Authors: Jess Vallance
It’s 7.42 p.m. right now and I’ve been trying to get this started since three o’clock so I’m just going to have to get on with it. I’ve just been struggling with the perfect moment to step into the story, you know? Trying to work out how much you need to know about me, and about Bert, to understand how it all happened. Whenever I ask anyone what to include they always just say, ‘Everything. Anything that’s important.’ And if they really want to know
then I suppose I should start with the day I first found out about Bert. That was the very beginning, after all.
It’s funny, isn’t it, when you think back to something like that – some completely normal afternoon when nothing very important or memorable seemed to happen but when someone told you something that later turned out to be the thing to change your life forever. I wonder if I would’ve acted differently, in that conversation, if I’d had even half a clue of what it was going to lead to. Maybe I would’ve listened a bit harder, remembered a few more of the details. In all honesty though, I don’t think my answer would’ve been any different. I would’ve still said yes.
It was a Wednesday afternoon that started this whole story off. The first Wednesday of Year Ten, in fact. It was the end of registration and it was boiling in the classroom – that sticky kind of heat that makes everyone all restless and irritable. All the boys had their shirts undone to halfway down their chests and people were fanning themselves with exercise books. Everything stank like onions.
Mr Hurst – he was our form tutor that year – finished the register and closed it up with a noisy yawn. He read out a notice about the toilets in Red Block being out of order, then shooed us off to our afternoon lessons, calling, ‘Ties, folks. Ties …’ in his usual bored voice. Everyone drifted towards the door but as I passed his desk, he looked up at me.
‘Actually, Frances,’ he said, in a low voice. ‘Could I borrow you for a minute?’
I shrugged and nodded, feeling that funny mixture of curiosity and trepidation you always get when a teacher asks you for a private word. That’s the feeling I always got anyway. I suppose if you were Jac Dubois or Megan Brebner and you were used to getting hassled by teachers, those chats just made you feel bored. Or defiant or something. But for me, someone who was basically ignored by everyone, it was kind of exciting to be summoned like that.
We watched the last of the class leave the room.
‘Close the door please, Dan,’ Mr Hurst said.
Daniel Greengrass replied by slamming it behind him, making the windows rattle. Mr Hurst rolled his eyes and sighed, which was about as close as he ever got to blowing a fuse.
There was always something very weary about Mr Hurst. He huffed and puffed his way through every day, checking the clock on the wall every two and a half minutes. I think he spent the whole day just counting down the seconds to home time. Afternoons were definitely the worst for him. Sometimes he could hardly be bothered to finish his sentences.
Mr Hurst leant back in his chair and ran his hand through his straggly grey hair. I hovered in front of him, picking at the label on my history folder, and waited for him to start talking.
‘Frances, I have a favour to ask.’
He clasped his hands behind his head, showing two dark circles of sweat on the armpits of his shirt. He must’ve seen me looking because he quickly put his arms down again and rested his fingers on the edge of his desk, tapping them a bit.
‘Oh yeah?’ I said, looking down and fiddling with a ripped nail on my thumb.
I was interested in what he was going to say, but I knew it was important not to let that show too much. There was no telling what errands you might get roped into if you were seen as too amenable at times like these.
‘The thing is,’ Mr Hurst went on, ‘I’ve just this lunchtime been informed that we’re to have a new member join our tutor group. Tomorrow. A girl called …’ he checked a note on his desk, ‘Alberta. Alberta Fitzroy-Black.’
Two surnames, I thought straight away. A posh one. I wondered if there was some kind of story there. Posh kids didn’t come to Whistle Down Academy, as a general rule.
‘She’s going to be in this class, as I say, and looking at her sets and options, it looks like you two have the same timetable, so I wondered if you would help me out – help
out – and take her under your wing for a few days? Just until she finds her feet?’
‘How do you mean?’ I said. ‘What do I have to do?’
The thought of being in charge of someone else, someone who’d look to me for guidance, made me a bit nervous. Who was I to be giving advice on how to do things? I was hardly a shining example. Of anything.
Mr Hurst waved his hand in a vague, non-committal kind of way. ‘Oh you know. Show her the toilets. Explain how the canteen works. Make sure she doesn’t get lost. Nothing too arduous. It won’t be for long, I’m sure … and well, you never know. You might get something out of it. It might be nice for you to … to make a friend.’
I gave Mr Hurst a little offended frown. I didn’t really like the way he was hinting that I was somehow lacking in the friendship department. I mean, I was of course, but there was no need for him to bring it up. Being lonely is hard enough without people embarrassing you by pointing it out. Also the idea that I’d see any new acquaintance as a potential best friend was a bit hurtful, I thought. Why do people always think that just because someone’s on their own a lot that they haven’t got any standards? If anything, it should be seen as the opposite – evidence of a bit of discernment. Other people might be happy saddling themselves to the first person to look at them twice in maths, but maybe I wanted more than some meaningless union of convenience formed around the need to share a calculator. People never thought of it like that, did they?
Mr Hurst obviously realised he was heading down a dead end with that line of persuasion and quickly changed tack. ‘Look, Frances. I could just really do with a sensible girl like you giving her a positive first impression of Whistle Down. Help me out here, would you?’
I thought for a moment. I figured it might be something interesting to do for a couple of days, a bit of a distraction from the usual monotonous regime of lessons, lessons, lunch, lessons, home. Why not, I thought. No harm in it
‘OK,’ I sighed. ‘Fine. But I’m only doing it for a day or two. After that, she’s on her own.’
I often found myself slipping into this persona – frosty, aloof. It wasn’t deliberate usually, but I suppose it made sense. It’s the only way to really cope with being an outsider in the long run – convince yourself and everyone around you that you don’t want anyone anyway. I suppose at this point I was also setting myself up for the very real possibility that this new girl would ditch me as soon as she got the measure of me anyway. I guess I just wanted to make it clear that I wasn’t seeing this as a long-term alliance so that when it all fell apart it was on the record that I’d planned to drop her first.
Mr Hurst looked like he was going to argue about that but I guess he just couldn’t be bothered. ‘Fine … Fine,’ he said absently, then he opened a file on his desk and I took that as my signal to leave.
‘Oh, Frances,’ Mr Hurst called, as I headed for the door. ‘One other thing …’
I turned back, my hand on the handle.
‘I understand Alberta’s had a pretty difficult time of it lately so … be gentle with her, won’t you?’
I didn’t ask about what he meant. I just nodded. And then I left and that was it. That was how it started.
In a way, I’d been waiting for something big to happen for ages. I didn’t know what exactly, but I’d always had a feeling like I was just hanging on for something to come along and make things different. I felt a bit like I was in a waiting room – my real life, the one I was supposed to have, hadn’t started yet.
For years, I’d been looking ahead to any little milestone that was coming up, and every time I’d think, This’ll be it this time, if I can just get there – to the next year at school, to a particular school trip, whatever – then that’s when it’ll happen. I’ll meet some new people. I’ll find some girls like me who are never going to be the cool and popular ones but who are quirky and interesting and we’ll form a solid little gang where we’ll talk about books and watch unusual Japanese films and learn a martial art together
But then the milestones would come and nothing would change. And by this point I’d just about given up hope that it ever would. I certainly didn’t realise that
was it. Not that day in the classroom with Mr Hurst anyway.
I’m not meaning to present all this as a sob story, by the way. I do realise that being a bit of a loner isn’t the worst thing that’s ever happened to a person. But it’s important that you know the background, I think. I know people will wonder about some of the things that happened that year, about how I could’ve been so sucked in by Bert and why I made some of the decisions I did, but you need to understand how things were for me at the time she came into my life. I do realise I’m not completely blameless in this story, but maybe if I hadn’t been so fed up I would’ve been a bit more guarded, wouldn’t have put so much energy into her. Maybe. But who can really say for sure how they’d act if they got the chance to go back?
The main thing to say is that if they want to know all about that year – about what Bert did – they’d be best off just asking her themselves. They have already, I suppose. But these people love going over the same ground, again and again and again. And actually, the more I think about it, the more I like the idea of having my say. I like the idea of getting it all down on paper. I’ve never been one for writing in a diary – it’s not like I would’ve had much to put in it before Bert – but that year is something I’d like to have a record of. Not just for them, but for myself too. And also for anyone else who asks. The last thing I want to happen is for the whole story to get all Chinese-whispered and people to start inventing details about Bert’s personality and what she did and everything else that happened. I hate that kind of unfairness. I suppose I can’t really stop that happening but at least this way there’ll be an official version for people to refer back to.
Other people have started telling their own versions of the story already actually. The media especially. It’s usually the same old crap, focusing on all the wrong details and missing the point entirely. I did read one interesting article on it all though. It was in one of those pseudo-scientific magazines – the kind that like to write about holistic nutrition and acupuncture and the nurturing of the ‘self’. They called the whole thing ‘the tragic unravelling of one damaged teen’s psyche’ and as these things always do, went on about the ‘numerous failings and missed opportunities of the agencies involved’. All total rubbish of course – who could’ve predicted what was going to happen? – but at least that version was a bit more sympathetic than the spiteful, sensationalist stuff the tabloids like to churn out. They’re all adamant that this should be my account. My observations on the year. It does make sense to ask me, I suppose. I was there after all, right in the middle of everything. And the truth of it is, I’ll probably be able to give them a much more accurate summary than Bert ever would.
The thing is, for all Bert’s lovely qualities – and there were lots of those, whatever she did in the end – she was never really any good at the kind of clear thinking that’s needed to get through this kind of thing. I mean, she wasn’t
stupid by any means and I’m not saying that to make you think badly of her. I just really want this to be a totally fair, impartial account and the truth is she was always just so easily distracted and emotional that I don’t honestly know if she could sit down quietly for long enough to get the whole story down on paper. She’d probably get bored of the project halfway through and start turning pages into origami frogs or something.
That was always the interesting thing really, with Bert and me. We were both total misfits obviously but apart from that we were actually complete opposites in lots of ways. And that was a good thing, I think. It seems funny to me now, the way people always talk about what they’ve got in common with someone, as if that counts for anything. If my time with Bert taught me anything, it’s that it’s the differences that are important. It’s like a jigsaw, I suppose. To fit together you’ve got to be different. If you got two jigsaw pieces that were exactly the same, they’d bump up against each other and never sit comfortably at all. It was like that with Bert and me. I was the logical one, the thinker. She was the creative one. The entertainer. And we slotted together very neatly indeed. Most of the time.
Anyway. I suppose what they’re looking for here is a straightforward report. That’s what I’m aiming for anyway – a clear rundown of events, exactly as they happened. I think I’ve done enough of an introduction now so here I go with the proper story:
My name is Frances Bird. I’m fifteen. This is the story of what happened last year. The year I finally found my best friend and the year she betrayed me.