I wish I’d never seen her face. It’s not that she isn’t beautiful. It’s not that she isn’t intelligent. It’s not that I don’t love her.
It’s the pain she’s brought -- the complete destruction of everything I have known, everything I have held dear and everything I have loved.
Everyone turned and looked when the door opened and the head of year ushered the new girl, Alice Clifford, into the room. Her stunning beauty and gorgeous smile caused a communal intact of breath. Hearts beat wildly. From the moment she stepped in the door, Alice turned our world upside down. She was a tornado ripping through a village of grass huts.
‘Why don’t you sit next to Sam?’ the head of year said pointing. ‘He’s a nice lad.’
She sat beside me, turned, looked me in the eye and smiled. I was past rescue before she said, ‘I’m Alice. I hope we can be friends.’
The rest of the lesson was a haze: my brain refused to work properly. I wasn’t just bitten by the Alice-bug, I was slaughtered. My dreams, and I later found out, my nightmares, had come true.
I thought my life would never be the same. Back then, how could I know how true that was?
At break Alice asked me to show her how things worked. She didn’t dump me for someone else, even though there were plenty of others who would have happily taken my place.
It wasn’t only me she charmed. Of course, boys circled her like seagulls around a discarded sandwich, but soon even the girls warmed to her and everyone wanted to be her friend. The strange thing was she didn’t ditch me. My social capital went up about a million percent. Suddenly I was the second most popular person in the school. Alice was a miracle, my miracle.
At the end of school we stood facing each other in the atrium -- a large, open area that connected all the wings of the school.
‘I have to go,’ she said. ‘I’m being picked up in a minute.’
I’m not sure what I said in reply.
‘Sam, I hope you’ll meet me here tomorrow before school. I’ve had such a lovely day with you.’ She turned and ran to the exit to the car park.
Floating home on a cloud of Alice-magic, it never occurred to me that I would later wish I’d never met her. Don’t jump to conclusions: she didn’t break my heart. She broke my world. She took my life, shattered it, crushed the fragments to dust with a steam roller and blew the powder away with a fan.
To be fair, nothing that happened was her fault. It was because of her family.
The following week sailed by. I was so happy my mother suspected me of taking drugs. She even insisted on searching my bedroom. I didn’t mind. Nothing could upset me.
Every morning I’d get to school early and wait until Alice arrived. She was dropped in the car park fifteen minutes before school started. A large, black car with tinted windows would pull up. A man wearing sunglasses would get out of the front-passenger-side door, look around and nod. Only then would Alice climb out of the back seat and hurry into the building. I always thought it was a bit odd but I reckoned it had something to do with her parents being rich.
In the afternoon, she’d make a phone call and wait inside the doors. The black car would arrive within five minutes, as though it had been waiting. A man would get out, look around and nod in Alice’s direction. Only then would she leave the building.
The men were too young to be her father and so I guessed the family must be well off because they had staff and a flash car.
‘Alice,’ our tutor said one morning, ‘I’ve been told to chase up records from your previous school. Can you give me some details?’
‘I’m afraid that’s impossible, Mr Turner. I was home-schooled because I had glandular fever. Father hired a private tutor to teach me and after I got better we liked the arrangement. That’s the way it continued until we came to Plymouth. I’m sorry, but there are no other records.’
‘Didn’t your tutor keep notes, or something?’
‘He may have. But he ran off with one of his tutees and so naturally Father didn’t want any further contact with him. Instead, he sent me here.’
This puzzled me because she’d told me she’d attended a primary school in Manchester before they moved to France for two years. The French bit rang true because she spoke the language like a native. Then she’d been home-schooled. She’d never mentioned a tutor.
When I asked her about it she said, ‘I told you, not the teacher, the truth. Whatever you do, don’t tell anyone else. Okay?’
‘Safety. Don’t ask. Just accept. Trust me.’
Those three commands worried me. Who was she? Was all the concern about safety because her parents were incredibly rich? If so, why wasn’t she at a private school? I wish I probed more.
We became inseparable. The first girl I really fancied was someone who also liked me. It was love at first sight. From that moment Alice consumed my every waking thought.
Two weeks after she arrived I plucked up the courage to ask her out – sort of. I invited her over to my place after school.
Her smile disappeared. She pursed her lips and closed her eyes as though she was going to cry. ‘I’m sorry, Sam, but I can’t. Father won’t let me see anyone outside school, ever. I’d love to come over to your place but I can’t.’
‘I can’t explain. Please let it drop. It’s safety.’
I couldn’t. ‘Is that why you always get dropped off and picked up?’
‘Partly. It’s related. Please don’t ask any more.’ Her eyes pleaded with me.
Hurt and confused as I was, I let it drop. Her father was obviously very protective.
We spent all day at school together. I couldn’t believe my luck when I found we had exactly the same classes, except P.E. To me, she brightened up every classroom she walked into. All the teachers seemed to be transformed by her. Even Chemistry lessons were enjoyable.
‘Sam,’ Alice said one morning, ‘I’ve persuaded Father to let me stay to do after school activities every day. Are you pleased?’
‘Pleased? No. Over the moon. It’s brilliant news.’ It was like I’d won the lottery.
Of course, there was nothing on most afternoons but it meant that we got to hang around together for an extra hour and a half. The Art teacher let us use her room and the Music teacher was happy for us to play any of the instruments. Alice was a brilliant pianist and I could nearly keep a regular beat on the drums. We had a fantastic time jamming, or drawing, or just fooling around. I didn’t know we would later have to pay an extortionate price for our happiness.
‘Alice, how come you’re such a good pianist?’
‘It’s what I do in my spare time. There are not many other things I can and it reminds me of my mom.’
‘Why do you need to be reminded --’
‘I’m not going to talk about it, Sam.’
Three weeks after we met, Alice presented me with a phone. It was a bog-standard brick. I turned it over in my hand and looked at her puzzled.
‘It has one listed number: mine,’ she said.
‘You’re kidding? I can talk to you anytime now?’
‘Father agreed with the restriction of an hour a day during the week and two hours on the weekend. It’s safety.’
There was that word again. But what did it mean?
‘That’s fantastic. Now we don’t have to be apart even when we are.’
‘You’re not a great orator but I love you anyway.’ She leant across and kissed me on the cheek.
I’m sure I went bright red. I didn’t know what to say. She’d said she loved me. She’d kissed me. I wanted to cheer and jump up and down. Instead, I rolled the phone over and over in my hand for a few seconds before saying, ‘Why can’t I simply call you using my own phone? I can see the number here.’
‘Don’t ever call me from any other phone.’ She said each word slowly, deliberately. ‘The thing you have in your hand is an unidentifiable piece of kit. Your own phone is linked to you and your family. Never, ever call my number on any phone but that one. It’s safety.’
The teacher arrived. I stashed the phone away. I didn’t want to fall foul of our school’s strict confiscation rules. But what Alice said didn’t make sense.
That afternoon we met in the atrium after P.E. ‘Alice, rugby didn’t go well. The Jake’s tackle made me see red. He --’
‘Sam, if your eyesight is distorted, you should go to the hospital. It could be concussion or something.’
I was puzzled. ‘No. That’s not what I meant. “See red” means being angry.’
‘Does it? I’ve never heard it before?’
‘Really? It’s pretty common.’
‘It can’t be that common if I don’t know it.’
Suspicion nudged me. ‘Alice, do you know what figurative language is?’
‘Of course. It’s non-literal language. I’m right, aren’t I?’
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘However, and this isn’t to be critical in any way, and I’m sorry if it seems to be like that because it isn’t meant –’
‘What’re you trying to say?’
‘Sometimes it seems to me, or it could be construed to be seen as --’
She held up her hand to stop me.
‘Just say what you mean. You’re talking rubbish at the moment.’
‘Sometimes you don’t seem to get that people aren’t being literal.’ It had happened several times, in fact. She didn’t seem to get metaphor and idiom.
‘Is that a problem, Sam?’
‘No. I just wondered why.’
‘It’s probably because I’ve led a very sheltered life. Now, what are we going to do this afternoon? Do you fancy music or finishing the pictures we started yesterday?’
Not long after that I tried to find out where Alice lived. I was curious. I thought I could get a satellite picture of her house. Mr Turner, our tutor, was really careless with his computer. While he was getting a cup of coffee, something he was always doing, and Alice had gone to the toilet, I looked up her details.
At home I typed in the information. The street name didn’t exist and the postcode was invalid. Why would you give a fake address to the school? What if they wanted to contact your parents? Where did Alice live?
I leaned back in my chair and thought about it. Should I try the phone numbers that were listed? I might get her father. Also, I remembered what she said when she gave me the phone which I could use to call her.
It rang. I jumped.
‘Hello,’ I said.
‘Sam, was that you trying to find out where I live?’
‘Why? How did you know someone was looking up your address?’
‘Was it you or wasn’t it? I need to know now,’ Alice said.
‘It was me. Don’t get angry. There’s no need to get upset.’
‘Yes, there is. It’s safety. Don’t ever try to find where I live.’ She paused. ‘Promise you won’t do it again?’
I promised. ‘But how did you know I’d done it?’
‘A program my mother wrote. It tracks searches. I modified it so it’s linked to my address.’
‘But it isn’t your real address. Why have you lied to the school?’
‘It’s safety. Don’t ask. Just accept. Trust me.’
At the end of September we had a surprising bout of good weather. One afternoon when the sun shone, I suggested we go and sit out on the grass.
‘You’re not serious, Sam?’
‘Why not? The sun is shining. The birds are singing. The bees are buzzing.’ I left out ‘Love is in the air.’
She stared at me with her eyebrows raised and then shook her head. ‘Haven’t you noticed, Sam, that I never go outside?’
‘Well, I just thought because of the nice weather --’
‘I don’t do outdoors.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Listen. My note to get me out of P.E. says I have a back problem that means I can’t take part in any physical exertion.’
‘Lying in the sun isn’t going to strain anything.’
‘Watch.’ She stood up, bent forward and didn’t just touch her toes but put her palms on the floor. Then she raised her hands above her head, arched her back and fell backwards. She stopped herself hitting the floor with her hands -- before pushing herself upright again.
‘If there’s nothing wrong with your back, why don’t you do P.E.?
‘Often, the lessons are held outside. I don’t do outside. Ever. It’s safety,’ she said. ‘Father chose this school because it’s completely enclosed. Students don’t have to be exposed to the elements.’
Was it possible somebody could live like that? ‘But you walk to and from the car.’
‘That’s only twenty metres and I scurry, rather than walk, only after the area has been checked.’
I had wondered about that. It seemed strange, but then so did several things about Alice. One was that she appeared to like me.
‘But when you’re at home, don’t you?’
‘No. Except for getting to and from the car, I stay hidden inside.’ She sighed. ‘Don’t ask. Just accept. Trust me. It’s safety.’
Her mood lightened. ‘Next week are the auditions for the school musical. We’re going to play the leading roles. We need to pick our audition songs and practise them.’ There was no consideration that we mightn’t be good enough or that other people could want the parts.
After trawling through hundreds of videos, Alice picked a solo for each of us and a duet. By then it was time for her to go. ‘When you get home, listen to each of the songs several times to learn the tunes properly and then sing along until you’ve memorised the words. I expect you to know them off-by-heart for tomorrow.’
She didn’t half expect much, but I didn’t argue. I wanted to please. Perhaps if I’d been less of a doormat things would have turned out differently, but there’s no use thinking that now. What’s happened has happened. I can’t change it.
Ben, my annoying, younger brother, complained to Mum about the racket I was making when I practised the songs. Mum’s eyes widened in surprise when she found out what I was doing and why. She guided Ben out of the room saying, ‘It’s all right. Someone’s cast a spell on Sam and it makes him behave strangely.’
‘You mean like a witch?’ Ben said.
‘Sort of. Don’t worry about it. He’ll get over it,’ my mother said, giggling. Parents can be so embarrassing.
Beth, my surprisingly-nice, younger sister, even helped me practise the duet. She sang Alice’s part. All she demanded in payment was to be told what Alice was like. I didn’t mind telling her. I enjoyed talking about Alice. She was my friend, my inspiration, my world. I was a satellite circling around a sun. I was a worshipper glorifying a goddess. I was a rat following a piper.
It was a foregone conclusion that Alice would get the main female role, but when I read my name next to the principal male part I was stunned.
‘I knew you’d get it,’ Alice beamed. ‘You’re a natural star.’
I didn’t think of myself as one of life’s losers but I’d never thought of myself as a winner, let alone a star. It was only because Alice was so good that I looked anything more than mediocre.
‘Don’t put yourself down,’ she said. ‘You did the solo by yourself. That’s what a solo is. You impressed them without me.’
Perhaps all the rehearsal time I’d put in and all the coaching Alice gave me meant I did sing well. Though, I wonder now if Alice threatened them -- she wouldn’t do it without me. When it came to Alice, I learned that you never knew.
If you’ve ever done a show, you’ll know you spend hours sitting around talking and messing about and then a few minutes rehearsing. It’s great fun. Fun I had with Alice. She was my laughter, my light and my life.
Of course, there were other people there too: a show with only two characters would be a bit boring. Alice managed to animate them as well, like a strong wind in a boat’s sails. It was as though she had this pent up electricity that needed a motor to run.
However, something strange happened one day at rehearsal. The director surprised us while we were playing cards by shouting, ‘Sasha!’ It was the first name of the teacher doing the lighting.
Alice turned as she put a card down and said, ‘Yes?’
We all looked at her and she realised what she’d done. She mumbled something about it being a nickname her father used but it didn’t ring true. Why should she be called Sasha? It was about as much like Alice as Kylie is.
‘Alice, why did you just answer to “Sasha”?’ I said.
‘Why are you asking about my name?’
I shrugged. ‘I’m curious. That’s all. Is Sasha your middle name or something?’
She leant over and whispered in my ear. ‘Stop asking me questions, Sam. I don’t want to lie to you so stop talking about my name.’
‘But Alice, just then you –’
‘Don’t ask. Just accept. Trust me. It’s safety.’
Lyle was one of the other students playing cards with us. Like half of year nine, he had a crush on Alice. I’d noticed him staring at her when she wasn’t looking. He was always trying to talk to her. ‘What does your father do for a living?’
‘He’s in business. It’s very secret, extremely hush, hush. It would be better if you didn’t ask any more. Play your next card.’
‘Surely you can say something about what he does, unless he’s a drug dealer or --’
She slapped him across the face. He fell off his chair and dropped his cards. The sound was so loud I knew it must have hurt.
‘He doesn’t deal drugs. Don’t you dare suggest he does,’ Alice said. ‘I hate drugs. I’ve seen how they destroy lives. Don’t ever insult him like that again. If you do, I’ll do more than slap you.’
‘Alice, Lyle was only joking. You didn’t need to do that,’ I said.
‘I wasn’t trying to offend you or anything,’ Lyle said picking himself up and rubbing his cheek. He was wearing a big, red handprint. ‘You didn’t need to hit me.’
Alice apologised but it cured Lyle’s infatuation. He stayed well away from her after that.
One incident marked Alice out as different for every other student in the school. She was shorter than average and slender -- not skinny but definitely not curvaceous. I’ve already said that she was gorgeous and it wasn’t me being biased -- everyone thought so. Eyes followed her as she walked past.
Even though she was only in year nine, she attracted the attention of some year-thirteen boys who fancied themselves. I’d heard rumours about them actually attacking girls. They were trouble.
They came over to our table one lunch time. Damian Durf sat on one side of Alice and Aiden Connor on the other. Lucas Blades, perched opposite, completed the trio.
I was returning from buying lunch while Alice kept our seats. I saw it all but was too far away to do anything. It happened so fast I wouldn’t have been able to react anyway.
Damian and Aiden squished in so they were shoulder to shoulder with her. Lucas reached out towards her face. I saw her lips move. She was warning them off. Lucas moved his hand closer. It was a coordinated attack. Damian reached for her breast. Aiden searched for her thigh.
As Lucas touched her cheek, her hand shot out, grabbed his greasy hair and smashed his face into the table.
Before Damian, on her left, could move, she raked her nails across his cheek. He screamed. Four streams of blood spoke of permanent scars. He clutched at the wound.
A backwards elbow stunned Aiden on her right. Leaping up, she kicked him in the face. Unconscious, he fell to the floor. She kicked him again before grabbing Damian’s collar and bashing his head against the metal pillar that supported the walkway above.
Pandemonium broke out. Students were shouting, running, pushing – nobody knew what was going on.
Alice wiped the blood from her nails with a tissue and tucked her blouse back into her skirt. I reached her as the crowd was gathering, not too close, around her. She grabbed my arm and took me back the way I had come.
‘I need to wash my hands. You never know what you might catch from people like that.’
I was so stunned I didn’t know what to say. It had all happened so quickly.
She stopped suddenly, taking the sandwiches and drinks from my hands and placing them on a table. It was like she was replaying a film of what happened in her mind. ‘Sam, Kylie Phillips – blonde, tall, overweight – had her phone out. She may have videoed or photographed something. Tell her I want her phone. Unlocked. Now. Collect any others that you see in people’s hands. There must be no record of me.’