By Jennifer Pickup

Unbound's first first-time novelist - her pitch is almost a movie in itself...

Saturday, 29 October 2011

Chapter Two: Identity

Monday Morning. The school rose up before me, tall and bland.

The buildings were blocks, cold-faced, the paint peeling from the wooden window frames; a faint tang of neglect tainted the air. I watched the steady troupe of uniform-clad pupils drain in through the gates and dissipate inside the buildings through various doors, as the huge wall-mounted clock ticked ominously towards half-past eight.

‘Hey, are you going to stand there all day?’ A voice broke across my consciousness like a wave, stunning me back to the present, where I appeared to be standing, door handle in hand, while a queue of students formed behind me, growing later for registration by the second.

‘S…sorry,’ I stuttered, and dragged my feet inside, heading for reception. The secretary at the front desk looked harassed; the second week in January plagued with illness and absence.

‘Good morning,’ she grinned brightly, leaving the phone off the hook while she dealt with signing me in and explaining my timetable. Furnished in about two minutes flat with a map, registration documents and the name of my tutor, she directed me to a small table in the corner to fill in the relevant paperwork.

Name of student. I took a deep breath and committed myself.

Neona White.’ I felt a little guilty, stealing my grandmother’s surname, but let myself nonetheless.

Name of parent/guardian. Screamed the second box.

Hesitantly, I wrote: ‘Magena White.’ Maggie’s name overrode my mother’s, beating it to the nib of my pen. I let it spill out, as Selena DeWitka was swallowed back into the cartridge. My mother’s name sounded so exotic next to mine, thanks to my father. I did not remember what he was like, really; he had left when I was only a child, but I remembered his presence, his face and how it had felt when he held me, even though I was tiny.

‘Finished, love?’ the receptionist asked, interrupting my thoughts. Hastily, I filled in the rest of the form and almost shoved it at her, as the bell went for first period. I checked my timetable, then found my way to the English department. Sliding inside the door, I made my way to the familiar safety of the back of the room, luckily well-practised in the art of eye avoidance, since several pairs followed me. I felt the weight of judgement, the usual weighing up of appearances; I was drab in my comfy jeans and hoodie, in comparison to the made-up faces, the short skirts and skinny jeans of the other girls. I unwound myself into an uncomfortable wooden chair. A hush fell as a tall, elegant blonde woman strode into the classroom, clutching a stack of books, which she placed delicately on the front desk. The patterns of a lesson unfolded; register, then, noting the unnamed, a brief exchange between us:

‘Neona White, I presume – the receptionist handed me a note on the way here. You’ve missed the first modular exam; we took it last week, but there will be an opportunity to re-take in May. You’ll have a lot of catching up to do at home.’

I nodded. Did I say exchange? I didn’t speak.

She handed out the books, passing me a copy of Frankenstein. I held the book gingerly in my hands, weighing up the story, which I knew well. The freak holding the book about the freak: a perfect duo of irony.

Luckily, the first thing to do this week was watch the film adaptation, so that we had ‘the whole-story overview’. The flickering images painted my eyes with colour, humour and light, and I was surprised to find a tiny glimmer of enjoyment creeping through the usual numbness. I suppressed it instantly; those were floodgates that didn’t need opening, especially not in my present environs.

Maths was harder to escape into; the young, enthusiastic teacher was determined to include everyone in his relentless demands for answers to questions that were somewhat beyond me. I placed myself on mind-arrest; separated the freedom of obscurity from the past; nobody here knew the truth about last summer, and it was liberating. School back home had become marinated in toxicity. In the end, I had left because I could no longer breathe.

Last lesson: Biology. The teacher was old, long past the stage of being bothered with new faces. He merely grunted, got me to scrawl my name on a piece of paper, and dismissed me to my back-row haunt. I ignored the sweep of people, and they stared, but did not speak to me. And then, the day was done with me. I slid out of the school gates into the darkening world, as what was left of the light slipped away under the cover of heavy cloud. I sensed it would rain soon: an echo of my mood; blank bleakness. The streetlights buzzed and flicked on as I passed.

I took a shortcut home through the local park, away from the lights and the traffic and the people. Strangely, I couldn’t shake the feeling that someone was following me as I wove my way beneath the old, tired trees, stumbling over the uneven tarmac in the half-light. I blinked to clear my vision, glancing around to try and catch sight of any threat, but there was something wrong with my eyes; for weeks, I had struggled in the dark mornings and evenings, my mother unaware. I supposed it was a result of the lack of moisture since I had stopped remembering how to cry.

They were gone before my knees hit the ground; a blur of black disappearing into the distance. The brief penetration had been deep and vicious, but there were only small holes in my layers of clothes to prove that anything untoward had occurred. And then, the rush came, a thousand splendid suns bursting through my body, heat and light and pain; a miasma of emotion. I prayed to a God I was not sure I believed in as my heart galloped and my side throbbed, burned, pulsed…it was as if my body was renewing its incredible defences. I knew that anyone else would be lying, bleeding out on the tarmac by now, while I had evaded Death once more. The tide rolled back and, as the heat receded, my heart slowed to a mere disco beat, and the adrenalin coursed away.

When? I raised my eyes to stare into the depths of the darkened sky. When will it stop? Who wants to know? What can they possibly prove without a witness?

Tuesday. I burned the holey clothes before school, in an old oil drum coined for the purpose on the industrial estate on the edge of town. In the wakening dawn, I examined my side, but could find no trace of a scar. The skin felt normal: human. But it couldn’t be, could it? It was knife-proof.

At school, I found that I had expended my day’s grace as a newcomer, and that now I was ‘old news’ some of my Biology classmates had expectations that I would contribute in class discussions, join in with group activities like experiments and, added to that, accompany them to lunch. Suddenly, I had five new friends: Tienna, Cain, Will, Freya and Daniel. I couldn’t escape the feeling that, en masse, they had decided I needed ‘looking after.’ I explained my presence with a rather grey lie: ‘I had to come and live with my grandmother because my family broke up’, refusing to be pressed further on the matter. It seemed to work. It was the truth, after all, even if the timing was off…

English Literature was not so easy.

‘Hi, I’m Elyssa,’ a raven-haired, pale-skinned girl with startlingly dark, wide eyes who could only be described as ‘stunning’ crashed her bag and coat down onto the table beside me. She shoved her baggy sleeves up her painfully thin wrists, back from her hands, revealing a myriad of leather bracelets that thronged both arms, and shook her waist-length hair back from her face.

‘Don’t let the bastards know too much,’ she announced, collapsing heavily onto the chair beside me. She sprawled like an overgrown spider, filling her space utterly and completely. Her skinny legs, clad in tight drainpipe jeans, snaked down into leather cowboy boots. Her hugely oversized woollen jumper draped around her, hiding her stick-like figure, reaching halfway down her thighs. Everything was black. She picked at her chipped nail varnish as the others dribbled into the classroom.

I noticed that Elyssa’s presence seemed to insulate me from the others; most of them steered well clear of where we were sitting, at the back, and I took welcome shelter in her shadow. Only one other dared intrude upon our row; a tall, pale boy. He too was beautiful, extraordinarily so. His dark eyes glittered from underneath his overgrown blonde fringe, and he said not one word to either of us, simply eased himself into the chair beside Elyssa. My protection was complete. Elyssa failed to introduce us, and expected nothing from me as I sat, waiting for the class to start. I felt like the ugly duckling, tagging along with the swans.

I watched the teacher distribute paper. The opening task was a simple one; note down five ways in which the opening of the Frankenstein film differed from the beginning of the written text. I sympathised with the ‘monster’. Outsiders both; at least I wasn’t hideously deformed.

The teacher picked out various students to read out their answers. She picked me third, and grudgingly I read aloud part of what I had written:

‘What is interesting is the degree to which the different texts portray Victor’s creation as monstrous; the film allows the reader to follow the ‘monster’ as a silent witness, whereas the book has him recounting his story directly to his creator, so we are trapped, if you like, within his viewpoint of events that occur. In the novel, Victor is allowed a greater insight into the monster’s perspective, since he listens as the ‘monster’ recounts his tale personally; in the film, Victor only judges his creation on his actions, disallowing him a proper defence.’

‘I see you have read the whole text, Neona, so that actually puts you at an advantage for this module.’ The teacher smiled, slightly distantly; I was just another face needing to be fed education.

Elyssa appraised me as I settled back against the comfort of the chair:

‘Nice one; I’m impressed. Intelligent and individual.’

I caught the blonde boy staring at me from behind his fringe, and he lowered his eyes. I wanted to know his name, but was all too aware of feeling violated upon after the grilling in Biology, and had no intention of becoming the intruder figure to another. He and Elyssa were clearly outsiders themselves within the greater student body, and I instantly felt an affinity with them; they demanded nothing from me and offered me little of themselves, which made their company more welcoming, somehow.

The lesson ended far too soon; the peaceful undulations of reading and writing tasks were a sort of sanctuary, and now reality crashed back in, uninvited, crossing my conscience with momentary panic; the promised lunch with my Biology classmates.

Tienna’s dark visage waited at the doorway to the dining hall, a direct contrast to Elyssa’s pinched white features. Tienna was her smile; her round, healthy cheeks; her large dark eyes; her braided hair, haloing her head like a guardian angel; another new overwhelming physical presence in my life. Today, like yesterday, I had brought jam sandwiches and fruit, made by my incredibly nurturing Maggie, stuffed into my bag. I would, like yesterday, barely touch it; my appetite had been practically non-existent of late. Tienna was having none of it.

‘Pie and chips, how could you resist?’ she cackled, handing me a laden plate. I protested at the lack of greenness and she handed me a packet of salt and vinegar crisps. I laughed at the green wrapping. Maggie, petite and elegant, would have had fifty fits; nothing as unnatural as crisps was allowed past the threshold of her kitchen.

Cain, Will, Freya and Daniel were sitting amongst a jovial crowd at a large table in the corner. Luckily, by the time we joined them, the table was already thrumming with conversation and I could sit, silently picking at the chips, trying not to look at the pie.

Cain and Will were best mates and it was practically impossible to tell them apart, since although one was dark-haired and one was fair-haired, they were both tall, muscular and somehow tanned in winter, and spoke in exactly the same way, with a strong local accent. Freya, despite careful attention to her blonde hair and thick make-up, attempted to be ‘one of the boys’, but it was clear that she was secretly storing up the courage to ask out Will. Daniel was the thinnest, shortest and geekiest, and quite obviously smitten with Tienna, who would eat him alive if she could be bothered.

‘Are you going to eat that?’ Daniel leaned over, hungrily. I noticed that his own plate was already spotless.

‘No,’ I shook my head, grinning and shoving it over.

He grinned wolfishly, and started to shovel mouthfuls of chips down.

‘Pig!’ shouted Tienna. ‘Look at her; she needs to eat something, before she wastes away completely like Elyssa!’

‘Elyssa Strickland: Elyssa Stick-land!’ quipped a boy with dreads and deep brown skin, laughing.

I flinched at the sound of my new ally’s name being bandied about in such a fashion. I had noticed the thinness; I had simply not commented or judged. Appearances were sensitive things; I should know. I blinked as my new contact lenses shifted uncomfortably in my eyes, the bright fluorescent lights of the school buildings starting to give me a headache. Maggie had insisted I try a pair of her daily disposables, after I had walked into a doorframe this morning and admitted my recent problems. The prescription was off, though. Or perhaps short sight wasn’t the issue.

‘Who are you, anyway?’ the dreaded boy demanded.

‘She’s called Neona and she’s out of your league!’ called Tienna.

‘What kind of name is that?’ he mocked. ‘It’s not English!’

‘What’s your point?’ I asked, slightly riled, but resigned to such questions.

‘Well, you look English.’ He backtracked slightly, raising a thick, dark eyebrow.

‘Does ‘English’ have a look?’ I challenged. ‘We’ve always been a multicultural society, invaded by wave after wave of different races, integrating them and their languages into a population that we term ‘English’ so easily. What is English to you?’

‘Definitely out of your league, Mika – pretty and too intelligent for you!’

Mika blushed. ‘Sorry, my name’s not exactly normal either, but then I don’t look normal…’ he trailed off, realising his guilt. ‘Ok, before you ask me to define ‘normal’, I’m just going to shut up and back off!’

‘It’s Greek; it means ‘New Moon’, and it’s a family thing, being named for the moon,’ I offered, in way of recompense for my harshness.

‘It’s very pretty; it suits you,’ he whispered, leaning over as he rose to leave the table.

‘But, hang on, your name means ‘New Moon’ too; it’s Japanese,’ I said softly, but he was already gone. He probably didn’t know; after all, he didn’t look Japanese…and there I was, being hypocritical.

Maths came and went quickly, a few by-now-familiar faces to accompany me. Tienna had appointed herself as my personal protector, and I was grateful to be able to hide behind her rather overwhelming personality; for now, it absolved me from having to develop and portray one of my own. The pain wouldn’t let me. For too long now, I had been merely drifting, sleep-walking through my life, rather than living it. Perhaps I would never be able to. Perhaps I had left the living part of me back there on the road, with the rest of them…

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