5000 words, short story, REPRINT
We went back to Callie’s bedroom after evening classes pretending we were going to force-feed ourselves Chinese verbs. Really we were talking about what we’d do with the tutor if we could get our hands on him. You’ve seen the Level 12 ’casts, you know the guy I mean. When I realized all our witty lust had turned into monologue, I glanced over at Callie. She was sitting back in the sofa with her feet up on the table, her tongue sticking out, and a piece of glass pressed up against her forearm.
“You’ll ruin the carpet,” I said.
“Fuck the carpet.”
“Mm, you know, I think I’ll pass.”
I watched with interest, wondering how far she’d get. God only knows how she’d found something sharp—everything round here is so smooth, no rough edges. Nothing to mark you, no way to leave your mark. Callie cut into the flesh, and blood surged out, a shock of bright color. She went paler beneath her skin bleach and her hand started to shake. “Shit,” she muttered, as blood dripped onto the table. Her mother had told me at least twice how expensive that had been, so I dread to think how often she must have said it to Callie.
I took the piece of glass from her. “I’ll do it.” One quick surgical strike from me, and her tracker was out. It’s been bugging her ever since it went in. Ho ho. By now Callie was starting to get a thin, papery look—sort of see-through—so I wrapped a towel tight around her arm and made her hold it above her head like they’d shown me in the public hospital when I was getting my social credits. Then, to show moral support, I nicked my finger tip. A ruby red bead welled up, and I waved my hand at Callie. “Hey, we can be blood sisters!”
She pulled a face. “That’s disgusting!” Maybe, but it made her forget to feel sick, and she jumped up and went over to the door that led out onto the balcony. “Let’s go out.”
“Out? It’ll be hot, Cal, you won’t like it.”
“I mean really out. Leave your key on the table.”
I knew then what she had planned for us. I glanced over at the tutorial that was still playing through, and bit my lip. Callie hissed with impatience. “Come on! We’ve got to be there in ten minutes!”
Well, it’s Callie’s home, and I’m the guest, so I unclipped my key from my belt, and put it on the table next to her tracker. Off we went, leaving the tutor talking to the empty room, and all the while our accounts were racking up the study points for the modules he labored through.
We walked down the main lane that runs through the estate. All the houses are on one side and the school stuff on the other. We went past the arts block and then along by the tennis courts where the teams were out practicing. We were heading roughly towards the cinema, but before we got there, Callie led me down a side path. We cut through some bushes, and soon we came to the wall, smooth and tall and impregnable. Except for a gap where it ended and the railings began, where the bushes hadn’t grown thick. Someone very slim could slip through. So we did.
We started down the road into town. There was still pavement most of the way, although in some places it had gone completely and there was only dust. Callie was already complaining about her shoes. The road was walled on either side of its entire length, the back of our estate and another one, and I think some government agency has houses round here. I’d been down this road in the car hundreds of times, but it’s a lot different up close with those walls looming over you. The not-so-homely home counties. After about five minutes, Callie stopped by an old bus shelter and said, “Okay, now we wait.”
“Are we getting the bus, Cal?”
“Don’t be stupid.”
“I don’t have any actual money, that’s all—”
“Don’t be stupid.”
A couple of cars sped past, and each time my heart jumped—I look young for fifteen and you don’t tend to see people hanging around much on the main roads. But soon enough a car pulled up, and this guy—nineteen, maybe twenty—leaned out. “Hi, Cal,” he said. “Hop in.” He looked at me, hanging back, and laughed. “And your little friend too, if she’s coming.” I went red and scrambled into the back while Callie graced the passenger seat.
If we’re speaking geographically, I’ve no idea where we went, but it was a party, of course, and it was up in a second-floor flat. Music was thumping out of the open windows and inside it was all sweat and noise and bodies. How Callie finds out about this kind of thing I don’t know, but somehow she manages. She was in the thick of it straight away, but I stayed back near the drinks table and tried not to look conspicuous.
It wasn’t long before some guy started talking to me—well, yelling, really; he had to, over the music. “You from that estate up the road? The one with the school?”
“Very nice.” He was tanned, and when he smiled I noticed his bottom teeth were slightly crooked.
I shrugged. “It’s all right.” Usually I can do more than monosyllables, but it was really noisy and his smile had made me feel self-conscious. “Bit dull.”
“I bet.” He nodded at Callie. “That your friend?”
“She’s something else, isn’t she?”
That’s me—gateway to Callie. I did what I was there for and introduced them, although he didn’t get very far with her, because about five minutes after that the police kicked the door in and started yanking us all out. They’d put an emergency dispersal order on the place. I suppose one of the neighbors had got fed up with the noise.
The police pulled me and Callie out of the crowd right away. It’s not that they profile, but . . . look, I know it sounds bad, but a lot’s been spent on the two of us, from before we were conceived, and our skin looks good and our hair looks good and our teeth look good, and . . . you can just tell, all right? That there’s money around. As we were taken off to a car everyone else was being piled into vans. I saw the guy we’d been talking to, and he shrugged at me and gave me his crooked smile, as if to say, “What can you do?” When we got to the station, a policewoman made us tea while Callie’s mother drove out to get us. She was laughing and apologizing as she paid the fine, but once we were in the car it came out about the tracker and that was the cue for tears and shouting.
“I’m particularly disappointed in you, Miranda.” Mrs. Banville glared back at me in the rear-view mirror. She’s monstrous; done far too much to her face. “I would have expected you to have shown more sense. For gratitude’s sake, if nothing else.”
I stared out of the window at the walls speeding past. Of course. I’m supposed to be glad to have a home. But what could she expect, from someone with my background?
“The whole idea,” Penny said later, “is to keep you safe.” They were in Bombay—or was it L.A.? I didn’t quite catch it. They move around a lot because they can’t live here and won’t get citizenship anywhere else out of principle.
“I know . . . ”
“The Banvilles are being exceptionally kind letting you stay with them.”
“I know . . . ”
“I know we can’t always be perfect, Em, but you really shouldn’t be causing them any trouble.”
A tiny white scar had formed on my fingertip, like the shadow of the crescent of my nail. Most of the time I’m never quite sure where they are. Why can’t I go exploring for once?
“What we need to consider now are your options,” Fran said. “The school’s saying they’ll have to invalidate all this year’s marks.”
That stupid tutorial. If only I’d switched it off before we left. “I did that once!”
“We believe you, Em,” Penny said, kindly. Talking to them together can be like good cop, bad cop. One with the teapot, the other with the van. “But we’re not the ones handing out the marks. As far as the school can tell, every single one of your credits this year hasn’t actually been earned.”
I slumped back in my chair. All that work. Sometimes I could murder Callie. But who’d look after her, if I didn’t?
“So here’s what I’ve got planned,” Fran said, laying it out briskly, clearly, and with no room for argument. This is why she makes so much money as a lawyer. Penny winked at me like she always does when Fran gets going, but I felt too miserable to wink back. “I’ve got a much better plan,” I said, when Fran finished. “I come and join you and we can be a family again.”
My mothers glanced at each other. “Em,” Penny said, “I know you think it’d be chic, and cosmopolitan, but actually it’s dreary. Plane, hotel, plane, hotel—you can’t tell one from the other.”
“This way you’re getting a proper education,” Fran said.
“Both of us are working all the hours god sends, sweetheart—you’d be alone most of the time, you’d get bored, and lonely—”
“—not to mention you’re getting the passport, and I surely don’t need to outline the tangible benefits of that—”
“You’ll be at college soon, love. Then you won’t want to bother with us at all.”
See what I mean? After all that, saying, but I’d still rather be with you, just sounds lame, so I said nothing, and studied my tiny scar. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw them look at each other and smile. Mother’s face softened, mum’s went sort of serene. They’re still crazy about each other, even after all this time, and all the trouble. I think that scares me most—that maybe now that I’m not there, they’re discovering how much I got in the way. That maybe they shouldn’t have gone to all the bother of having me in the first place.
“Sweetheart, we’ve got to go now—”
“I’ll speak to the Banvilles and fix it all up. We’ll talk to you from Toronto.”
“Take care, love. And try to be good. Remember—back home, you’re our ambassador. For the cause.”
We blew kisses at each other, and they finished the call. And I was left sitting here alone, in this expensive house on this exclusive estate, thinking I would give up everything just to be with them. All the money doesn’t matter. Because ‘round here, in this stupid narrow strip of the world, I’m the one whose parents had to go and live abroad. I’m the one with dykes for mummies.
So Callie and I were packed off to Scotland for the summer. The idea was to make up all the invalidated work, but really we were doing time for breaking out.
Our home for the holiday was on Mull. My mothers had bought a house there when they got married, but when the law changed back and they had to either leave the country or split, they’d signed it over to me. That’s me—absentee landlady. We’d never come here much even when we were all together; it’s a long journey up by road and of course—as Mrs. Banville reminded us—it’s not the done thing to take too many internal flights. She and Mr. B. were flying off the day after we left to go skiing in Queenstown.
Anila drove us up. Anila was going to be our tutor, not to mention our personal jailer. Callie’s father trades in academic bonds, so it had been easy for him to get hold of someone. Anila was quiet and slim and neat and . . . sort of faded, really. Part of the background, like wallpaper. If Callie spoke to her, it was always past her, at a point to one side of Anila’s right ear. It’s exactly how her mother talks to me. Except when she shows me off to her friends. Then I’m the second child she never had. “This is Em,” she’ll say. “We’re taking care of her while her mothers have to be away.” How could you not be impressed at that? Such good work, for such a worthy cause.
Callie hadn’t said a word about our banishment, but I knew she was seething. She’d had plans for the summer, I think, down in the city. Ever since we’d been caught, and another tracker installed, she’d only worn short sleeves, so you could always see the scar on her left arm where the other one had been. Like some weird kind of fashion accessory. She spent the whole trip up with sunglasses on, staring out of the car window and not talking. It made the journey pretty boring, particularly when we came back down off the expressway past Birmingham. The whole north is terraced, straight lines of olive groves and vineyards. Dead dull. The only entertainment came when we went through a toll and new adverts came on. Mine are always insane, because of the trust money. Callie’s were all for vitamin supplements or local jobbing doctors.
At Carlisle, Callie insisted on stopping, and Anila bought us ice cream, like we were children. Callie devoured hers in seconds, but I let mine have the chance to melt, so I could chase the vanilla and the raspberry as it dripped along my fingers and down my hand. Anila had done the same, and we both realized this at exactly the same moment, both of us licking up syrup, and catching each other’s eye. Her face flowered into a smile, and she was suddenly something human. I went shy, and ran off to the toilets to find Callie. She said she was feeling sick from the heat and the sugar, and while she was throwing up, I stood behind her in the door of the cubicle and picked at the gaffer tape covering the foreign language instructions for the sharps box. You get to go to all the best places with Callie. When she was done, I cleaned her face and smoothed her hair, and took her back out to the car where Anila was waiting.
We took the ferry, and were over at the house by eight o’clock. Callie disappeared right away, and I took my supper outside and sat looking at the wall of sea between me and the mainland, smooth as glass and offering no purchase. Round about half-nine, Anila called softly from inside that perhaps I should think about going to bed, so I left my plate with her, and did what I was told. But I lay awake for hours, trying to hear the sea beneath the throb and the backbeat of bass coming through the wall from Callie’s room. That was our first night on the island.
The next morning, Anila established our routine. I got up early and swam some lengths in the pool before breakfast, and then the morning was for studying. Anila kept us at the grindstone till one o’clock, and then we were free to do what we liked. As prisons go, it wasn’t a bad one—I mean, it was hardly one of those places on the fen islands you see on shockumentaries. There was the pool, and the lush lawns and bright flowers, and those twisted citrus trees with the knobbly misshaped oranges. Pen had installed a decent library with proper books. There was a path down to the private strip of beach—yellow sands and palm trees—and everything we could want in the house itself. A good job, really, given how grounded we were. Leaving the house and gardens was clearly and strictly forbidden. A prison is a prison all the same.
I spent most afternoons on the beach. When it was too hot, I would just sit in the shade and read, but I liked to be in the water, and poke around the rock pools, and wave at the pleasure boats. One day I built sandcastles just to watch the tide wash them away. Callie mostly stayed indoors watching films from after the second war, but she would join me now and again, and sit smothered in sun cream beneath a big umbrella, staring out to sea and chain-smoking. She wore her sunglasses and a headscarf, like something from one of the pictures she’d been watching. I’ve no idea how she’d got her hands on cigarettes. Could have been smugglers for all I know.
Anila went off in the afternoons. I didn’t know where she went or what she did, but supper was ready at seven o’clock. I took it out to my spot on the wall, and tried not to hear Callie thumping around the house. Anila would come and sit with me sometimes, maybe one night out of three, although we didn’t talk much. It’s weird to think back on it now, that month we spent alone together on the island. Just the three of us, flitting around that place, like moths trapped in a bell jar, or spirits of a house that couldn’t find rest. I imagine that’s how Callie felt most of the time.
Obviously we were heading for a massive storm. When it came it was faster than the Norwich tornado, and might have done as much damage too if I hadn’t intervened.
I suppose it had been brewing for a couple of days. When people are stuck together like that it’s always going to be a pressure cooker, but it had been getting hotter, and that day was the hottest yet. The sky was unnaturally blue, almost fluorescent. We were slogging through one of the set texts, and Callie was sitting in her usual position, leaning forward on her desk with her hand shielding her eyes. I didn’t mind doing all the work again—I was never going to struggle with the exams, and now I could just enjoy it for its own sake. It was a good feeling, sort of magical, but I probably don’t need to say how pissed off Callie was about having to do it again.
Even Anila was hard pressed to conjure up her usual enthusiasm. Anila always dressed very properly, in a gray suit—she never took the jacket off—and with her hair tied back. This morning wisps of hair had started to escape, and the jacket looked heavy and uncomfortable. She kept glancing across at Callie, and you could see that the way Callie was sitting was beginning to annoy her. As it was meant to.
“Callie, could you sit up, please?”
Callie remained motionless for a second or two, and then she eased back in her chair. She kept the shield up though.
“And put your hand down so I can see your face, please.”
There was another pointed delay, and then Callie moved her hand—to pick up her sunglasses and perch them on her nose.
“Oh, come on, Callie!”
“I have to wear them,” Callie said primly. “I had the laser thing done and my eyes are very sensitive.”
“Yes, well, I’m sure your parents would have mentioned that—”
Callie shrugged. “You can ask them if you like.”
“Given they’re halfway around the globe and almost certainly asleep, I’ll have to wait ‘till we’re sharing waking hours to do that. In the meantime—take the glasses off. Please.”
“It was very expensive surgery. They’ll be furious if you make me ruin it.”
“Callie, you know you’re just being rude. Take them off, and we can get back to work. The summer’s well underway and we have a lot of work to make up yet.”
At that, Callie stretched back lazily in her chair. “Do you really think I care?” She looked very cool and relaxed. She’d been taking tips from those old films, and had outfitted herself in crisp white linen, and a black scarf with little gold beads to match the frames of those stupid glasses. She was Audrey Hepburn to Anila’s Jane Eyre.
“You should care,” Anila said. “Your future’s hanging on it. Or, if this one gets through to you, a lot of your parents’ money is being ploughed into educating you—”
Callie stopped her with a laugh. “You can’t really think I’m going to fail any of this, can you?”
This was actually a pretty good point. Callie’s A-starred like me, fast-tracking in all fifteen subjects. She just can’t be bothered most of the time.
“This time next year I’ll be starting on the Law Prelims.,” Callie went on. “And a year after that I’ll be passing them. What will you be doing then, Miss Gray? Teaching someone else’s five-year-olds how to spell and wipe their arses? Hardly the Brontës, is it, or Shakespeare? What about the year after that, Miss Gray, and the year after that? Not long now and I’ll be at the bar, and you’re right—the parents will pay for the lot. How long exactly till your bond’s paid off? All that education, it doesn’t come cheap, does it?”
Anila had been getting redder and redder through all of this. Maybe Callie should have remembered that Anila must have been smart to get herself this far. At least as smart as Callie herself. When Callie was done, Anila tucked a stray bit of hair behind her ear, and took a moment or two to compose herself.
“You’re quite right, Miss Caroline,” she said. “It’s a sad life, if you think too much about it. But I do have some points in my favor. I don’t have to hide from my own face. And I certainly don’t have to shove a finger down my throat every time I eat.”
Callie went rigid. Then she was out of her chair and heading through the door, shouting back, “You’d better believe I’m telling my parents about this when they’re up!”
“You do that,” Anila called after her. “If in doubt, run to daddy.”
I’d been sitting watching all of this with my hand over my mouth. Once Callie was gone, Anila heaved a deep, shaky sigh. She stood up, took off her jacket, and threw it over the back of the chair. She started pacing around the room, finally coming to a halt by the window. She looked tired and a lot older. I didn’t know what to do so I just sat and nibbled my nail, but when she didn’t move at all, I said, “Are you okay?”
“No,” she said. “I’m well and truly sacked.”
I thought about that for a moment. Then I said, “She smokes, you know.”
Anila looked back at me, sharply. “What?”
“Callie. She’s got a stash of cigarettes somewhere.”
“I see.” Anila drifted back towards her table. She picked up her jacket and straightened it, then tidied her hair. Then she gave the ghost of a smile. “I see. Thank you, Miranda.”
When she looked up at me, her smile blossomed again, and I realized I liked seeing it. Liked earning it. “Thank you—Em.”
It was enough to stop Callie. The health premiums would have rocketed and her parents would have killed her. So it was stalemate—for a couple of days. Until Callie made her next bid for freedom.
The next evening, I discovered where Anila went when she wasn’t with us. I was looking for Callie, and after the likely places hadn’t turned her up, I started on unlikely ones, which meant the library. It has a small first floor, a mezzanine really, and there’s a door up there that leads out onto a balcony. I saw lamplight, and a shadow moving, so I went to check.
Anila was sitting out on a deck chair. Her bare feet were up on another one, and when she saw me, she moved so I could sit down. Her dark hair was loose around her shoulders and she didn’t have make-up on. It made her look nearly as young as us. She smiled at me and carried on rubbing value brand lotion into her hands.
“What would you have done?” I said. “If you had got sacked, I mean?”
She stopped rubbing, and that tired and faded look returned. “I don’t know. I owe a lot of money.”
“Oh.” I didn’t know what that felt like. “What will you do when it’s paid?”
She went back to massaging her hands. “Years before that, Em.”
“Still, though. If you could choose.”
“Well, I’d get my own passport then. So travel, maybe. Teach—I do like it, despite everything . . . ” She sighed. “Oh, I don’t know. Maybe having the choice is what matters most.” She looked out across the sea and the deepening sky and the generous sprinkling of stars that helped it all go down. “I’m lucky. Far worse places to live. Far worse ways to live.”
“I’m glad it all turned out okay. With Callie.”
“Well, me too!” We grinned at each other, and then all of a sudden I felt bad. She was so nice and I was so rich. She was looking at me like she felt sorry too. I stood up and was about to say goodnight, but then she said, “You do know, Em, don’t you, that it’s not your job in life to pick up after Callie?”
“Why? Because it’s yours?”
She smiled. “It’s not my job either, not really—but they do give me money for it.”
Strange thing to say. I didn’t quite understand, so I left her to the stars and her peace. I ended up going to bed later than usual that night, and without finding Callie.
When I woke up, it was that weird and hazy hour between two and three. My head was throbbing. I got up and pulled back the curtains. Light was pouring out of the window along from mine, from Callie’s room. Was she awake too? I padded out to the corridor and knocked on her bedroom door. “Cal?”
No answer. Thunder rumbled overhead. When I went in, the room was empty and Callie’s stuff from class was dumped on the bed. She wasn’t in the bathroom. Wherever she’d been all day, she hadn’t got back yet.
I went downstairs. There were no more lights that I could see, inside or out. The thunder rumbled, much closer, and the air felt charged and crackling. I didn’t find her, in either the usual or the unusual places. I felt stupid, knocking on Anila’s door in the middle of the night, but there was a quick way to track Callie down and wandering aimlessly around the house wasn’t it.
We found her by the swimming pool, lying half-in and half-out of one of the changing rooms, translucent in the moonlight. I was glad Anila was there. She checked Callie’s pulse and said, “Go and call the coast guard, please, Em.” They were over in no time, and Anila went with Callie, leaving me in the house. I spent the rest of the night sitting out on Anila’s balcony, with my arms around my knees, listening to the thunder and whispering words like charms to get the storm to break. Sometimes your mood can mirror the weather. Sometimes it mirrors the sea.
It didn’t rain. The next morning was clear and very hot, and Anila came back to take me over to the hospital. Callie was propped up in bed, looking teenaged and frightened. The Banvilles got back the following day, and started taking it out on Anila. They only stopped when I pointed out that Callie’s poison of choice was the antitoxin Mrs. Banville has to take with the anti-ageing drugs she’s getting under the counter from her tame doctor. I bet Callie did that on purpose. The police would be interested in that, I thought, and saying that to them, that felt good, like electricity. I wasn’t sure at first how much I could get away with, but when I told them to write off Anila’s debt, they didn’t put up a fight at all. All of which finished me with them, but it didn’t matter much, because in the middle of all this, I turned sixteen. Other people get parties when they become citizens. I got to see what it looks like to have your stomach pumped. And, yes, I think Callie did that on purpose too.
I stayed on at the house on the island for a few months. Fran and Penny said to come and join them, but they were in Paris and I wanted to be somewhere colder. The time had passed and they hadn’t been there and I didn’t want to be their little girl any more. Like I’d never wanted to be their ambassador, or Callie’s lapdog, or the Banvilles’ charity case. Besides, I had access to the trust now and while I didn’t know yet what I wanted to do with it, it was like Anila had said, that sometimes it’s more about having the choice than making it. I got a really great haircut, and some expensive clothes. I’ve been thinking of setting up scholarships—I could buy whole schools if I wanted, and run them however I liked. If I knew the best way. I might go and study myself, although I don’t know what. I might just get my eyes tinted instead.
As for Anila—she did travel. I didn’t expect anything, but I get a message, now and then, from all over. The last one came after what happened to Beijing—she’s often there, in the wake of disasters, clearing up. Her note is always short and exactly the same: To Em—wherever you are now in your brave new world.
Originally published in Foundation, #100, Summer 2007.
Una McCormack is a New York Times bestselling author of novels based on Star Trek and Doctor Who. Her most recent novel, The Baba Yaga, is in the Weird Space universe created by Eric Brown. Her audio plays based on Doctor Who and Blake's 7 have been produced by Big Finish. She has a doctorate in sociology and teaches creative writing at Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge.