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Authors: Mhairi McFarlane

Here's Looking at You

BOOK: Here's Looking at You
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HERE’S LOOKING AT YOU
MHAIRI MCFARLANE

For Helen
A school friend who’s more like a sister

Table of Contents

Cover

Title Page

Dedication

Prologue

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Chapter 33

Chapter 34

Chapter 35

Chapter 36

Chapter 37

Chapter 38

Chapter 39

Chapter 40

Chapter 41

Chapter 42

Chapter 43

Chapter 44

Chapter 45

Chapter 46

Chapter 47

Chapter 48

Chapter 49

Chapter 50

Chapter 51

Chapter 52

Chapter 53

Chapter 54

Chapter 55

Chapter 56

Chapter 57

Chapter 58

Chapter 59

Chapter 60

Chapter 61

Chapter 62

Chapter 63

Chapter 64

Chapter 65

Chapter 66

Chapter 67

Chapter 68

Chapter 69

Chapter 70

Chapter 71

Acknowledgements

About the Author

Copyright

About the Publisher

PROLOGUE
Rise Park Comprehensive, East London, 1997
The last day of term

‘Ladies and gentlemen. Mr Elton John!’

Gavin Jukes, in huge pipe-cleaner spectacles and a duck costume, strode out to deafening cheers. Well, strode out as well you can in canary yellow foam feet: a jaunty waddle. He sat down at the keyboard – with some difficulty due to the padded tail – and started bashing noiselessly at a keyboard, carolling along with ‘Are You Ready For Love’.

Standing in the stage wings, Aureliana adjusted the sash on her 1970s peach polyester maternity gown with knife-pleat skirt, and touched a hand to her hair-sprayed bouffant.

She took a deep, shaky breath, inhaling that school sports hall odour of tennis shoe rubber, Impulse body spray and ripe adolescent hormones.

The leavers’ Mock Rock was a simple but wildly successful formula: dress up as a pop star, the sillier the outfit the better, and mime along to an old hit.

And thank God, the crowd loved Gavin.

According to all witless graffiti that tackled the topic of Gavin Jukes, he was ‘a massive gayer’. And yet he’d fearlessly chosen to impersonate a flamboyant homosexual singer, to this rapturous reception?

Perhaps Aureliana Alessi, the weirdo who ate whiffy lasagne in Tupperware for lunch instead of Mighty White sandwiches, might also finally be laughed with, rather than at.

It was as if school had been a pantomime, with everyone merely playing roles, and villains and heroes alike came on to take their bows together at the end.

Even Lindsay and Cara, Aureliana’s most committed antagonists, dressed in minis and platform boots as Agnetha and Anni-Frid from ABBA, had studiously left her alone today.

Their coven members were swigging contraband ‘Minkoff’ brand vodka from bottles of Happy Shopper cola and watching her with their heavily Rimmelled eyes, but keeping their distance. Aureliana wouldn’t have minded a nip of something herself.

Maybe the Mock Rock magic came from the fact that popular older kids were already like rock stars to the younger. Apart from James Fraser. He was like a rock star to
everyone
. Aureliana glanced over at him and told herself again that this would be fine because she’d be on stage with James Fraser.

James Fraser.
The mere music of saying his name made her stomach lining dissolve.

She’d been skiving PE in the library a week ago, re-reading a
Sweet Valley High
book, when he’d approached her.

‘Hi Aureliana. Aren’t you meant to be in PE?’

It was the most extraordinary moment.

James Fraser, God of Rise Park, was for the first time speaking to her.
To her.

He knew her name. Not just the ‘Italian Galleon’ or ‘Pavagrotty’ ones.

He knew her timetable?

He smiled a lazy smile. Aureliana had never seen him this close up before.

It was like meeting your idol – all those hours spent obsessing over their every detail and suddenly confronted with them in the walking, talking flesh. And what flesh. That incredible white lit-from-within skin, like a church candle flame burning low and glowing through the wax. The oil-spill shiny black hair and the purple-blue eyes.

She’d actually tried to draw him in her
Forever Friends
diary once, using felt tips. It didn’t work, he ended up a ringer for Shakin’ Stevens. She reverted back to the usual hearts and flowers doodles, and the legend ‘AA 4 JF 4EVA’.

‘Don’t blame you. PE’s such crap.’

Aureliana made a sort of disbelieving honk noise and nodded vigorously. Sporty James secretly hated PE too?! This was proof. They were meant to be.

‘I was wondering, the Mock Rock. I thought doing Freddie Mercury and the opera singer could be funny? A duet, me and you? Fancy it?’

Aureliana nodded. He’d used the phrase ‘me and you’. Fantasies had become reality. Right then he could’ve said
I’m planning on jumping out of that window. Doesn’t look a long way down, me and you, fancy it?
and she’d have followed.

It was only in the days after that she pondered the wisdom of going on stage as one of Rise Park’s most fat, foreign and bullied, next to its sex god pin-up. What if all the worst bitches crucified her for it? But, she’d reasoned she’d never see any of them again after today, and they wouldn’t wreck James Fraser’s big moment.

She thought James might want to rehearse but he’d never suggested it, and she didn’t want to look pushy. He knew what he was doing, he always did.

Perhaps they should’ve conferred on wardrobe though. Aureliana thought the deal was that they went all out. She’d backcombed her hair into something approximating a soprano’s coif and plastered her face with pan stick. James, from what she could see, had only drawn on a cad’s pencil moustache. But then she didn’t know what she expected – he was unlikely to do a frontless leotard and stick-on chest wig.

Gavin was taking his bows. Oh, God. This was it. Here goes. James ambled over to her side and she’d never felt more important or special.

The Mock Rock’s MC, Mr Towers, cued the music. Dry ice gushed out with a soft hiss, and the opening bars of the ‘Barcelona’ track swelled.

They walked onto the stage to deafening cheers and applause. Aureliana gazed at the gallery of delighted faces, getting an exhilarating glimpse into what it was like to be James Fraser. To feel that much excitement and goodwill reflected back at the very sight of you.

She turned to him, to exchange a nervous grin of solidarity before the singing started, but James was giving her a funny smirk and backing away into the wings again.

It was a green Praline Triangle that got her first, glancing off her cheek and arcing onto the stage floor. She felt a small pain in her stomach as another missile hit its target, like a rubber band being snapped against her body. A purple one with the hazelnut sailed past her head and she ducked out of the way, only to catch a toffee penny on the chin.

And then came a hurricane of Quality Street, as the air filled with a blizzard of shiny, multi-coloured shrapnel. Mr Towers turned the music off and started shouting to try to restore order, but all in vain.

Aureliana looked over in desperation at James. He was bent nearly double with laughter. His friend Laurence had one arm slung round his best mate’s head, the other arm busy with a fist-pumping triumphal gesture.

Lindsay and Cara had tears of mirth streaming down their maquillaged faces, holding on to each other for support.

It took a moment for Aureliana to accept what was happening.

That this had been planned from the start. That someone had gone to the trouble of buying dozens of those big tins of sweets and handed them round the audience. That they had been given a cue to start lobbing them, and for everyone else, this was the extra helping of mock in the grand finale.

Slowly, it dawned on her that her crush might not have been as secret as she thought. This she found even more humiliating than being at the centre of the confectionery tornado.

She could see Gavin trying to remonstrate with them all from underneath his duck bill hat.

James Fraser was clapping and he uttered a three-syllable, single word, as he looked at her, enunciating clearly.
Elephant.

Aureliana had long ago steeled herself not to cry under pressure. Not only did she not want to give her tormentors the satisfaction, she’d figured out the less reaction you gave bullies, the faster they lost interest. She saw no reason to break that rule now and start weeping in front of a vast and hostile audience.

Unfortunately, at that moment of dignified resolve, she was hit with a Coconut Éclair in the left eye, and they both started streaming anyway.

1

Anna stepped out of the stark autumn chill and squeezed into the steamy warmth of the restaurant. It was buzzing with conversations and pounding music, set at
the weekend has started
pitch.

‘Table for two please!’ Anna bellowed, feeling that flutter of nerves and anticipation, tinged with scepticism. When it came to crap dates, she had her proficiency badge.

Thanks to practice, Anna knew to choose lively and not-overtly-romantic venues to take the pressure off. And the trend for sharer plates that arrived at different times was a gift. With the traditional three courses, there was nothing worse than a date going badly, and knowing you were locked in the deadening back-and-forth of
really
and
where are you from
originally
until the
just an espresso for me, please
.

Of course, you could simply go for a drink and cut out the dining. However, Anna vetoed alcohol and no food since an incident where she woke up at the end of the Central Line with only a patchy memory of how she got there, holding a plastic pineapple ice-bucket and a phone bearing eleven texts of increasing incoherence and pornography.

The intimidatingly young and cool waitress took her name and ushered her down into the dark basement.

Anna stood in the three-deep crush at the bar among the mouthy straight-from-work suits, wondering if tonight would be the night.

By ‘the night’, she meant the one she fantasised would be mentioned in the best man’s speech in the splendour of The Old Rectory, as he stood in a shaft of sunshine splintered through mullioned windows.

For those of you that don’t know, Neil met Anna on an internet date. I’m told he was attracted to her sparkling sense of humour and the fact she’d got him a drink without being asked.
(Pause for weak laughter.)

She eventually part-screeched and part-semaphored an order for herself and her date, and found a corner to loiter in.

Honestly, she remonstrated with herself, an internet date is basically an interview for a shag. Isn’t that pressure enough without mentally spooling forward to imaginary nuptials? Anna wasn’t at all obsessed with getting married, per se; she was simply keen to find the person who mattered. She was thirty-two and the bastard was taking his time. So much so that she suspected he’d got lost en route and accidentally married someone else.

BOOK: Here's Looking at You
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