Annie dumped her bag in the only free space on the tiny kitchen table and sank onto a stool. What had she done? She was so pig-headed and impetuous. Kard would have the whole world on her back. Why hadn’t she just gritted her teeth and put up with it? She shook her head. The thought of him kissing her was so revolting she couldn’t bear it.
She stared at her hands. They were shaking. Her knees felt like they’d been replaced by Aunt Nelly’s best jelly. The thought of the silly TV ad didn’t even make her smile. She cradled her head in her hands. Had that really happened? Yes! She could still feel his fingers on her shoulder, as if his touch had branded her for life.
With her eyes closed, she kept seeing Kard’s face as he leaned closer. And the smell of him! She wished they had a shower and not a bath. She’d willingly have flushed him away, but there wouldn’t be enough hot water for a bath. There rarely was. She shuddered. Maybe she should call the police and report him. She glanced at the phone sitting next to the rickety stack of her mother’s cookbooks. None of your new touchscreen nonsense. Her mother preferred an old-fashioned finger-dialling phone. The mention of it had her school friends sniggering, so she was careful not to invite people home.
The empty house was oppressive. Her brother, Ted, told his parents he had rugby practice but he was secretly dating a girl from Tesco or was it Sainsbury’s. Her parents arrived late on Fridays, separately though, having almost nothing to do with each other outside the house. And precious little inside.
Apart from the insistent hum of traffic from the flyover beyond the backyard and the occasional screech of tyres on the slip road, the house was silent. Getting to her feet, she cupped her hands under the tap. The water was cold and smelt vaguely of chlorine. She swilled it around her mouth and spat it into the sink. It wasn’t enough. She poured water into the kettle to make some tea, then flipped on the radio, another antique, a pink plastic transistor model, and turned the dial to a local music station.
It crackled then the music stopped. “We interrupt our broadcast,” a newscaster said, “to bring breaking news.” Annie was about to change to another music station when the voice continued, “Earlier this afternoon, Nolan Kard’s rally in the East End was interrupted. Thugs broke into the Lord Mayor’s campaign bus and beat him up and one of his bodyguards.” Annie gasped. What a pack of lies. How dare he? “They also knocked out the surveillance cameras and made off with several bottles of whiskey and a box of cigars.”
She’d heard the politician was not a believer in truth, but this went way beyond political falsehoods. Of course he wouldn’t want anyone to see the surveillance footage. They’d lock him up. She imagined him savouring every second of the recording in private. She turned on the tap and ran her hands under the water, the thought had left her feeling sullied. Not that she’d done or said anything wrong. Apart from smashing the Lord Mayor’s precious nose and refusing to submit to him.
Her fear, which had largely subsided, surged anew. He might be so sick as to track her. He knew her school. He had pictures of her from the video. He might even try to corner her again. For a moment she looked desperately for a place to hide, then the kettle whistled and she remembered where she was. Was she safe there?
She rummaged through the cupboard in search of PG Tips and made a pot of tea, plonking granny’s cosy on top of it when she was done. Granny’s cosy was a legend. She said she knitted it during the long nights when Grandad was away at the war, but, behind her back and openly since Granny died, Annie’s Mum swore she bought it at a jumble sale like many of her knickknacks and that Grandad had never been to the war because of some illness her mother refused to talk about. Annie leaned against the counter and took a deep breath. She was tempted to turn on the telly, but she didn’t want to have to look at the man’s face.
She stretched her arm into the back of the cupboard in search of Mum’s stash of biscuits. She hid them because of Ted. He was always starving when he got home from school, especially when he’d stopped off on the way to snog with his girlfriend. Of course, he knew where the biscuits were, but since he had a paper-round he bought his own. None of which Mum was aware of. Annie was hoping for Chocolate Fingers but there were only a few Rich Tea. She took one and closed the tin. Filling a mug with milk and tea, she headed up to her room in the attic.
She hung her blazer on its hanger from a nail in the rafters, slipped out of her skirt and folded it on her dresser. She undid the tie and unbuttoned her blouse which she hung over the blazer. Standing in her bra, pants and socks, she stared at herself in the tiny mirror inside her wardrobe. What could any man see in her? She was neither tall nor short. Ayana, her best friend, told her she was model-size which was probably Ayana’s way of saying she was too skinny and looked odd. She was a late developer she told herself. Her breasts were barely formed and her hips had not filled out like all the other girls in her class. Ayana, in comparison, with her unblemished chocolate-brown skin, her deep brown eyes and her long pitch-black hair, was all curves and didn’t hesitate to flout it, although, thank heavens, she didn’t flirt with the boys.
Annie pulled at her hair. It was getting too long. Now there was an idea. No one would recognise her if she wore it short. She’d never dared have it cropped for fear she’d be mistaken for a boy. When she’d shared her concern with Ayana, her friend had disagreed. Boys could be pretty too, she’d said enigmatically.
She ran her fingers through her hair, glancing disapprovingly at herself in the mirror. Stop being silly. Nothing happened. That Kard bloke has moved on to another part of town, other girls. Sure, a voice in her head answered. Nothing happened, but that nothing made the news on the radio and probably the telly too.
The phone rang downstairs, strident in the silence. She struggled into her dressing gown and hurried down, knotting the belt around her waist as she did. It was Ayana.
“Have you heard the news?” her best friend asked, out of breath, such was her excitement. Probably some revelation about a new romance or an unexpected breakup. “A detective is snooping around school. Apparently, some bigwig has been attacked.”
Annie felt an icy hand grab her by the nape. She grasped the kitchen table for fear of falling and sat down. “How do you know?”
“I’m at volley practice.”
As if that helped. Ayana wasn’t very good at explaining. “So the police are there?”
“I don’t think she’s from the police. More like the secret service or an undercover agent or a spy.” Ayana was gifted with more than average imagination. She was the one who had the physics teacher eloping with a fellow schoolgirl when in fact he’d been off with a bad bout of flu. If only she hadn’t been so lousy in English, she’d have a chance as a story-writer.
“Did she interrogate you?”
“Sure.” Ayana sounded excited, more like she’d been interviewed for the telly. “She seemed to think someone from school was involved.”
Annie’s fear spiked again. God damn it! This was real. She wasn’t just imagining it. This wasn’t another of Ayana’s tall stories. When her friend finally got off the phone, having related her whole conversation with the woman spy, Annie vaulted up the stairs, pulled on tracksuit bottoms, a t-shirt and a hoodie then rummaged in her wardrobe for her savings. Haircut here we come.