I dig my nails into my palms. My heart’s thudding and I can hardly breathe. Before me is a battlefield of noise and movement and danger. I’m at the edge of it, frozen at the school gate. I have no one to go to. I don’t belong here.
My shoulder’s bumped by a year 10 boy coming through the gate. It’s Mark Chilcott. I like him. I really do. I try to be brave and smile.
‘Watch out,’ Chilcott says.
I fold inward, pull my arms across my chest and look down. The taller, thinner boy with him laughs.
‘Oh it’s the weird girl. The one who’s scared of her own shadow.’
I want to tell them it’s not my fault that everything makes me anxious. It’s because of the accident. But I don’t speak and I won’t cry in front of them. I hate being like this.
‘Pretty though,’ the thin boy says. I look up at him. He smiles. Then his eyes narrow. ‘Pretty mental.’ He wedges his tongue behind his bottom lip, makes a grunting sound and pushes his face at me. They stride off, laughing.
I twist around. Mum is at the end of the school drive walking away. She won’t turn, won’t wave. It hurts her to see me like this. I can’t go in. I can’t.
Mum stiffens as I wrap my arms around her. She stops walking. I burrow into her coat. Her warmth and her softness help me feel as safe as if I was at home, in my bedroom with Victoria. Mum sighs. ‘Oh, Bethany.’
‘Tomorrow mum. I’ll go in tomorrow. Promise.’
‘Come on love.’
She eases out of my arms and turns me around. For her sake I don’t resist as she leads me back.
The ting, ting, ting of the bell is a stab, stab, stab to the heart of me.
We’re at the gate. I stiffen. Mum bends her head closer. ‘Victoria would want you to go in. Victoria would be proud.’
‘How would you know,’ I want to shout but I just stare at her and she understands. How could she possibly know? I stride across the empty playground without saying goodbye. Yes, Victoria did tell me to be brave. Yes, she did say that it will get better. But neither Mum nor Dad would know that, because only I can hear Victoria. Only me.
The good thing about today is that I survived. Is that good? I’m not so sure. I sit in my bedroom and tell Victoria about Mark Chilcott. Victoria says that if she could leave the house by herself then she would get him for me. I tell her not to be silly.
My Disney glass that I drink from when I take my pills shoots off the bedside table and shatters against the wall. Mum’s feet rushing up the stairs unfreezes me. I cut my finger frantically picking up the pieces. Mum bursts in.
‘It was Victoria not me,’ I say.
Mum’s eyes are wide and jerky as she looks at me. ‘Oh Beth. You know that Victoria isn’t real. You do know that? This morning, I’m sorry I said-. I shouldn’t have mentioned-I was-.’
‘Desperate,’ I say for her. ‘It’s all right Mum.’ I make my hand a fist, to hide the bleeding. ‘It’s okay.’
‘Ish everwyfing cool?’ Dad calls from down stairs.
‘Just a broken glass,’ Mum calls back. ‘Don’t worry yourself, John. Don’t try coming up by yourself.’
Later, after Mum and Dad have gone to bed, Victoria makes me get up and go downstairs. I do as I’m told because I’m half-asleep and because I don’t want to make Victoria angry again. I move all the coats and boxes from the little cupboard under the stairs. I crawl inside and close the door. The dark is like a solid, living thing. I wish I was back in my bed.
I know that Victoria is here, beneath the floor. She told me so. She said that she ran away and hid from nasty people who were after her. The house was empty and a wreck then but the bad people found where she lived and she had to hide in her secret place under the floor. She was so scared that she forgot about the dangerous wires. She said that when she touched them she couldn’t let go. But the hurt lasted only a little while. The nasty people never found her. No one did.
I feel across the wooden floor and I find the loose floor board. The board comes up easily. I shiver as I reach into the blackness. My fingers brush against strands that are sticky and make a, snick, sound as they break. I try not to think about scuttling spiders and then I touch something. It is smooth. Cold. And as my fingertips trace the curve of a domed surface and as they pass through strands that do not break, for the first time I see Victoria’s face in my mind. High cheeks, rosy. A pointy chin like an elf. Sharp blue eyes and night-black hair, still silky between my fingers.
‘Do not scream, Bethany. Do not, make a sound.’
My hand is gently taken and drawn down into wet earth. It burns, ooh it burns. I think I must be touching the dangerous wires and that Victoria wants me to stay with her beneath the floor. But her voice, as young as mine whispers clearer than I’ve ever heard before because the words are coming from my mouth.
‘All is fair, sweet Bethany. All is fair.’
I draw my hand out of the hole and I’m changed. I’m no longer alone.
In the morning, after breakfast Mum goes to put on her coat.
‘It’s okay. I can go by myself today,’ I tell her.
‘Really?’ Mum gasps. She smiles and then frowns. ‘Are you sure love?’ She lets go of the coat. ‘I mean, that’s great but … are you …will you be okay? What about the main road? The traffic?’
‘Mum, I am fourteen. Come on.’
Mum’s jaw drops. She’s not used to me being this forward and it is me speaking but at the same time it’s not. Strange. Strange but good. Mum steps aside as Dad wheels himself in.
‘Yeah. Shee a big gur now. Let her gow by hersel.’
I give Dad a hug and then dab the spittle from his chin with a tea towel. The accident changed Dad much more than it changed me. I’m okay, apart from being scared of everything, and being able to hear Victoria of course.
Mum folds her arms and sighs. ‘If you’re really sure.’ There’s a quiver to her voice. She sees me to the door. Behind her, Dad gives a jerky wave from his wheelchair.
‘Gok you pwills?’
‘Yep,’ I call back and it’s true, I do have my medication but I haven’t taken anything this morning. Victoria says that I don’t need pills anymore because she’s going to make me better.
Mum kisses the top of my head and gives me an extra hard hug at the door. ‘We’ll be fine,’ I say.
‘What?’ Mum says
I turn away. ‘Bye Mum. Bye Dad.’
I walk a different way to school. Victoria thinks it will help me be less anxious and it’s working because I don’t pass the brow of the hill which is where my stomach usually starts churning. Where I hear the shriek of brakes and smell burnt rubber, which is all I remember about the car that hit us. Today I feel - okay.
Ahead I see Mark Chilcott. He’s pulling a younger boy by the hand.
‘Go up to him Beth. Punch him in the back.’
My heart’s thudding. I’m trembling.
‘Do it, Beth.’
He hears me coming and turns.
‘What do you want?’
Chilcott’s face is screwed up with anger but I also see that his forehead is pinched, like my Mum’s this morning when she was worried. His eyes keep flicking back to the little boy with the running nose and liquid eyes. I crouch before the boy and feel Victoria’s disappointment that I haven’t hit Chilcott.
‘What’s the matter?’ I ask.
‘My knees hurt.’ His voice is smaller than he is and splintered in despair. ‘Markey won’t carry me.’
‘Get away from him.’
Chilcott tries to pull the boy away but the boy snatches his hand free and stays in front of me.
‘They hurt,’ he says. ‘They hurt every morning and he doesn’t care.’
‘What’s your name,’ I ask.
‘That’s a lovely name,’ I say all by myself without even the slightest tremble in my voice. ‘It’s a name for a brave boy,’ I say and I actually feel myself smiling.
‘Leave. My brother. Alone.’ Chilcott’s words hit me like punches.
‘Do not let him talk to us like that. Kick him. Scratch him. Chilcott Pisspot.’
I don’t do anything. I’m not like that. I’m not like Victoria. Instead I breathe deep and look at Otto. ‘Do you want a piggy back?’ The snotty steams from Otto’s nose lengthen as he nods. I shuffle so that my back is to him. His little arms clamp about my neck and I loop my arms around his legs and stand up.
‘I’m as big as you now Marky,’ says Otto. Chilcott glares at me and then shrugs.
‘Please yourself,’ he says and we start walking.
‘Softie Bethany. Weak Bethany.’
The sticky dampness from Otto’s nose runs down my cheek but it’s okay. He breathes burnt toast and strawberry jam over me and that’s okay too.
We head down Lawler Street toward the primary school just around the corner from St Chad’s Secondary where I go, where Mark Chilcott goes. There is a large holly bush in a garden up ahead. Victoria’s excitement is a tickling sparkle inside me.
‘Make Pisspot say sorry or we will have to punish him.’
I turn to Chilcott who is walking beside me, silent, looking ahead. ‘You weren’t very nice to me yesterday.’ My voice is whispery and I’m shaking.
Chilcott looks at me, defiant.
‘He needs to be punished.’
The holly bush is very near.
‘Do it Bethany. Twist our body. Throw Pisspot’s brother into the bush.’
I imagine Otto amongst the spiky leaves and thorny braches. His legs scraping against the stone wall as he falls.
His skin being torn.
Chilcott stares at me. ‘Stop what?’
‘Nothing,’ I say and stride past the holly bush holding onto Otto so tightly.
‘Well, well. So you do have some strength in you.’
I smile because Victoria is pleased. But then I speak and they are not my words.
Mark Chilcott stares at me and Otto giggles.
At the primary school gate Otto tells me I’m a princess lady and hobbles into the playground. Chilcott tells me I’m weird and walks off without saying thank you.
The tummy hurt gets worse as I reach St Chad’s. The ting, ting, ting is still a stab, stab, stab but Victoria is kinder now.
‘You can do it brave Bethany. Stubborn, brave Bethany.’
And I do. I go into school.
The next day, Otto runs to me as I get near to Mark Chilcott. Otto is easy to carry and he hums as we walk. Chilcott doesn’t speak until Otto has gone into his playground.
‘Er, sorry for what I said the other day,’ he says and then he strides off to St Chad’s. I have to clamp my hands over my mouth and manage to hold back our shout until he is around the corner.
It’s a rainy morning a couple of months later when Mark tells me more about himself and Otto. They don’t have Dad and he has to get Otto washed and dressed and give him his breakfast every morning because their mum is always working. We walk to school together, the three of us most mornings. Victoria makes fun of me for the way I feel when we are near him. She pretends to be grumpy but I think this is the happiest she has been in a long time. She won’t admit it but I sense that it’s because she’s found that she doesn’t have to be horrible to people, just because people were horrible to her at the end of her life. Being kind by helping me be strong makes her feel better.
In bed that evening I ask Victoria if she’s happy for me having Mark as a friend.
‘He’s a boy, Bethany. You can’t trust them. You can’t trust anybody except me.’
I don’t feel like arguing tonight and so I say nothing. I catch a sparkle of what Victoria is thinking just before drifting off to sleep. She is jealous of how I feel about Mark and sad that she can’t be anything more than what she is.
At the start of autumn term Mark starts waiting for me at home time. We go together to collect Otto from after school club.
Victoria has been with me for nearly a year now. She still calls him Pisspot but he’s Mark to me. Mark still leaves me when we get to the gate of St Chad’s. He hangs around in the playground with his mates but keeps watch on me until the bell goes. He knows it’s the ring of the bell that’s my weakest moment, when I might panic and run out of school.
Over the last few months, Dad’s condition has got worse. He’s got to sleep in a bed in the front room now. That’s bad enough but then a really bad thing happens. Mum tells me we are going to move house, to a bungalow just a couple of roads away. At first I don’t realise what this means because I’ll still be going to St Chads and I’ll still see Mark. Then, that night, Victoria tells me what leaving really means.
‘I can’t come with you Beth. I belong to the house. I have to stay here.’
‘But you leave the house every day with me. Why can’t you just come with me to the new place?’
‘I haven’t told you this before, but each time I leave the house with you, it hurts. It’s like part of me is attached to the house and when I move away, my soul, or whatever it is that makes me, stretch. I become less real. I know that if I stretch too far then I will break apart I will become, nothing.’
I’m sick. The tummy pain is back at just the thought of Victoria not being with me. I lock myself in my bedroom and even Victoria can’t stop me crying.
‘You are strong now Beth.’
‘I’m not. I need you.’
‘You are strong.’
‘I’m not. I’m not.’ I can’t stop crying.
It’s our last full day in the house. Tomorrow we leave. Mark sees how upset I am but doesn’t understand how just leaving a house can cause me so much grief. I haven’t told him about Victoria. Mark gives me a hug and he didn’t stop holding me even when his mates started laughing. He walked me home for the first time. It will be the last time to this house but I hope he’ll want to walk me to the new place as well.
I talked with Victoria all night. Again and again I begged her to stay with me but each time she told me that I’m strong enough now and that I don’t need her.
I’m trying to hold in my sobbing as I creep downstairs. I don’t want to wake Mum and Dad. They wouldn’t understand. The cupboard is empty, everything is in boxes piled in the living room.
‘I love you Victoria.’
‘I love you too, fair Bethany. You have shown me how nice it is to be kind to people. You have shown me how to be good.’
‘Will you have to stay here forever?’
‘I used to believe so. But now, I think…I think I see a light that wasn’t there before.’
I feel that the more Victoria is able to help others, then the closer that light will come. I sense that Victoria believes this as well.
‘Beth. We must say goodbye now.’
I’m shaking as I push my hand into the cold, cold space beneath the floorboards. I touch what still is Victoria. I expect to feel something, a slipping away but there is nothing.
Mum finds me in the morning, still squeezed inside the cupboard. She’s afraid, I see it in her eyes. She’s afraid that I’ll become fragile again and break down. I have to be brave for her and for Dad and for me. It’s what Victoria would want. I crawl out of the cupboard and give mum a hug.
The new place turned out fine. It was hard at first but Mark helped me feel less panicky and empty. He walked me home from school most days but another year has passed and now we both have other friends. We have drifted away from each other. I’m popular at school, people think I’m funny. Emma Turner who is shy says I’m the only one she can really speak to because I understand her loneliness.
It’s the summer holidays and in September I’ll be going onto Sixth Form College. As that time approaches I become more and more anxious. It will be a new place, new friendships, and a new start. I think more and more about Victoria. Was she even real? But if she wasn’t real, what does that say about me? Did I make her up just to help me cope? Am I really still that fragile, weak little girl ready again to break.
I didn’t sleep last night for worrying. Sixth Form starts next week. Will I become frightened of everything again? Will I make up another Victoria to tell me what to do, how to cope? Or was Victoria real? If she was, then that would mean that I did become strong and like Victoria said, I don’t need her to stay strong? I have to find out.
I’ve told mum that I’m going to have tea at Emma’s this evening, so that she won’t worry.
I’m walking the way used to go, back to my old house and this is amazing, who do I meet? Mark Chilcott. Even more amazing, he walks with me, just like old times. He has stubble on his chin and his shoulders are so broad. He smiles and my face goes hot.
‘You’ve changed too,’ he says. He gives a jerky shrug like he doesn’t know what to say next. We both laugh. I hold out my hand. He takes it and my heart gallops.
He asks me what I’m doing and I tell him. I tell him about Victoria, about her being with me back at school, about how she helped me. As we walk I tell him about my worry that she was never real and that one day I may sink back into that world of being scared of everything. Mark slides his arm around my shoulders and I lean into him.
‘Do you think I’m weird,’ I ask. ‘ A laugh rumbles though his chest and panic flashes through me because I think he will mock me, like he did once before. Instead, he holds me tighter.
‘I’m the one who’s weird.’
I twist my face to look up at him. He smiles at me before speaking.
‘I shouldn’t have left you. I shouldn’t have let you go.’ He kisses me but then holds me away from him and becomes all serious. ‘You know that we might not find anything, that the people who now live in your house probably won’t even let us inside?’
I nod and even when he takes me in his arms again a cold shadow passes across my heart. Victoria must me real, she must.
‘Just don’t get your hopes up Beth,’ Mark says and we walk on. I know we’ll find something. I just know it.
I never expected this. The road is wider and there’s a new traffic roundabout. Mrs Molloy’s house next door to ours is gone. My house is now a shop with a canopy and boxes of fruit and vegetables outside.
We stand in front of the shop. Mark’s arm is about my shoulders. ‘Can you-do you feel anything?’ he asks. A blackness is opening up inside me. I worry he is going to leave me. I worry that college will be horrible. I worry that I won’t make friends. I worry that my dad will get worse.’
‘Well?’ he asks gently. ‘How do you feel?’
‘Weak,’ I say. ‘Terrified.’
A little girl, very thin and wearing blue jeans, a pink top and a grey hijab is sitting inside the open doorway watching us. Mark waves to her but she ignores him and stares at me. Her eyes widen. She smiles, claps her hands and starts laughing.
The fear is still growing inside me. I shrug out of Mark’s embrace and walk off. Footsteps come after me. I haven’t changed. I’m still that hollow, scared person. I haven’t changed at all. There’s a tug at the strap of my bag. I twist around ready to tell Mark to leave me alone. But he’s is still by the shop, watching me. The girl lets go of my bag. Her smile is bright and her eyes shine as she beckons me to bend down. Her breath is spicy as she whispers.
‘I knew you would be brave, fair Bethany.’
‘What?’ I say.
She glances at Mark, looks back at me and whispers something. Before I can reply she gives a delighted laugh and runs back to the shop.
Mark comes to me. ‘What was that all about?’
I can’t answer. I’m all choked up. I’m sure my face will split in two because my smile is so wide.
‘What?’ Mark asks and he laughs because I’m laughing. He puts his arms around me. ‘What did that girl say to you?’
‘She said, the light is getting closer.’
Mark frowns. ‘What’s that supposed to mean?’
‘It means she’s going to be all right and I am too. I’m going to be just fine.’