I was nine years and two months old when I realised that there was something wrong with me. I had suspected for some time that I was a bit different to some of my friends. That some of the things I said and did – not to mention some of the things that just seemed to happen around me – were a bit… off. Like the time everyone in my class was laughing at Jason Miller doing impressions in the playground and I just stood there, not laughing, until, one by one they all turned to me and fell silent. Or that day in the park when my sister, Maya, turned from her perch on the climbing frame and gave me the oddest look until I glanced behind me to see a great crowd of toddlers all clustered about, just watching me. And then there was Katie Jennings, that little moron from next door. Well, I warned her what would happen if she kept lying to me.
I didn’t know why I was different. I didn’t do it on purpose. I never demanded that my friends stop laughing at Jason. I didn’t make those little kids follow me out of the playground and halfway home. It wasn’t my fault their parents all freaked out. And with Katie… well, someone needed to punish her. Every time one of these things happened, I’d see the way other people were looking at me – my friends, my sister, my mother – and that feeling would tickle over the surface of my skin like a mosquito looking for a juicy spot to pierce. Oh. That wasn’t normal. That wasn’t ‘right’. That was the off thing, again. But I didn’t know for sure that it was wrong. Not until the day in September when my mother bundled me into the car, drove me hundreds of miles to the house of a stranger and told him: Bella is defective. You need to take her back.
It was strange that she’d come to pick me up from school. I sat there in the back seat, frowning at the back of her head, biting my lip against all the questions bundling to get out. What’s going on? Why am I here? Where are you taking me? It would be no good to voice any of them. I had seen the tightness of her jaw, the ragged ends of two of her fingernails, the wild fray to the back of her normally-pristine bob of hair. This was not a day to ask questions.
My mother was a tricky species. One day she’d be full of smiles, twisting my dark curls gently in her fingers and talking about a beautiful new lace dress she had ordered specially for me. The next her eyes would turn callous and hungry, reminding me of the seagulls we saw whenever we visited the coast; beady, cold, empty. Don’t stand like that, who do you think you are – Princess Di? Take that skirt off immediately, it’s Maya’s. I don’t care if she said you could have it, it’s not yours. You are not entitled just because you look the way you do! Get away from me, stop looking at me like that with those eyes. I will tear them out, then we will see how well you can bat them! Get out of my sight before…
My dad was always there, though, with his soft arms and his gentle voice telling me not to take any notice. My older brother and sister would roll their eyes at me too, and whisper: The python’s awake, run! And even though I knew as well as they that it only ever seemed to be me who awoke this hissing, maleficent-eyed monster within our mother, I tried to do as they said. After all, I still came top in all the tests at school, I was still lead ballerina at the local dance studio, people still said I was beautiful and, when I looked in the mirror, I knew they were right. I held my chin solidly and bundled the small, stony hurt of my mother’s flinches and hisses into a knot which I tried hard not to feel at the back of my throat when I swallowed. And, after a day or two, the monster would recede, my mother would revert to sweetness and smiles and I’d come into my room to find something pretty and new on my bed. It was a strange, uneasy sort of life, but it was our normal. And, apart from the worst times, I never really gave it much thought. I certainly never anticipated that one day the serpent would strike.
I don’t remember how long we drove. At some point I fell asleep and woke to find the roads darkened and shrivelled into single lanes. I sat in a hunch, waiting. Waiting for the tinny whine of the radio to give in to the massing waves of static. Waiting for the feeling to come back to my stiff limbs. Waiting to see if we were actually heading somewhere… Or if my mother was simply driving until the world outside had become wild enough to pull over, open my door, shove me out and drive away.
‘Where are we?’ I asked when I could no longer hold it in, staring at a flock of sheep staggered impossibly on a grey-green hillside. My mother, radiating tension from every inch of her body, forced the car into a lower gear and bent further over the steering wheel as we growled up a steep lane.
‘Cumbria,’ she replied, meaninglessly. ‘Don’t talk to me, I need to concentrate.’
Shutting my eyes, I let the trickling stream of fear tumble into the knot in my throat and clenched my fists until they ticked and juddered with my heartbeat. I wished, so hard my mouth trembled with the words, that I could be grown up, that I could look at her with the same shuddery glare she used on me, that I could push her away when her hands closed around my upper arms with their skin-pinching grip, that I could just… stop her. I sat and wished until all that existed was the wishing, the focus of hatred, the pounding ache of it, and slowly I felt a tiny bit of control return.
Flintworth University is as large, grey, and soulless as the average airport. Purpose-built sometime in the mid-nineties, everything inside it has supposedly been designed to encourage great thinking, from the little reflection nooks nestled into the corridors to the large-but-not-intimidating lecture theatres. The professors sneer, calling it inspirationally uninspired, but I like it here. I like the anonymity, the blandness, the total, undeniable genericness. It’s academic enough, sure. I believe it reached the top 40 universities in the UK this year; and it certainly doesn’t damage a person’s CV to work here. Nestled in the heart of Flintworth town a few miles into the more affordable side of the M25, it is just close enough to hang off the academic coattails of the fancier London establishments… but no one with any truly lofty ambitions chooses Flintworth, whether they be student or faculty. Which makes it ideal for someone whose primary ambition is to keep firmly beneath the radar of all such people.
Even so, I don’t often give lectures. My colleagues think it’s due to a charmingly unfortunate fear of public speaking. They’ve grown comfortable with the sweetly shy, pretty-faced Dr Elodie Guerre who chooses the blocky, practical white coats over the expensive tailored ones, wears sensible shoes, keeps her blonde hair pinned back and her nails clipped short for her work in the lab. They’re smug for a week if they persuade me to join them for a drink at one of the too-expensive-for-students wine bars in the city after work on a Friday night. I smile, blush when I need to, flirt with the gentle hint of French vowels when required, let them patronise, pity, lust… It works. It has worked, for more than ten years. Until today. Today Ted Costings is home with the flu. Today my line manager Thomas Willbury has cajoled me into stepping into Ted’s place and lecturing a small group of third year undergrads on the ethics of genetic engineering. Professor Willbury is 47, on his third unhappy marriage and has three or perhaps four children, some of whom he doesn’t see, none of whose birthdays he can remember. He wears cheap shoes but drinks good wine, and has a taste for shy, throaty blondes. I let him think he’s in with a chance.
The Russell Building has seven lecture theatres, all around half the size of a leisure centre swimming pool. We’re in the inspirationally named Theatre Six today, where the gently tiered seating curves around the lectern like a cupped hand. I glance up from the front of the room at the students as they jostle and joke their way into their seats and I feel the blush waiting, ready, beneath the surface of my cheeks. Dr Willbury kneels beside me as I snap the charging cable into the back of my laptop. I know he can sense the nervousness wafting from me like heat from a steaming mug.
I smile tightly and adjust the glasses I don’t need. It’s a mark of how enmeshed with Elodie’s identity I’ve become that I barely register my own spasm of irritation at his repulsive choice of nickname. I certainly don’t let it echo across my careful face.
‘I’m OK… I mean, I think I’ll be fine once I get going…’ I bite my lip, injecting just a slight hint of the accent which I know shoots straight to his groin. He nods reassuringly and rubs my shoulder. His hand blazes with heat through my Zara blazer and I gulp bravely, allowing a little of the blush to trickle prettily across Elodie’s powdered cheeks. He grins back.
‘Maybe we could go for a drink afterwards… celebrate your successful influence over the minds of tomorrow!’
A mechanical clock chimes somewhere within the depths of the building. I get to my feet, placing my laptop carefully on the lectern as Willbury switches on the smart board behind me. The screen immediately animates with my first slide: Genetic Modification: Key Scientific Development or Monstrosity of Nature?
Silence settles around the room and this time it’s much more difficult to keep up the pretence. Self-consciousness, embarrassment, bashful unease… I’ve been Elodie for years, but she has never been an easy mask to harness, no matter how much I trust her.
I gaze around at the faces, some still with the pockmarks of adolescence, others older than my own, a few with the aloof, challenging eyebrows of anticipation, others vaguely attempting to grasp the meaning of the words through fogs of exhaustion or hangovers, and one or two just blank. Theatre Six does not allow for shadowy corners, every inch of the audience is spot lit. The woman at the end of the back row is bending forward, though, the first time I look up. The second time, once I’ve begun speaking with only the slightest, prettiest little tremor to Elodie’s sultry voice, I spot her. I don’t pause. I don’t stumble blindly from my position. I don’t even think I blink. We lock eyes for a second and I know she knows. I know that just as I see past the crow’s feet nestled in the corners of her eyes, the thickened arms under her cheap shirt and the swoosh of cropped hair covering most of her forehead to the bright eyed twenty-two-year-old lurking derisively in her past, she sees me. Through the fake glasses, the brown contact lenses beneath them, the blonde wig swept into its neat chignon. The overwhelming irony of my lecture’s subject matter. She smirks and gets to her feet, slinging a large purple rucksack over her shoulder and it takes everything… everything I have built and clung onto by the tips of Elodie’s neat little fingernails over the past ten years not to spring away from my laptop and leap after her. Instead, I keep my eyes forward and don’t even pause as Felix Bryden walks quickly out of the hall, taking all of my everything with her.
After I round up the lecture to surprisingly loud applause, I manage to shake Willbury off with an excuse about feeling a migraine coming on. He doesn’t pout too irritatingly; Elodie is, after all, sadly prone to migraines. I pack up my laptop and gather a few essentials from my lab on my way out of the building. It’s late October and the air is stiff with the promise of winter. Apple-cheeked students kick up leaves and talk loudly and importantly about the lofty concepts with which they think we should all be concerned. I keep my eyes down as I scurry past them and into the car park. It is only once I’ve slid onto the soft leather driver’s seat of my BMW that I let out a long, shuddery breath and glance carefully around. To my left runs the path towards the student halls of residence, dappled in russet leaves and bark chippings. To my right there are more cars, the braying students, and a few stragglers clutching bags and binders and walking with self-conscious purpose. And, straight ahead, the squatting, grey Russell Building. No sign of her. No sign either of the old, red Fiesta in which I learned to smoke, drive and a few other things besides. Well of course not. It’s been thirteen years. The Fiesta would be long gone by now.
I lean my head back against the headrest, letting the cool fabric seep fingers of calm around my skull and across my forehead. This is it. I knew this day would happen. I knew one of them would track me down eventually. Sighing, I slot my key into the ignition and spring the engine into life. I’m surprised by the swell of regret I feel when I realise I won’t see the Russell Building, or my quiet little lab within it, again. That my small department of almost-friends will not benefit, now, from the increased funding directed by Willbury’s favour. John could have had that new microscope he’d been sighing over. Glenda might have been able to retire.
Come on, Bella, what is this? Almost weeping over John and Glenda and some old lech you didn’t get a chance to home-wreck? This isn’t you. You don’t feel. Not like this.
The voice cuts across my sadness like a whip. She always did know exactly what to say to tear me into action, even if it drew blood. My ears ring with the echo of her words and I swallow hard as I pull the car into gear and begin to crawl out of the car park.
That’s better. No time for useless reminiscence. They’ve found you. You know what that means. He won’t be far behind.
I do know that. I bite my lip hard as I take a left out of campus and indicate to join the traffic winding its way across town, towards the High School. As I speed away from Flintworth University and Professor Thomas Willbury and Dr Elodie Guerre, I make sure I don’t look back.