mali hoped they’d assume it was out of order, locked by the janitor, as so many were, blocked and often flooded by kids flushing entire toilet rolls down at a time for a laugh.
     Mali screwed her eyes shut. She didn’t want to be a witness. In fact she’d rather poke her eyes out with a burning stick rather than be a witness, which was probably what Abeba would do to her if she were discovered.
     ‘Oh, it speaks, does it?’ Abeba laughed but there was no mirth in it. The sound of it made Mali tremble and her fingers went icy cold. ‘Anyone else in here?’ She tapped on Mali’s door and Mali could picture one of her long, brightly painted false nails tap-tapping; a nail that could do a lot of damage on the end of the wrong hand, which, of course, it was.
     ‘No, there’s no one else, only me. Just leave me alone.’
     ‘Like that’s going to happen.’
     ‘I said leave me alone…’
     ‘Or what?’ said Chantelle, ‘what is Miss hippo going to do?’
     ‘Apart from gas us to death with her terrible stench.’
     ‘And frighten us with her ugly red face.’
     ‘Yeah, Halloween’s coming up soon, you don’t need to find a costume ‘cos you’d frighten the little kids just as you are.’
     ‘Shut up.’
     ‘Oh, are you going to cry? Poor fat ugly cry-baby.’ Abeba had a tone to her voice, which Mali knew well.
     ‘Why are you so horrible to me? What have I ever done to you?’
     ‘Well, let’s see.’ There was a long drawn out pause where there was no other sound but the juddering breathing of one of the girls outside, which Mali guessed must’ve been Jessica. ‘Oh yeah, just being born, that’s what you’ve done to us. You’ve, um, offended our sensibilities, so to speak.’
     ‘You’re not exactly Naomi Campbell yourself.’
     Mali could hear the fear and the exultation in Jessica’s voice. She clamped her hand over her mouth. They’ll kill her for that. It was true, although Chantelle was thin, in a half-starved, bow shouldered way, and fairly light skinned, she had a scary feral look about her. And as for Abeba, she had pock marks from terrible outbreaks of spots that marred her round face, her skin was midnight dark and she was distinctly chunky and solid; definitely more of a Deontay Wilder heavy weight boxer type than a supermodel.  
     There was some kind of movement outside but Mali couldn’t tell what it was, except that there was a thud, a toilet door banged open, some muffled shouting. Then the sound of someone’s head being repeatedly cracked against the once white tiles, now liberally and artfully covered with witty and lurid graffiti.
     ‘Oy, give us a smile then.’
     Mali winced. They were probably filming her. She waited, tucking her head down low, feeling sick, her feet resting on the toilet seat, trying not to breath in the pungent smells of the cleaning fluids they used, until the sounds ceased next door. The footsteps sped away. Taking a deep breath, she unlocked the door with shaking hands, pushed the door open a crack and glanced out.
     Oh no. Jessica was sat half in and half out of the other toilet, blocking the entrance with her bulk. The strawberry birthmark that covered half her great jowly face was flushed more than ever, nearly matching the trickle of oily blood that matted in her mass of frizzy greasy hair and ran from her nose. Mali could see drops of glistening blood had spattered her threadbare, dark blue school jumper.
     Jessica looked up at Mali, her light blue eyes nearly hidden in the folds of fat. ‘I knew you were in there,’ she said flatly.
     ‘Oh!’
     ‘I didn’t tell them though, did I.’ A statement, not a question.
     ‘No.’ Was she meant to feel grateful? What could she say? What else was she expected to say? She’ll be her friend now, as she saved her from getting a beating? Not likely. ‘I’ll go get someone.’ Mali walked out; trying not to listen to the awful sobbing that began as she turned her back. It wasn’t her fault. She didn’t ask for that. It’s not like she hated her, it’s just she could never be seen with someone like her or her life as she knew it will be even worse than it already was. Anyhow, she had enough problems of her own; she couldn’t help her too.
      She wanted desperately just to run away, to ignore what she’d seen and heard, stick her fingers in her ears and scream ‘la, la, la,’ and hope it’d all disappear like it hadn’t happened. But she ran to find help, asking herself what she could say that wouldn’t lead to further questions and to incrimination.


Star

It happened in early October when her best friend Monica was ill and off school with what Star always called her ‘boredom bug’. Monica could easily browbeat her pathetic excuse of a mother into phoning in sick for her and then she’d stay in bed, being waited on hand and foot, while watching episode after episode of Jeremy Kyle on Sky.
     Star had been sitting with Monica and Kurt for the duration of the month and four days that they’d been seeing each other, so it was only natural she sit with him now. Although he was her best friend’s boyfriend and she knew he was out of bounds, she smiled up at him with her sparkling blue eyes, laughed coyly at all of his jokes, listened with such an intensity that he must’ve thought he was the only male left alive on the planet. In fact, she did all the tricks she’d seen her mother do on the countless boyfriends who’d been seduced without their actual knowledge and led upstairs to do God alone knows what in her mum’s master bedroom.
     She and Monica were like negative images of each other; she pale skinned and blonde, Monica, chocolate coloured and raven-haired. Her mum had said if you blinked really quickly they were indistinguishable from each other, with the same luscious pout they both put to such good use, the same tiny dress size, the same sense of humour, usually directed at someone else’s expense but then that was what was always so funny.  
     Star felt a slight pang of guilt but dismissed it. She knew she was the woman for Kurt. Knew before he’d ever asked Monica out, which was strange, because he should’ve asked her out first. Well for whatever reason, he would realise his mistake and she’d be the one gazing into his ice blue eyes, not Monica.
     After all, they were a perfect match. Daydreaming of the day he’d ask her out, she trembled when she saw in her mind the moment their hands would reach out. First their fingers would touch so gently, then entwine and hold but not rigid, no, slowly moving, alive, full of love. When they’d spoken of butterflies, she’d never really understood until now but when she thought about him, she seemed to have at least a thousand fluttering inside of her with their delicate wings and it felt wonderful. It took a while before she could move onto their first kiss…  
     The image of Monica crying was banished from her mind. She’ll get over it.


Abeba

Jessica had told!
     Abeba couldn’t believe it. She knew something was wrong when she heard her mum bellow up the stairs.
     ‘Abeba! Come down here immediately!’
     Abeba took her time, partly to give herself a moment to think what might’ve happened and partly to piss her mother off.
      ‘What?’ Abeba pushed into the thin galley kitchen and lounged on the chipped, laminate work surface next to the sink. She gazed, slack-jawed out of the window at the panoramic view that sprawled below them. That always riled her mum no end.
     ‘Close your mouth, Abeba,’ she’d say, time and time again, ‘doing that makes you look really stupid.’
     Seven stories up meant they could see the whole City, nigh on.
     ‘I’ve just had a phone call from school.’ Her mum rapped on the table with a brightly painted nail. ‘They want me to come in tomorrow for an interview, or at least as soon as I can as we need to “discuss” something. So, what might that be?’
     ‘Dunno. Don’t really care.’ Abeba noticed some kids skate-boarding round the patch of so-called grass that separated her tower block from the next. That’s all it was, a square of dirty coloured green, always in shadow, barely distinguishable from the shabby grey of the towers and the surrounding criss-crossing paths with cracked and bulging tarmac. One lone tree struggled against the City’s pollution and the endless fun the kids had, ripping off branches and carving phalluses into its gnarled bark.
     ‘Abeba, I’m speaking to you so look at me properly. Don’t just stare out of the window. What have you done that has made them call me up and demand that I come in?’
     ‘Like I said, I don’t know.’ Sliding her fingers into her jean’s pocket, she tugged out a packet of gum. She pulled a thin strip out, letting the silver foil drop onto the floor.
     ‘If you’re up to your old tricks-‘
     ‘Oh just shut up, will you.’ She curled the gum slowly into her mouth.
     ‘Don’t you speak to me like that-‘
     ‘Yeah, well. You’re always accusing me. I ain’t done nuffink, alright?’
     Abeba barged past her mother, grabbed her jacket from the hook in the hall, swiftly rummaged in her mother’s purse, which was on the side table and twitched out a twenty-pound note. She slammed the front door hard and was running down the walkway that ran along the front of all the flats in her block, was nearly at the stairs when she heard her mother shouting; ‘I’m not gong through all this again, Abeba. I’ve had enough, you hear me? Enough!’
     Abeba stayed round Chantelle’s that night, so she thought she’d got away with it until the Deputy Headmistress, Mrs Bradshaw, picked her up at the end of the final lesson the next day.
     ‘Mr Crane wants to see you in his office.’ Mrs Bradshaw kept a wary hand near to Abeba.
     ‘Don’t you touch me,’ she said.
     ‘I don’t want you to run. It won’t do you any good and you know it. You’re to sit here,’ Mrs Bradshaw indicated a fold out chair that was outside the office, ‘until you’re asked to go in.’
     A few minutes crawled by. Abeba chewed her gum relentlessly and then saw her mother stomping down the main corridor towards the Head’s office. She was at that particular angle, like her head was moving faster than her body, which Abeba knew only too well: her mum was livid. Abeba took a deep breath and lounged outside the Head’s door, trying her best to look uninterested in the whole thing.
     ‘So, now do you know what this is about, Abeba?’ Her mother’s hands curled into fists. She stood so close to her that she could smell the coconut oil conditioner that she used on her hair.
     She coiled away from her. ‘No, why should I? Look, I haven’t done nuffing wrong.’
     ‘Then why am I being called in?’ It was practically a growl.
     ‘I’ve already said, haven’t I? I dunno.’
     Her mother closed her eyes tightly and Abeba prayed she wouldn’t lose it and clump her one here, right in front of kids with prying eyes sneakily glancing along the corridor. She could practically feel their hunger, their anticipation, knowing they wanted her to get punished. How satisfying if they could tell their friends tomorrow that they saw Abeba smacked one by her mum. Abeba seethed at the very thought. Well, she’d punch her one back and no mistake. She felt like she’d poured a bucket of boiling coffee into her insides and a wave of nausea washed over her.
     Her mother broke the tension. ‘I just want what’s best for you. I can’t bear the thought that you might be doing these awful things again. I just don’t understand, Abeba.’
     Before she could muster an answer, the Head’s office door opened. Mr Crane stood looking from Abeba to her mother, stern lines etched deep into his gaunt face, his thin frame bowed slightly. No one had any idea how old he was. He seemed to have been at the school forever. He sniffed and his nicotine stained moustache twitched.
     ‘Please come in.’ He swept his gnarled hand into the room as invitation and stepped out of the way.   
     Abeba followed her mother inside. Mr Crane’s office was dark and dingy, with heavy old furniture and loads of boring plaques of his certificates with so-many letters after his name filling the walls. There were terrible photos of kids in old school plays wearing stupid costumes and wigs. What was worse were the grinning, smarmy pictures of previous Head boys and girls, in perfect uniforms, with perfect teeth and perfect bloody faces. All arse-lickers the lot of them! Abeba sat down and stared at Mr Crane with head tilted in defiance as he spoke.
     ‘This is a grave accusation,’ Mr Crane repeated.
     Abeba let all his words wash over her: she’d kill that stupid fat lump!
     ‘Are you absolutely sure, Mr Crane,’ said her mother, sat with hands clasped tightly, her thumbs twitching.
     Abeba recognised the movement, as it was one her mother used so as to not betray her nerves and her anger.
    Her mother continued, ‘How do you know for sure? How can you accuse Abeba of something like this without any substantial evidence?’
     ‘Well, we have two witnesses. I understand that you must be very upset by this but we have to look at the hard facts here. Abeba has got a long record of this sort of thing, not only here but also from Junior School. It ranges from so-called minor incidents to outright attacks. This is not the first time you have been asked to come in and Abeba has been put in isolation a number of times and, wait, just let me check…’ he leafed through a number of sheets of paper on his desk, ‘ah yes, she has been excluded three times, the maximum amount of time was for two weeks, if you remember.’
     ‘I remember.’ Abeba’s mother turned to her. ‘Please tell me that this isn’t happening again, Abeba.’ Her mother’s full lips were pinched tight. ‘Tell me the truth, did you do this terrible thing to this girl, er, Jessica?’
     ‘No matter what I say, you fink I did it anyhow. So what’s the point of saying anyfing?’
     ‘Okay, so now I’m listening. I need to know what happened? I want to know.’
     Two witnesses? This was going to be tricky, so who was the other one?
     ‘She deserved it; I didn’t do nothing that wasn’t coming to her. Everyone hates her, not just me and she was rude to me, too. I bet she didn’t tell you that, did she?’
     Mr Crane leant forward. ‘Was that before or after you’d banged her head against the toilet wall a fair few times?’
     ‘Mr Crane!’ said her mother.
     Abeba turned to him, but her eyes slid away from his. ‘It was before, that’s why I did that. She was right rude to me.’ She tried to look like she was the victim, that all she’d done was exact a little payback.
     ‘Why do you think it’s acceptable to hurt and belittle people, Abeba?’ he said, ‘Especially someone like Jessica who is more in need of friendship than most.’
     ‘Who cares about her? No one cares. You just pretend to care, ‘cos you have to. I bet you wouldn’t want her to be part of your family, now would you?’ Abeba saw a muscle jump in the side of his cheek. Got you, you hypocritical shit.
     ‘I want you to make something of yourself, Abeba,’ said her mother, her voice beginning to rise, ’but you insist in destroying your chances in life. I want to feel proud of you, not ashamed.’
     ‘Don’t you feel no shame about me. I get what I want. I’m strong, just as you taught me to be. I’m not going to end up like you, looking after people who think they’re above you, better than you. I’m going to take what I want with both hands, like you should’ve done.’ She stood up, her chair fell backwards with a crash and she pushed out of the office. She heard Mr Crane shout at her retreating back:
     ‘You are going to be excluded for two weeks, Abeba. An example has to be made. Don’t for a minute think you can get away with something like this!’
     ‘Abeba!’ screamed her mother, ‘Come back here this instance or you’ll be for it!’


 
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