Millie Gerdavey cheated on her boyfriend again.
But it’s OK. No one needs to know, right? And, no, she’s not going to tell Jack (‘Obviously!’), and she doesn’t want to be with Leo (‘That muppet?’). It was just a one-time thing. Again.
Imagine the scene where I found out this news. Millie is squashed up next to me on the bench, a tissue wedged in her fist, perhaps, already soaked with her tears and snot. She is all sobs and whispers.
‘I’m so glad I have you to talk to,’ she says.
It’s a nice scene, isn’t it? Two friends sharing a secret on the first day of school. Kind of natural. What could be more normal than the heads of two girls bent together, whispering secrets, one in tears, one reassuring? Nothing.
But, oh. See that other girl sitting on the bench? The weedy thing whose shoulders are a little hunched? The one who has her hair in front of her face and a book in her lap that she’s not actually reading?
Yeah. That’s me. The two girls are nothing to do with me, and they are having this intensely private conversation in front of me as if I am entirely invisible.
At one point, the second girl, whose name is Jez, darts a look at me then says to Millie, ‘Um, do you think she heard?’
‘Oh, her.’ Millie tosses her hair dismissively. ‘It’s OK. She won’t say anything.’
‘How do you know?’ Jez asks, a little nervously.
‘Watch this,’ Millie says, and my heart seizes. I grip the sides of my book a little harder. ‘Hey! Hey, Steffi!’
Go away. Go away go away go away.
‘Steffiiiiii.’ Millie’s voice has gone sing-songy. ‘Steffi Bro-o-o-ns!’ She elongates my surname so it somehow takes up four syllables. ‘See?’ Her voice has suddenly returned to normal. ‘She’s as dumb as a pane of glass.’
At least I didn’t cheat on my boyfriend, I would say, if I could. But it’s probably a good thing that I can’t at that moment, because it would be a pretty terrible retort. In order to be cheating on my boyfriend, I’d have to actually have one in the first place. And I very much do not.
‘She could put it on the internet,’ Jez ventures.
Millie is suddenly leaning forward, her head looming closer to mine. ‘Brons, you won’t put any of this on the internet, right?’
I have a sudden vision of myself sitting at my laptop, sending a tweet out into the ether, ‘MILLIE GERDAVEY CHEATED ON JACK COLE #again #lol’ while I laugh maniacally.
‘Brons.’ There is a poke at my shoulder and I jump. ‘Oh my God.’ I can hear the sneer in her voice. ‘Why are you so weird? It’s literally me. Millie. Like, known you since we were both five?’ It’s true she’s known me since I was five, but still she persists, so she clearly doesn’t know me very well. ‘Remember? You peed in my paddling pool?’
That does it. My head snaps up and I glare at her. Words fizz up on my tongue, then dissolve into nothing.
She grins at me. ‘There you are! I know you won’t say anything.’ She winks, and I want to smack her. She throws her head back to look at Jez again. ‘Steffi is a pal.’ As she stands up, she gives my shoulder a faux-friendly nudge. ‘See you later, pal.’
When they’ve gone, I am finally, blissfully alone. I allow myself the quietest of mutters: ‘You peed in my pool, Millie.’
And then I feel slightly better.
I’m in the common area outside sixth form, because Mr Stafford, my new head of year, has asked to see me before the first assembly. I am expecting the usual start-of-school pep talk/introductions I’ve had to endure at Windham for the last five years. I still haven’t figured out whether they’re meant to be for my benefit or theirs.
A few minutes after Millie and Jez leave, the door to Mr Stafford’s office opens and he strides through it, already beaming. I can only assume he practises the Stride & Beam in front of the mirror.
‘Stefanie!’ he says, his hand coming towards me. For one horrifying second I think he is going to use it to pull me chummily to my feet, but – thank God – he just wants to shake hands. Thank God. Calm down, Steffi.
I try and smile back. I start to say, ‘Good morning, sir,’ but the words die in my mouth halfway through ‘morning’ when I realize Mr Stafford isn’t alone. Dammit. I was so proud of myself for mustering actual words in front of a teacher, already thinking it was a good sign for this year, the first year of sixth form, the year I’m meant to show I can do basic things like talk in front of teachers. I want to go to uni one day, and – according to my parents – I won’t ever be able to do that if I can’t even talk in school.
Mr Stafford is still beaming. ‘Stefanie, this is Rhys.’ He gestures to the boy at his side, who is smiling at me.
What fresh hell is this? Now they’re parading strangers in front of me to mock my inability to speak in front of them? I can feel a familiar choking panic start somewhere in my stomach. My cheeks are starting to flame.