Suddenly I See
The bell goes and maths is over for another week, thank God. Who needs maths when everyone’s got a calculator on their phone? There’s the usual banging of desk lids and babble of voices and Lucy and Angela start up the argument about Kate Moss they were having before the lesson started. Lucy thinks she’s really cool but Angela’s oldest brother got hooked on crack and ended up in prison so she’s got a real downer on drugs. I say nothing although I’m on her side. Mr Simpson tries to keep order as everyone barges out of the classroom. No-one takes any notice.
I sometimes feel sorry for old Homer, who’s fat and wheezy and gets made fun of by the boys without him realising it, but he’s just so boring – not like Mr Price in English. All the girls call him Orlando because he’s young and lively and he’s got the same curly hair as Orlando Bloom and that same twinkle in his eye. When he read part of Romeo and Juliet to us he really made it come alive. Even the boys took an interest, and that’s saying something. He read one of the scenes with Annette, who wants to be an actress when she leaves school, and you could have heard a pin drop. All the girls were jealous of her for weeks after that, especially when she told us that he’d been giving her coaching in the evenings so she could take some acting school entrance exam. She hinted there was more but everyone knows she’s always making things up. Anyway, Sandra’s mum saw him in Starbucks with a tall blonde in red jeans who turned out to be a nurse at the General that Fatima’s dad knows. He’s a porter there, though you’d think he was a brain surgeon the way she goes on about him.
The noise is even louder in the queue for the dining hall. The boys push and shove each other and act big for the girls who ignore them, too busy gossiping and texting as though they’d not seen each other for weeks.
Everyone complains about the school meals but they’re usually OK, especially on Friday. There’s this fish thing they do with a creamy sauce that’s really good, so I pick that and salad and rice to go with it. I’ve just got hold of a yoghurt for afters when a hand squeezes mine until the plastic pot breaks and I’m left with a handful of goo. I know who it is even before I look round.
“There’s no wonder you’re such a skinny little bitch,” she says. It’s Kylie – one of the girls who sits at the back of the class and picks on anyone smaller than her. She has lots of opportunities because she’s five foot nine and must be at least twelve stone. Mr Grimes likes her because she’s the district junior shot putt champion and he thinks she could win national medals one day. He’s the exception.
“Now there’s no need for that. I should tell Mrs Cherry how you’re behaving.” It’s Sheila, one of the troop of dinner ladies who have to cope with four hundred hungry mouths every day, keep their cool and then clean up afterwards. Rather them than me. She gives me a cloth and wipes up the mess with another. Kylie scowls at mention of the head teacher and lumbers off, carrying a tray loaded with burger and chips, buttocks swaying like a sumo wrestler’s. No wonder she’s got spots. Cow.
“Here you are, darling.” Sheila puts another yoghurt on my tray and gives me a comforting wink. “Nasty bully. Don’t let her see it bothers you and she’ll soon get bored.”
She must be the same age as my mum but her flowered pinny and her creased smile remind me of Granny who could always make anything all right again, whether it was a grazed knee, a wasp sting or monsters under the bed when I spent a night at her little cottage in the country. I miss her, and suddenly there’s a lump in my throat. At Kylie’s table, where she sits with her gang, there’s a roar of laughter and for a moment I really think I’m going to cry.
Emma-Jane, who’s standing behind me in the queue, pats my arm. “Come on, Donna. Let’s sit down. Just ignore them.”
EJ is posh. Her dad owns the Mercedes dealership in town and her mum is a lecturer in classical history, or something like that, at the university. She should really be at The Birches, where all the rich kids go, but her parents don’t believe in private education. Idiots. I wish my dad could afford to send me there. She’s clever too, always top of the class, and as well as all that she’s beautiful. I don’t mean glamorous or painted or even just pretty. She’s beautiful. Whatever she wears looks stunning, like it was designed specially for her in a Milan fashion house, even the school uniform. Her hair is long, thick, glossy and a shade of auburn so perfect it has to be real. She doesn’t wear make-up or jewellery and her shoes are no different to anyone else’s. But she shines. Her figure is perfect too. I’ve seen her in the changing room after games. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not like Vanessa who’s always first into the shower, last to get dressed and last to leave. Looking at EJ is like looking at a work of art. I don’t even have boobs. Some of the eleven-year-olds are bigger than me, and I’m the only one in our class that’s not started periods. Mum says she was a late starter and it’s nothing to worry about – I should be grateful. Well I’m not. I don’t want to be a freak.
“Ignore them,” she repeats. “Kylie’s only jealous and the rest are too stupid to think for themselves.”
That shakes me. “Jealous? Of me?”
“Of course. You’ve got a pretty face and you’ve got real friends. All she’s got is muscle and hangers-on. I feel sorry for her. She must be very lonely.”
And that’s why, despite her having everything, no-one dislikes EJ. She’s so obviously good-hearted that the thought of envy doesn’t come into it. Instead, you just enjoy being around her. She’s not one of my real friends – how could she be, someone as classy as her? – but we’ve always been friendly.
“Maybe you’re right, EJ, but we’re not all as nice as you.” I look across to Kylie’s table where she’s stuffing chips into her fat face and laying down the law to one of her gang. It’s hard to imagine that she’s got a soft centre, or to feel pity for her if she’s unhappy. “I think I’d rather be on my own.” I pull out my iPod. “There’s some music I want to listen to.”
EJ looks at me with concern. “You don’t have to. We...”
I walk away before I change my mind or she changes it for me and sit at an empty table in the corner of the room. EJ gives me a puzzled smile and joins her friends.
The iPod was a thirteenth birthday present from Dad, two weeks ago, and was a total shock. It’s one you can get a zillion songs on and he’d started it off with some of my favourites and since then I’ve already half-filled it. It was such a shock because dad hardly even does CDs – he still listens to those old black records, LPs, and tells me that there’s been no decent music written since 1985. I know he’s only teasing, and I’ve caught him a few times listening to my CDs, but he likes the music best from when he was a kid. Sometimes he’s a bit of a nerd about it, but always in a fun way. I’m even named after one of Mum’s favourite songs. She’s just as bad. Sometimes I’ll come down from my room and find them dancing and giggling in the living room, which is so embarrassing. They’ve been together since they were at school and had a big silver wedding party two years ago. That’s twenty-seven years! Pretty amazing. Two-thirds of our class have parents who’ve split, but Mum and Dad are still together. He’s fifty, and she’s not far off, and they still go to concerts! Gigs, he calls them. He’s threatened to turn up and dance the next time I go to University Hall and I half believe him. I’d just totally die.
But I love my dad. I think that’s one of the reasons I fancy Orlando so much (as if we needed any). He’s like my dad. I don’t mean he looks like him – that would be just too freaky – I mean his way of looking at things is the same and he makes you feel good about yourself and he’s so enthusiastic. That’s where I get my love of music from – from Dad. When you grow up hearing your parents’ music all the time you either love it or hate it. Nothing in between. I loved it, and still do, though today’s stuff is great too. And that’s why I always wanted to play guitar.
Dad had an old acoustic he’d sometimes strum until Mum told him to stop making that awful racket. He was pretty rubbish – even he admitted that – but he enjoyed it and when I was little I thought he was so cool. Obviously I had to have a go, even though the guitar was far too big for me, and used to bash away on that until I was nine when I was given a brand new three-quarter-size acoustic and sent away to Mr Murgatroyd’s every Saturday afternoon for lessons. Call me Baz, he always insisted, but I was too young to call a grown-up by his first name. He was an old hippy who smelled of that strange scent they all use and his flat reeked of cigarettes and other things. Sometimes he’d tell me about supporting Janis in London or opening for Bob in Boston. I didn’t have a clue what he was on about, and now I do I don’t know if I believe him, but I loved hearing his tales and listening to him play. That was something he couldn’t fake.
He moved away when I was eleven – there was something in the papers but my dad made sure I didn’t see it. By then I’d started at the High School and Miss Wilson was giving me tuition on Wednesday nights in the music room and I was getting good. But I never told anyone. This was my secret and I didn’t want it spoiled by Kylie and her gang making fun if it.
There’s only one poster on my bedroom wall – KT Tunstall. She’s utterly, utterly brilliant and I love her. Her music’s so good and she’s so cool. I saw her last year at University Hall and it was the best show I’ve ever seen. The atmosphere was electric while we waited for the lights to go down, then she just walked onto the stage as though it was nothing, caught in a single spotlight, and launched into “Black Horse” without saying a word and the crowd was raving. She wore this black outfit with cowboy boots and a silver scarf and looked totally gorgeous and held the guitar as though it was part of her. I could hardly sleep that night for thinking about her and the music. Dad and Mum were there too – they said I was too young to go without adults – and both said she was brilliant too. Her CD was the first one Dad put on my iPod, and that’s what I’m listening to now. Whenever things are bad I listen to KT and dream of the day that I’ll be on the stage, playing my guitar, no longer a skinny kid with no boobs, no hips and hair that looks awful whatever I do.
Then it’s my favourite favourite song and I’m singing along with KT in the chorus, not caring if Kylie or anyone else hears: “Suddenly I see, this is what I want to be...”
And then I open my eyes and want to shrink away to nothing because I’m being watched by Andy Collins, and he’s laughing at me.
The girls call him Brad because he’s gorgeous, and until today he’s never even looked at me. He’s two years above me, so why would he? He’s in a class with girls who’ve got boobs and who could walk into a pub and get served without anyone noticing. If he looked at me he’d think I still played with prams and dolls. He’d never dream that we’ve got something in common. He plays guitar too, in Ghettoblaster, a band that’s been in the end-of-year concert and at a charity fundraiser in the Railway Club. Their picture was in the paper. I saw them both times and he was just so cool in a striped jacket and white trousers and trainers. He’s got butter-blond hair and these soft blue eyes that just swallow you up and a smile that shows even white teeth and a dimple on one side. All the girls love that dimple. I cut the picture out of the paper and it’s on the wall next to KT.
For six months I’ve wanted to walk up to him and say: "I really admire your playing. I play guitar too. Why don’t we have a jam some time?” Everyone says he’s a really nice guy and he’s showed some of the boys in my class how to play chords. I’m way past that. He’d like to play with someone who knows what they’re doing. Mike, the other guitarist in Ghettoblaster, isn’t very good and another of my daydreams is taking his place and being close to Brad, rehearsing with him and writing songs with him. There could be more. Why not? Mum and Dad met at school. I could still be with Brad after twenty-seven years. And now he’s laughing at me.
Or is he? He loves music, so maybe he just likes my enthusiasm? In a minute he might walk over and ask what I’m listening to and say he’s a fan too. Then I could tell him about my guitar. Who knows what could happen after that?
I wave to him, bolder than I’ve ever been in my life. He sees and – I can’t believe it! – his face lights up. God! He does know me! Maybe Miss Wilson has told him all about my guitar-playing and he’s been looking for me. My heart’s pounding now, keeping beat with KT who’s still filling my head with music, and when I try to stand I feel dizzy from the excitement.
That’s when I realise he’s not looking at me. He wasn’t even laughing at me. He’s looking past me, through the window, to the playground where EJ is waving back to him, her beautiful face as radiant as his. They’re a pair and I never even knew it.
I watch, helpless, as he walks away to be with her. It's like my life is over. Then KT sings "Suddenly I See" and my favourite song will never be the same again.