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Authors: Rosie Best

Skulk

SKULK

Rosie best

For Jessie and Imogen, my weird sisters.

CHAPTER ONE

Sitting half in and half out of my bedroom window, a foot resting on the fire escape, I checked myself over one last time. Phone. Oystercard. Keys. Mace. Paint.

I hoped I wasn’t going to need the first four.

I climbed out and the window slid into place behind me with the kind of silence you have to work at. It’d taken a week and four whole cans of WD-40.

The freezing air hit the back of my throat and I shivered. There’s something about the night between 2 and 5am that crawls into your bones if you let it, leaves you breathless and shivering. You can do one of two things – stay safe and warm in bed, or get out and keep moving.

I tiptoed down the fire escape and landed with a crunch in the alley round the back of the house, between the big black cars. Their polished bodywork glittered in the moonlight, like the carapaces of giant sleeping beetles. At the security gates I tapped out the code that kept our little bunch of houses locked away from the rest of the city; fortress, madhouse and ghetto in one neat silky package.

Lingering in the shadow by the wall, I zipped up my old grey hoodie, pulled the hood up over my face and shifted the backpack on my shoulders, feeling the reassuring slosh-clank of the aerosol cans against my back. I looked like a troublemaker – but an anonymous one.

A flock of CCTV cameras perched all along the fence, silently judging the passers-by. Even at this time of night the footpath through the park wasn’t deserted. A homeless man sat in one of the patches of light beneath a wrought-iron streetlamp with a scabby terrier at his side, and a lone mad jogger bounced past me in skintight Lycra shorts, fluorescent headphones swinging with every stride. I’d seen him before. Was this the middle of the night to him, or the first hours of tomorrow?

I heard a screech of drunken laughter and four girls stumbled onto the path in front of me. Their vintage frocks hung wonkily off their shoulders and one of them was limping along in a single Jimmy Choo.

They wove close enough for me to make out their faces, and my hands flew to my hood, pulling it right down. Cold water seemed to flood through my veins. I stumbled and nearly stopped in my tracks, but forced myself to keep putting one foot in front of the other.

It was Ameera and Jewel, and Mary, and that flautist Mary plays in the orchestra with whose name I can never remember.

I hung my head and swallowed. A hot flush of embarrassment flooded up my neck. I knew they’d be out tonight – they’d talked about nothing else at school that day. They’d invited me to go with them, but…

Well, they were walking home pissed at 2am with one Jimmy Choo on. I’d bet my inheritance that they’d spent the evening in a hot, dark room, jumping up and down to bad music with sexist lyrics, straining to hear horrible pick-up lines from boys whose attention I could not possibly care less about.

I like Jewel and Ameera. I like hanging out with them. I like alcohol, too. But I don’t do clubbing. I just don’t see what part of it is supposed to be fun.

They were walking right towards me. I fixed my gaze on the floor and tried to keep my pace steady and my heart from pounding right out of my throat and off down the street. A tangled, distinctive ringlet escaped from under my hood and hung right in front of my eyes, glowing dirty blonde in the street light, like a flashing neon sign saying
MEG IS HERE
. It dangled just too close to focus on, taunting me. Should I ignore it, and risk them knowing it was me, or should I move to tuck it back and risk drawing attention to myself?

And then, while I was lost in the indecision, the girls had passed me and were gone into the patchy darkness.

They were drunk. It was dark. And I looked like a tramp. We might as well have been on different continents. I paused to adjust my backpack and suck in a deep sigh of relief. I was invisible, alone on the dark path, and right now that was exactly the way I wanted it.

Sorry, guys,
I thought, casting a glance over my shoulder at their disappearing backs.
I can’t share this with you. This is just for me.

I came out of the park and onto the main road, blinking in the glare. The lights here were still bright. The clubs were just starting to chuck out. Packed night buses crawled along the road. Workers in fluorescent jackets carried engineering parts out of a truck and down into the tube station.

I crossed the road and dived into the back streets. The cold air folded over me again and I could see my breath clouding in front of me. I hurried past darkened bistros and glossy converted townhouses – consultancies, dealerships, surgeries, embassies – until finally I found myself in front of a building on the edge of a leafy square. A subtle brass plaque and some finger-paintings in the windows were all that told the world this was the home of Kensington College for Girls.

My heart beat faster as I thought about going to work on the front of the building. It was painted a pristine uniform white, dotted with windows. A massive empty canvas. I could make it beautiful and alive, and
fantastically
embarrassing for the school.

But it was too public. Just loitering on the other side of the square I guessed I was burning onto the hard drives of eight or ten surveillance cameras.

Maybe one day. When I was Banksy. But not this time.

The walls around the back of the school building were just as blank and inviting, and a lot safer. They faced the combined garden/playground/Thunderdome where the Year Seven to Nine girls, who weren't allowed out on the Square yet, spent their breaks and lunchtimes. They'd play under the big oak tree, gossip in the mud, or try to sneak a stealthy fag behind the Kit Shed.

My first and not-quite-only cigarette was smoked behind that shed. To this day I can't get a lungful of secondhand smoke without flashing back to the leathery wooden polished smell of PE equipment and the way Jewel's hands shook as she tried to light a cigarette from a safety match in the rain.

Tomorrow, if luck was on my side, the girls out in the playground would get an eyeful of searingly insightful political graffiti art. Or the deluded scrawling of a ridiculous poser. It could really go either way.

But first I had to get back there. The gate was around the side of the building, half in the next street. Beyond it there was an alley just wide enough for a car (but not wide enough for a minibus, as Miss Eggersham and Elite Coach Transport’s insurance company found out that one time).

A dirty bronze padlock the size of both my fists gleamed on the black metal gate, but the gate itself was only about six feet high. I guess the school thought perverts wouldn’t bother with the climb. Actually, they were right – the perverts generally hung out in the Square behind the bushes. They were surprisingly persistent, considering that the Parents’ Council had shelled out for a private security firm to police the Square in plain clothes. At least once a term some creep would risk it and we’d all stand around pointing and laughing as he was arrested with nettle stings in humiliating places.

There was a stone statue by the side of the gate, a sort of knee-high roaring lion thing that we all called Henry, with at least fifty years’ worth of old chewing gum stuck behind its ears. I hoisted myself up with one foot on Henry’s head, one hand clutching for the cold metal spikes on top of the gate. My other foot scrabbled for a toehold on the brickwork as I flexed my arm muscles and pulled myself up.

Suddenly Henry shifted and tipped, as if he was rearing up on his hind legs, and there was a sickening second where I thought I’d lose my grip and fall hard on the spikes and be found next morning strung up on the gate in a tragic mangled mess of blood and spray paint...

I snatched my foot up, wobbled wildly for a second and then pushed up and over, toppling across the spikes. Henry slammed back onto the pavement with a crash, and I hit the ground hard on my side, the cans in the backpack digging into my ribs.

I tried to gasp for air without making a sound. Pain flared all along my side. I stuffed a hand into my mouth, balled in the sleeve of my hoodie. The dark emptiness of the sky overhead seemed to swirl around me and my head rang with the echoes of cracking stone, long after they’d faded from the street.

Nobody came running. Nothing moved in the square.

I managed to peel myself up from the ground and settled into a crouch at the foot of the wall, staying there while five minutes ticked away, just to be certain. A mangy urban fox trotted along the road as if it owned the place, but nothing else happened.

I was going to have massive bruises in the morning – but I’d got away with it. For now.

“Jesus Christ,” I breathed, getting to my feet and stumbling down the dark path towards the garden.

When I finally made it I shrugged off the backpack and stretched out my shoulders, taking a second to perch on one of the picnic benches, catching my breath and staring up at my canvas.

I’ve been doing graffiti since I was ten. I started out mimicking the tags I saw on the street, scrawling a mixed-up form of my name on exercise books and lampposts and my mother’s Bentley – she called the police when she saw it, but never suspected the criminal was right under her nose. I’ve expanded my artistic horizons a little since then.

I opened my backpack and pulled out the aerosol cans, and got to work with a wary glance up at the CCTV cameras that dotted the top floor. Maybe when the caretaker arrived in the morning to find the graffiti on the wall and the security computer mysteriously unplugged, they’d know for certain it was an inside job. Maybe it’d lead them straight to me somehow. I shook up the can of black, placed my finger on the button. If I was going to get expelled for this, I might as well make it worth the trouble.

Once I was into it, I hardly knew how quickly time was passing until my phone buzzed once to let me know it was 3.30. Time to step up the pace. I should be gone by 4.30, because at 5am the cleaners would come in and the street begin to wake up. The light would change from the grimy yellow streetlight-darkness to a weird grey pre-dawn light that seemed to come from everywhere all at once, and by then I ought to be already gone.

I stepped back and looked up at my work, the sketchy lines of colour that formed school desks and unemployment lines, bank statements cascading into thousands of pounds of debt, young faces twisted in despair, withering under the stress as they fought each other to get to the top of the heap. I reached into my bag for the last can, the fluorescent turquoise. Just the right colour to highlight the sickness of it all.

Don’t get me wrong –
I’ll
never have to claim unemployment benefit. I may never have a single penny of debt. My mother would never allow it. But that’s not the point.

Or maybe it is exactly the point.

I stepped up to the wall to scrawl a shadow of stinging turquoise around the head of one of the girls.

A plastic
tunnng
sound rang in the air right behind me, and I yelped and spun around, my heart hammering. For a second I blinked against a painfully bright glare coming from the motion sensitive spotlight by the bins – I’d been careful to avoid it, but something had turned it on. My mind’s eye filled the empty garden with ghouls and knife-wielding mask-wearing psychopaths, before a patch of grubby orange and grey fur stirred and my eyes adjusted enough to yank it into focus.

It was just a fox, jumping down from the high wall onto the bins. Maybe even the same one I’d seen earlier. It stood gazing right at me for a second in the piercing beam. There was something dark in its jaws. I wondered if it was a rat, but it seemed too small.

I couldn’t hang around wildlife-watching. I could almost taste the dawn, the sharp tangy dip in temperature that happens around 4am. I shivered and wrapped my arms around my chest. Leaping around painting the wall had worked up a sweat, and now it was prickling on my scalp as it cooled, like dew on the grass, but more likely to give me a cold. I had to get moving – even after I was done, I still had to get back over the fence...

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