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Authors: Alice Kuipers

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Lost for Words

BOOK: Lost for Words
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Alice Kuipers
Lost for Words

To my brother, his wife, and their daughter

And then the windows failed, and then I could not see to see.

Emily Dickinson




The Sticks on the Trees Stand Up Harsh and Bare


With Rings on Their Fingers and Knots in Their Hair


The Silver of Winter


Is Smoky with Rain


The Witches of Sunlight


Fly Low Again


In a Puddle of Grey


Last Summer Lies


Where Nothing can Swim


And, and, and…


The Spring is Weighted with What has Been


And She’s Still with Me Brightly Unseen


The sticks on the trees
Stand up harsh and bare


I look at the words, black like inky spiders, and watch the webs they weave. There’s something enjoyable about filling a blank page, although I’d never admit that to Lynda. She gave me this empty notebook when I went to see her on Thursday and said, “Writing in here will help you remember.”

“What if I don’t want to?”

“I think you should.”

“It won’t change anything.”

“Perhaps you need to try this.”

I rolled my eyes.

She said in her terribly patient way, “Do you want to talk about what you’re feeling right now?”

“I’m fine,” I said, wishing the hour were over.


I wonder what to write. I don’t even know where to start, but I do like the act of writing. I suppose I could start with this morning.

After a horrible dream I woke tired. Most people I know would be dreading going back to school, but I was glad to get out of the house. Today was the first day back to St. David’s High after our Christmas holiday. It’s ten minutes’ dreary walk and seven stops on the bus from my house in Islington, North London. It’s a girls’ school. I’m in my first year of sixth form, but because my birthday’s in July, I won’t be seventeen for ages.

I stood in my bra, knickers, and tights and tugged on my uniform. I buttoned the pale blue shirt (small), zipped up my navy skirt (medium), and rolled it at the waist to make it about two inches shorter. I tugged on my navy jumper and wrestled into my blazer, with its horrible shoulder pads, smoothing down the front lapels next to the insignia with the words
Nil Ye Dread
. I slipped on black ballet flats.
Where my tongue dips toward my throat, I had a bitter, burned coffee taste, which even brushing my teeth couldn’t remove. Was I nervous?

I picked up the brown bag Emily got me from Leeds, hurried along the corridor, passing Emily’s room, Mum’s office, and clattering down the wooden stairs into the kitchen. Mum (she’s an interior designer—at least she used to be) chose the white walls and hardwood floors that we have in every room except the kitchen, which has red cork tile. The round oak table had no one sitting at it. Knowing there was no bread or milk, I didn’t bother stopping for breakfast. I called upstairs to Mum, “I’ll be back later.” She didn’t answer. I wasn’t even sure she was up there.

I went through the living room, past the shelves of books and the cool photographs that Emily took of plastic bags. I opened the front door and walked out into the chilly morning. The clouds were drenched with grey light like thick smoke. I tried not to think about anything, tried to empty my mind, but I couldn’t help it, and for a moment the memories were too strong. I held out one trembling hand like I was an old woman with Parkinson’s and watched it shake. My lungs were filling with smoky clouds; the air was too thick to breathe. I leaned against a neighbor’s fence. Took deep breaths. Reminded myself that everything was fine.

I got on the bus, concentrated on looking out the window, and arrived at St. David’s in one piece. As I walked
under the stone arch to the main building, I kept telling myself I was okay; it was time I got over last summer. The autumn term passed by in a fog, but now it’s a new year, new term, new start—for real this time. I ducked past reception, waved to a couple of people, avoided answering any questions about Christmas, avoided looking at their silly bright smiles. I pushed down the corridor, squeezed past the crush of other girls walking arm in arm, speaking on their mobiles, being yelled at by Mrs. P to slow down.

Everything going on around me—the others, the noise, the ring of the bell to get to class—was so loud, it gave me a headache. The strip lights along the ceiling fizzed neon yellow, the color too bright for my eyes. I took a slow breath. I remembered my New Year’s resolution: I’m moving on from everything that’s happened. I’m not going to talk about it, think about it, let the memory pounce upon me like a waiting tiger, nothing.

I got to my form room and looked around for my best friend, Abigail, but she wasn’t sitting at her seat at the desk by the window, the one close to the maps of the world that Ms. Bloxam insists on. Abi was late. Or I was early. I remember how Abi and I used to meet at the school gate and chat about the morning and the night before even though we’d have spent all evening on the phone or IM together. Abi and I met on the very first day of school years ago, standing in the corridor waiting nervously to
go into our first lesson. She came over and said hi, and I thought she was brave to do that, because I was too shy to go up to anyone. We quickly became close. We went through everything together. I was the calm, strong, supportive one, good at school, good at listening; she was fun, impulsive, lively. She made me laugh.

I sighed and went to sit down. A new girl sat at the desk next to mine. She made our uniform look good. (I thought it wasn’t possible.) Her shirt was not too tight or too loose and the color suited her milky skin. Her short skirt showed the fishnet pattern in her black tights and her shoes had a small heel.

She sat, leaning over the desk, writing something, her crow-feather hair falling all over the place, long and shiny. Without looking up, she said, “Are you going to keep staring at me or are you going to say something?”

I didn’t reply. She looked up then and narrowed her denim blue eyes. She said, “What?”

“Nothing. I just…It’s just that Megan sits there.”

“Well, Megan’s gonna have to sit somewhere else today.”

I’d never think to say anything obvious like that. I’m all apologies and flubbed words when people confront me. Which isn’t often anymore. I wasn’t sure how to reply. “Are you American?” I asked.

She folded the paper she’d been writing on and pushed
her hair back from her face. “I’m from Canada. But I live here now.”

“How come?”

“My mom died and I moved here two weeks ago to live with my dad.” She paused. “What?” she said, again.

“I’m sorry about your mum.”

She shrugged and said, “Not your fault.” Leaning back in her chair, she made the front two feet come off the floor.

“What were you writing?” I asked.


“I’m just curious.”

“A poem.”

“What sort of a poem?” I’d never met anyone who wrote poems.

“A poem about death.”

I couldn’t tell if she was being serious. It wasn’t the sort of thing I’d joke about. “You’re going to be in our class?” I asked.

“What do you think?” She reached into her pocket and pulled out a packet of chewing gum. She offered me some with a quick smile, but I shook my head.

The bell rang and some of the others came into the classroom. The new girl stayed exactly where she was. The others looked at her like she was an animal at the zoo they couldn’t quite believe in—like an okapi or a red panda. Abigail came over and gave me a big squealing hug.

“Where were you all Christmas, Sophie? How’ve you been?”

She was only being nice, but I couldn’t help but tense up, because everything has just been so weird between us. I immediately mentally kicked myself for being ridiculous; I wanted to start the new term with everything NORMAL. Abi looked at the new girl but didn’t speak to her, not even to say hi or anything. She—Abi, not the new girl—put her hand on my shoulder and talked to me about some party she wanted to have at her house. I half listened to Abi and half watched the Canadian, who unfolded her piece of paper, chewed her pen, then went back to writing her poem.

The second bell rang. Ms. Bloxam came in. She’s so enormous and unfit that I suspect she’ll have a heart attack one of these days. I imagine her taking registration with sweat beading at the edges of her puffy face. Suddenly, between reading out “Sophie Baxter” (me) and “Megan Bigley,” she’ll make this strangled sound, clutch her heart, slump over her desk, and writhe about gasping for breath, but it’ll be too late. She’ll die in front of us all, never finishing registration.

Today, though, she finished registration, not mentioning the new girl or seeming to notice when Megan arrived late and perched on a spare seat with her arms folded across her chest, glaring at everyone. Ms. Bloxam asked if we’d
had a nice Christmas and rambled, “It’s a new term and we’re all looking forward to…er…moving on from the…er…terrible events of last year. You girls, all of you”—I’m sure she gave me a look—“have to start focusing on all we have to learn, on all”—she took a breath at this point because she’d run out of air—“on all that is coming to you, with all the rigor…er…necessary for you to approach your future. Before you know it, you’ll be in the thick of…”

I tuned out. Stuck my pen into the wood of the desk, wrote the first letter of my name.
Sophie. I wondered if I had a brand-new name I would be a brand-new person. A person without a past. A person with only the future as remains. I carved the
harder into the wood and felt heat at my back. I spun around, but there was nothing there. No heat, no nothing. Just Zara painting her nails with a silver star at the tip of each manicured finger. Zara’s black, and she has her hair cropped pixielike around her ears. She looks like a model. Zara pouted at me: her way of smiling. I turned around to face the front again. Ms. Bloxam, still sweating and still rambling on, told us we’re having a dance teacher come in from Manchester in a couple of weeks. Then, finally, she introduced us to the new girl. Her name’s Rosa-Leigh. Megan jumped up, interrupted, and said Rosa-Leigh was in her seat.

Megan’s short with big boobs. Her hair is wiry and plain, muddy brown. She has a large mouth with annoyingly
perfect teeth. She uses fake tan to make herself less pale. Her eyes are hazel, which makes them sound pretty, but I find they’re too yellow with her fair skin; even when she has on loads of fake tan, her eyes just seem the wrong color. I’ve never liked her. I think of her as doughy, like an uncooked bread roll, maybe because she’s a bit shapeless, apart from her big boobs, but that’s really mean of me to think—I’m hardly perfect when it comes to body shape. I suppose I don’t like her because she’s a “hanger-on.” She’s always
. You’d think it might be because she’s insecure or something, but it’s not that, because she
herself. Ms. Bloxam pressed her lips together, looked at Megan, then swiveled around, and told Rosa-Leigh to move to a spare desk on the left.

I watched Rosa-Leigh. As did the rest of the class: thirty pairs of eyes. She waited for just long enough that everyone thought she wasn’t going to move; then, at the last second, she picked up her things, stood, said, “Sure,” and shifted.


The first lesson I had was double Art. Then break. Then English and History. At lunch Abigail grabbed me and propelled me to the table with her and Megan. Zara came to sit with us, and I listened while the three of them gabbled on about homework, and Megan’s boyfriend, and Zara’s great Christmas in Spain. I didn’t say much. Everything changed last term, so now we all sit together and I have to pretend Abigail and I didn’t used to laugh at how Megan
and Zara are boring and shallow. I still don’t like Megan, or even Zara, really, and Abigail didn’t used to, either. Abi told me last year that she didn’t trust Megan and that Zara made her feel small and stupid. That doesn’t seem to be the case anymore. So I sat there being normal and laughing in all the right places, because that’s how things are now.

They started talking about Abigail’s party. (She’s throwing it because her mum’s away the weekend after next.) Megan’s getting to Abigail’s house at five and everyone else can come over at eight. Everyone else being me, as well. It used to be I was the one to get there early. I remember once, years ago, Abi and I had planned a huge sleepover at her house. We were so excited as we spent the afternoon before everyone arrived, choosing movies and piling up packets of crisps and chocolates for our midnight feast. It got to eight o’clock, and no one showed up. She was ready to cry, so we stuffed ourselves with crisps and watched half the movies before we realized we’d told everyone the wrong day. They all showed up the next evening, and Abi and I were exhausted from having stayed up all the night before. For years we made jokes about our lack of “organizing sleepover” skills until only one of us had to say the word
for the other to crack a smile. I wondered if Abigail remembered, too. I glanced over at her, but she wasn’t looking at me. She was busy going on about how “Megan has her brother’s friends coming, and Megan has a great idea for the music.” I couldn’t wait to get out of the packed lunch hall.


Tonight Mum ordered us Chinese takeaway for dinner: lemon chicken, sweet and sour pork, egg fried rice. We picked at our food in silence. Straight after she’d finished, she left the table and spent the rest of the evening in her office with her collection. I went out to buy poor Fluffy some cat food and fed her as soon as I got back. She purred and rubbed around my legs in gratitude. I switched on the kettle. I was going to ask Mum if she wanted a hot drink, but when I went upstairs, through the door I could hear her crying. I hurried down and made myself a lonely cup of tea (no milk, yuck). I switched on the computer so when Mum came out I looked busy and she didn’t know I’d heard.


Rosa-Leigh, the new girl, and I catch the same bus home, but she never speaks to me. Instead she heads upstairs as soon as we get on. I’m glad. I get to spend the journey looking out the window, not thinking about anything.


Tonight I did all my homework and watched the telly for a couple of hours. There’s never anything on except for home makeovers or really violent stuff that I can’t watch. I
switched it off and sat for a while. In the gloom of evening, I wished Abigail would call. We’re best friends, after all. I know it’s because she doesn’t know what to say, she even told me that, but I wished she’d call anyway.

BOOK: Lost for Words
3.72Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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