Colourful People – Chapter One
Gina shaved the last of the hair from her head, tossing the blond curl to the floor. She squeezed a generous squirt of baby oil into the palm of her hand and massaged it into her scalp, delighting in the smoothness of her skin. Reaching for the tiny mirror that lay on the table, she turned it this way and that, admiring the strong lines of her head. Yes. She’d been right to risk it. Her parents would give her hell if ever they found out. But since she’d runaway, there was little chance of that. As for the police, they were searching for a smartly-dressed, blond-haired girl who’d been kidnapped, not an abandoned boy with a bald head and shabby clothes.
She shivered and pulled up the collar to her jacket. It was cold in the shed that served as their makeshift hideaway, the bitter north wind whistling under the door and between the ill-fitting boards that formed the walls. The ‘kiss’ locals called the wind. It cut through you like a kiss of death. Above the sheets of corrugated iron groaned in their battle with the elements. There were no windows to reveal the sky, but she knew it would be leaden, promising snow, although it wouldn’t fall as long as the wind kept up. She extracted a red beret from her jacket pocket and pulled it firmly over her shorn head, slanting it to cover only the crown of her head.
Relegating the remaining curls from the table with a swipe of her hand, she ran an angry finger over the page of the tattered book. It taunted her. She’d spent hours pawing over the list of instructions, but the meaning of many words still eluded her even with an age-old dictionary to help. Damn it! Dialect or no, the language was complicated and confusing. She let out a huff of frustration and swore. She was so close. If only she could get the potion right, all else would fall into place.
A bark of laughter outside announced the arrival of the others. They’d been due back for a while. Sure enough, the door burst open and Freya, a tall, broad-shouldered girl with exaggeratedly frilly skirts pulled up around her knees in defiance of the cold, stepped into the shed, a grin plastered on her lips. “So you did it,” she said spotting Gina, her voice balancing in the no-man’s-land between boy and girl. “Show us.”
A delicate-framed girl pushed past into the shed, her glasses fogged over with condensation. Horn-rimmed, they were so generously round compared to her tiny face, she resembled a startled owl. Pulling the spectacles from her nose, she fumbled, trying unsuccessfully to wipe the glass on her skirt. “Show what?” she asked in a delicate falsetto, squinting at Gina.
“Give me that,” Freya said, extracting the glasses from her fingers. Hiking up her skirts, exposing even more of her thighs to the wind, she wiped the lenses on her petticoats. “If you wore petticoats, Sis, cleaning your glasses would be so much easier. You won’t get far with those pleated skirts you insist on wearing. It’s all schoolgirl starch.”
“Your petticoats are starched too,” Sis shot back.
Freya kissed Sis on the forehead, crooning, “Love you too!” and returned the glasses squarely to her nose, before turning to Gina. “Off with the hat. Let’s have a gander.”
Gina pulled the beret from her head, let her hands fall to her sides and turned on the spot, submitting to the inspection. She felt both proud and shy at their approving stares. Freya, who looked as if the sight of her friend’s shaven head made her mouth water, treated Gina to a bear hug that had her struggling not to be crushed. The tall girl had a bad habit of forgetting how strong she was.
Sis was more circumspect. “Can I touch?” she asked, extending a timid hand. When Sis still didn’t dare, despite Gina’s nod, Gina took the girl’s hand and placed it on her scalp. “Ohhhhh,” Sis purred, her warm fingers roaming the cool, oily surface. “Lovely.” When she surreptitiously sniffed her fingers, a moan escaped her lips.
Frey burst out laughing. “I wouldn’t let her go any further,” she said, tugging at Sis’s shoulder. “The next thing you know, she’ll be eating you alive.”
Talk of the kettle calling the pot black. It was exactly what Freya had looked on the verge of doing. Gina was about to remark on the fact, when she sneezed violently. Several coughs followed in rapid succession, sending a searing pain through her lungs. Bent over double, she struggled to catch her breath.
“Are you alright?” Sis asked, her face creased with worry. “We can’t have you falling ill.”
“It’s nothing,” Gina insisted.
Sis took her hands just as a shiver rippled through Gina and her teeth began to chatter. “You’re freezing,” the girl exclaimed. Grabbing a blanket from the makeshift bed, she slung it round Gina’s shoulders. “This hut is no good for you. We need to find a better hiding place.”
“You haven’t been trying that potion?” Freya asked, her tone almost accusatory.
A renewed bout of coughing prevented Gina from replying. “It hurts,” she managed, as the cough sent red-hot fireworks searing though her chest.
“We need to get you to a doctor,” Freya said.
Gina shook her head, but it was Sis who pointed out why that was out of the question. “No matter how open-minded the doctor is, he’ll inform the police. Everyone knows Gina’s disappeared.”
When Gina was wracked by further coughing, Sis voiced their despair. “What are we going to do?”
“Maybe we should take her back to her parents…” Freya suggested.
Gina shook her head, horrified. “Not that. I’d rather die.”
“Nobody’s going to die,” Sis said. “I have an idea. There’s a group of girls our age who run a centre on the hills above town where they cure people.” She mentioned the name of a tiny hamlet lost in the middle of a forest. “They call themselves The Lost Girls.”
“Come off it,” Freya interjected. “You can’t be serious. What would girls our age know about medicine?”
“I’ve heard very good reports. They use quite different methods from doctors but have excellent results.”
“It’s too dangerous,” Freya insisted, worry creasing her brow. “Gina needs expert help. And anyway, that place is miles away. How would we get there?”
“I’ll phone a friend. She’ll know how to contact them. Maybe they can come.”
“An hour!” Freya said, imperious. “If they haven’t come by then, I’m going to fetch Gina’s parents.”
Gina groaned and sank onto the bed where she shrivelled up into a bundle under the blankets. Everything had been going so well. What a disaster. If her parents got their claws into her, there’d be no escaping a second time. They’d already lined her up with a new psychiatrist who’d been tasked with curing her crazy ideas where others had failed. She was a girl, after all, they’d said. Why couldn’t she accept what was plain to see. They’d probably shut her away in an institution again – for her own good – and feed her more mind-withering drugs. Why must they insist on forcing her to be what they wanted? Why couldn’t they just accept her for what she was?
The shed door burst open and Sis bustled in, her breath short from running. “My … friend’ll … call … them,” she said between gasps.
“We don’t even know if they’ll come,” Freya replied, her scepticism evident. “Let alone if they can be of any help.”
When she made a move towards the door, Sis’s frail frame blocked her path, saying, “You said one hour.” Her determination was astonishing. She’d never taken a stand against Freya. “If you were in Gina’s place, would you want us to hand you over to the very people who’ll oblige you to be what you’re not?”
“That’s different. She might die if we don’t.”
“She’ll die for sure if we do….”
“Don’t fight over me,“ Gina croaked from the bed. “Let’s just hope these lost girls find us.”
The two sat in stoney silence on a bench by the improvised table, while Gina closed her eyes and tried to sleep. When she re-opened them after what seemed like a lifetime of sleep, neither girl had moved lest it be Freya who nervously consulted her watch every few minutes. Abruptly she stood. “That’s it! The hour’s up. They’re not coming. Enough waiting. I’m going to fetch Gina’s parents.”
“Please,” Gina pleaded, her voice barely audible.
Freya’s expression was pained, but she kept her face turned away and didn’t reply. Donning a coat she grasped the doorknob, ready to leave.
“Don’t do this,” Sis argued. “I know you care for Gina, that’s why you’re being so stubborn, but if you go ahead, you’ll break our friendship, possibly for ever.”
When the door slammed shut behind Freya, Gina struggled to get to her feet, almost stumbling as she did. “Help me,” she wheezed. “I need to get away. They mustn’t find me.”
Sis hurried to her friend’s side and slid an arm round her waist, holding her up. The girl was burning with fever. Grabbing a blanket with her free hand, she clumsily wrapped it round Gina’s shoulders. “We won’t get far,” she warned.
“I don’t care,” Gina replied as they teetered towards the door. “Get me away.” Once outside, a bitterly cold wind howled around them, cutting through whatever clothes or cloth they bore. Twice Sis had to heave Gina up from where she’d fallen on the frozen ground. “Leave me,” the girl pleaded. “Let me die.”
“Never,” Sis said, gritting her teeth as she shouldered the girl’s full weight. “I will never abandon you.”
They made it to a boarded-up shop, the awnings of which gave some meagre shelter against the wind. Sis crouched down, her back to the shopfront, and pulled Gina between her legs, wrapping the blankets round them. She could just make out the shack on the far side of the road should anyone turn up. A convenient trunk however hid them from any visitors.
Laying her head on Gina’s shoulder she closed her eyes and began to sing, ever so softly. She loved singing. It had been one of her few comforts when her parents had disowned her. She sang on. A lullaby to lull them both to sleep. She knew she shouldn’t. Falling asleep in such cold was tantamount to giving up. She didn’t want to die, but Gina’s despair touched her deeply. How could people who were supposed to love you be so destructive? Through it all she sang. When the words ran out, she invented her own, crooning a melodic whisper in Gina’s ear.
To her amazement, a second voice joined hers and then a third. Beautiful voices, like angels singing. An angelic choir. Had she passed away, unbeknown to her? Was there not some sign? A threshold to cross? A bright light to encounter? “Is this paradise?” she asked, interrupting her lullaby.
“No,” a girl replied. “Now is not your time. So let’s get you and your friend to a warm place.”
The Lost Girls, she realised. Escape at last. But maybe too late. “We must get Gina away before the police arrive.”
“What’s your name?” the girl asked her.
“Can you walk, Sis?”
“I think so. But my friend’s seriously ill.”
“Help Sis, Susanne. I’ll carry the other one. Gina, you said?”
“Yes,” Sis replied, pleased they didn’t react to the name. Surely everyone knew a girl of that name was missing. “Is it far?”
“No. The van’s just round the corner.”
They’d just made it to the street corner when a distant wail of sirens had them hastening their pace. A giant of a man stood by the van, his size intimidating although his smile seemed welcoming enough. “This is Klaus,” the girl explained. “He’s a good friend. I’m Kate by the way.”
Klaus opened the back of the van and they manoeuvred an unconscious Gina inside, all three clambering in after her. Klaus closed the door and climbed into the driver’s seat. A screech of tyres nearby announced the arrival of the police just as Klaus put the van in gear and they sped off in the opposite direction.