7 Things back the way they were
‘She’s not interested in you, you dummy,’ Philip said, shoving Neil in the chest. ‘And anyway, I thought you liked Veronica.’ His voice was full of scorn.
‘Don’t shove me!’ Neil shoved Philip back, pushing him a little into the bike shed. ‘Elisha doesn’t care about you either.’
‘Does too!’ A shove the other way.
‘Does not!’ A shove back.
Philip grabbed Neil’s arms and they started flailing about together like some weird, two-headed, eight-limbed creature. Neither of them wanted to let go of the other’s arms in case they got punched.
A couple of other boys came over to watch, cheering and shouting. Jasmine and Stephanie were throwing a ball to each other in the playground when they saw the fight starting.
‘Oh no. Go and get a teacher, Steph.’ Jasmine ran up to the tussling boys while Stephanie headed for the teacher on duty, Mr Saunders.
‘Why don’t you grow up?’ Jasmine exclaimed. ‘A teacher’s coming, you’ll get into trouble.’ Some of the spectators jeered at her to shut up.
Philip turned his head to see Mr Saunders and Stephanie approaching and in that moment Neil realised he had him off guard, wrestled his right arm free and punched Philip in the mouth. The fist hitting the other boy’s flesh and bone made an awful, sick, thudding sound and blood spurted out from Philip’s lower lip. A couple of boys cheered but Jasmine gasped in shock. It was the most violent and horrible thing she’d seen happen in real life.
‘What’s going on here? Come on, break it up.’ The teacher’s voice boomed at them. Neil was rubbing his fist, which really hurt and Philip was silent and dazed. When Neil saw the blood now trickling from Philip’s mouth, he suddenly felt the ground sway beneath him. He lost his footing and felt himself falling. Everything went black.
‘Oh terrific,’ said Mr Saunders, standing over them with his hands on his hips. The circle of watchers widened and dispersed. His habit was to always call pupils by their full names, so he would tell Elisha off by saying ‘Elisha Goodman, what’s the meaning of this?’ Now he said, ‘Philip Evans, get up at once.’
They were fighting over you, Elisha,’ Jasmine whispered, as they sat down in their form room for registration.
‘But why?’ Elisha felt a bit shocked but also a little smug.
‘Because you’re the prettiest girl in school and they both wanted you to like them.’
‘But that’s silly.’ Elisha looked round and noticed a couple of other boys gazing dreamily at her. They looked a bit dopey.
‘Hey, it must be because of your wish!’ Steph’s eyes opened wide. ‘You know, Jas, the magic wishing well thing.’ Elisha felt a surge of panic. But then the girls looked at each other and laughed sarcastically in unison.
‘Next thing we know she’ll be rubbing a daisy on her dress and making wishes like that stupid Bizzy Lizzy.’
Stephanie sat down on the other side of Jasmine. ‘What time is Anne-Marie’s pyjama party then, Jas?”
Jasmine turned away from Elisha and the girls began talking about the pyjama party – what they would wear, what records they would bring to play, who else was coming. Elisha just knew her mouth had turned down at the corners. Why hadn’t she been invited to the party? She knew Anne-Marie too, though admittedly they hadn’t been at the same nursery. Being the prettiest girl in school wasn’t much fun if you didn’t have girl friends. In fact, it was starting to really suck, as her American cousin said all the time about anything she didn’t like.
She’d thought everything would be easier if she were prettier. What if she wished to be the most popular girl as well, so that the other girls would have to like her too? But then, if they behaved like the boys, how much fun would that be? Maybe she should wish to just be normal again?
She made up her mind while Jas and Steph chattered together and she could only make out the odd word. After school she went straight home. The tarmac on the road smelt hot, like it was melting; and the lollipop lady on Station Road looked weary, as if she were wilting in the heat, her smile a bit forced as she beckoned the children across in front of a Ford Anglia in West Ham colours. Anglias were Ellie’s favourite cars, apart from the orange bubble car that used to drive down the avenue very occasionally. The Anglia looked so quirky and stylish that she felt a little cheered up.
Elisha jumped up on the kerb and noticed a scuff on the toe of one shoe. They were brown Clarks shoes with single, buckled straps. She remembered how much she loved getting her feet measured in the shoe shop in the High Street. The assistant knelt in front of her while she rested one foot in the measuring device and the marker was pushed up against her toes, like she was somebody special and important.
She had on a green and white check school summer dress, with a dark-green cardigan that she’d pulled off and tied round her waist by the sleeves. Her white ankle socks were a bit grubby because when they’d stood up for assembly, she’d rested one foot on the other ankle and muddied them up. And she had a graze on her knee, which was a bit sunburnt.
She looked at herself in the mirror in the hall at home perhaps for the last time in this pretty incarnation, her hair in bunches secured with her favourite hair things with two clear green plastic balls on each, freckles minimal, then sighed and went into the lounge to open the display cabinet and take out the well.
It looked freshly painted, its colours gleaming; and she wondered if her mum had polished it, or her dad. He used to pour this stuff called Brasso out of a tin onto a duster – it came out a light brown colour, like milky tea, and then he’d rub the brass ornaments with it till the wet patch on the duster went black. She didn’t know whether that was from the dirt rubbed off the pot or whatever, or if the brown liquid just went black because of the friction. It reminded her of those ads for Anne French deep cleansing milk on the TV, when all that black stuff came off on the cotton wool from a girl’s face.
She carried the well up to her room. It felt heavy in her hands, solid and reassuring. Sitting at her desk, she dropped a penny into it and closed her eyes. She meant to say ‘I wish to look just normal again, like I did before.’ But she couldn’t do it. She couldn’t wish herself unpretty. It was too hard. There had to be some other way.
Perhaps she could change how people reacted to her instead? Or how they saw her? She fetched a chocolate biscuit from the fridge and bit into it thoughtfully, while picking the penny out from the well.
‘I wish people wouldn’t like me or dislike me just because I’m pretty,’ she compromised, dropping the coin back in.
The coin rang and echoed in the depths of the well; she inhaled the cool mustiness of damp stone and suddenly felt calm and at peace with herself.
She got up to look at her reflection in the mirrored wardrobe door, a little apprehensive at what she might see there but unable to detect any real change.
The next day at school she watched to see how people responded. Things didn’t change at once, but very gradually. The boys had got into the habit of being interested in her and so kept gazing at her wistfully for a while. The girls had grown accustomed to being jealous and looked at her like they were uncertain, but still searching for reasons to dislike her. She fidgeted uncomfortably – for a few minutes it felt like the whole school was watching her.
Then Veronica Atkins sashayed past, her blond hair twisted up into a beautifully intricate style, with the ends fanning out prettily – Elisha couldn’t help staring in admiration. It must have taken her mum ages to do. All of a sudden, everyone turned away and got on with what they were doing. The boys were kicking a tennis ball around on the black asphalt; some girls fed up with waiting for the hopscotch squares were drawing their own with yellow blackboard chalk; another group were skipping and chanting a rhyme ending ‘When it’s your birthday, please jump out’; children were walking past her, talking to each other, not even noticing her. She felt empty and a chill went through her.
But then Jasmine touched her hand. ‘Stephanie’s got some new beads, if you want to see them, Ellie’ and her friend smiled at her. It felt like the sun coming out, like her mother putting her arms round her after she’d fallen over, like coming home after a holiday away and lying back in your own bed.