Authors: Sally Nicholls
Praise for Sally Nicholls' novels
“Exceptionalâ¦ A terrific story”
Lorna Bradbury, Telegraph
“Absorbing and utterly chillingâ¦”
Bookseller Children's Buyer's Guide
“Writing is a kind of sorcery â and Sally
Nicholls is a true practitioner of the art”
Katy Moran's Book Review Blog
“I love this book”
“Elegant, intelligent, moving”
“Nicholls is a writer of enormous power
and strength. Wonderful, evocative, lively”
Sally Nicholls was born in Stockton, just after midnight, in a thunderstorm. Her father died when she was two, and she and her brother were brought up by her mother. She has always loved reading, and spent most of her childhood trying to make real life work like it did in books.
After school, she worked in Japan for six months and travelled around Australia and New Zealand, then came back and did a degree in Philosophy and Literature at Warwick. In her third year, realizing with some panic that she now had to earn a living, she enrolled in a masters in Writing for Young People at Bath Spa. It was here that she wrote her first novel,
Ways to Live Forever
, which won the Waterstone's Children's Book Prize in 2008, and many other awards, both in the UK and abroad. Sally's second novel,
Season of Secrets
, was published in 2009, and her third,
All Fall Down
, in 2012.
To my grandparents,
And all other patcher-uppers of families.
I think I might be a witch.
Something went wrong when I was born. Other babies got blue eyes and curly hair, but I came out howling and evil. Other babies were sweet and innocent, and their parents loved them, but my mum hated me right from the start.
“I always knew you were a devil,” she used to say. “And look how right I was.”
Because my mum didn't love me, I had to make other grown-ups like me instead. Right from when I was little, I could make them do what I wanted. I was more powerful than thunder, and I loved it.
But no one ever loved me. I don't suppose anyone ever will. Sometimes people think they do, but that's before they find out what a monster I really am.
THE SIXTEENTH HOME
This is the story of what happened to me the year I was eleven and went to live with the Iveys. You don't have to believe it if you don't want to. Mostly people don't believe me when I tell them things. Mostly they're right not to, because quite often I tell lies, but this time I'm telling the truth. Everything in this story happened like I said it did.
The Iveys were a foster family. Before I came to them I was in this children's home in Bristol called Fairfields, but my ex-foster mother, Liz, thought I'd be better off in a family, and Jim Ivey said he was willing to give me a try. Jim was a friend of Liz's, which was why she asked him to take me. Even after Liz chucked me out for reasons that were totally not my fault, I still saw quite a lot of her. She came to visit me at Fairfields and told me all about Jim, how he lived in this big old house on a farm, with a pig and ducks, and how he was a long-term foster carer, so if we liked each other I could stay until I grew up. I scuffed my feet along the floor when she told me that, and didn't say anything. I've been in foster care on and off since I was a baby, and Fairfields was my fourteenth placement, so I'd stopped believing people when they said I could live with them for ever and ever. I'll tell you about my other so-called homes sometime, and you'll see why.
The Iveys lived outside Bristol, in the proper countryside. It took my social worker, Carole, ages to drive there. At first there were houses and shops, then fields, then fields and hills, then Carole turned the car off the big road on to this little road, which went on for ages along the side of the hill, with hardly any houses or anything. Then she turned off the little road, through a gate and into a farmyard.
“Come on then, cross-patch,” she said. I didn't bother replying. Carole was a new social worker. I've had so many over the years, I've lost count.
We got out of the car. I could see:
A long white house, with a green door and windows all with four panes of glass, like a house in a picture book.
A barn with a big door opening on to a big dark space.
A duck pond, with ducks. A yard with chickens.
Carole knocked on the door. A man answered.
Social Services had sent me pictures of the whole family, so I knew who he was. His name was Jim and he was the dad. There wasn't a mum, which was the best thing about the placement as far as I was concerned. Jim was little and wiry and smiley. He wasn't old, exactly, but his hair was beginning to go grey. He had his little girl with himÂ â Harriet, her name was. She was the daughter. She had dark hair and freckles, and she was wearing a red-and-white pirate bandanna, an eyepatch and a plastic hook on one hand.
“I see you've got pirates,” said Carole, and Harriet pressed backwards into her dad's legs.
The porch was full of welly boots and footballs. I tried to remember how many kids lived there. I thought it was three and a baby, but it looked like more from the boots. The kitchen was big and old-fashioned. There were kids' pictures all over the walls, and a boy sitting at the kitchen table, drawing. He was Jim's son, Daniel. He was eleven. He smiled at me, then he went back to his picture. I went and looked over his shoulder. It was a pencil drawing of a complicated alien city. Towers and skyscrapers were sticking up into the sky. Spaceships zipped around the towers. Weird alien plants grew out of the pavements.
“Hi,” Daniel said, looking up. I didn't say anything.
Jim took Carole and me on a tour of the house, with Harriet trailing behind, still wearing her hook. The house was long and narrow and dark and old.
“It's eighteenth century,” said Jim.
There was a dining room, and off it, a little office with a computer. There was a living room with wooden floorboards painted black, rugs, old-fashioned chairs and sofas all different, and bookcases with glass doors, full of old books. All the stuff was tattered-looking, which made me worry, because the worst foster placements were the ones where they wanted you for the money. The house was pretty big though, so they probably weren't
The living room had a real fireplace with a real fire. There was a cat on its back with its stomach turned up to the flames, and a big black girl with a baby sucking on her boob. She was the other foster kid. She glanced at us when we came in, then looked back down at the baby.
“Hey, Grace,” said Jim.
“This is Olivia, OK? Olivia, this is Grace. She's your new sister. The cat is Zig-Zag. And this little girl is Maisy.”
Grace didn't say hello, and neither did I. I've had more sisters and brothers than I can count. The only ones who mean anything are my real sister and brother, Hayley and Jamie. And I haven't seen Jamie since he was a baby, so probably he doesn't count either.
Grace was one of the bad things about the placement. I don't like big kids. The best placements are ones where it's just you, because then the other kids can't hurt you.
My room was up this poky flight of stairs. I hate dark places and I didn't want to go up, but I was afraid Jim might get angry if I didn't, so I had to. The top floor was a long corridor with doors off either side. As you walked along, you had to keep going up a step or down a step, as though whoever built the house had kept changing their mind about how high the floor should be. My room was at the very end of the corridor. It had a bed and a desk and a chest of drawers, but apart from that it was totally bare. The walls were white, with Blu-tack marks from some other foster kid's posters. There was a clown mug with a couple of chewed-up old pencils on the desk, which made the whole thing look even sadder.
If someone tells you you can stay for ever, then puts you in a room with old Blu-tack marks made by some kid who doesn't live there any more, that tells you everything you need to know.
Jim left me upstairs to unpack, but I didn't. I stayed upstairs for about two seconds, and then I came back down. I hate being on my own. I hate it more than anything. I'd rather be screamed and shouted at than ignored.
There was another staircase at my end of the corridor. It was bigger than the creepy little stairs we'd come up, but not by much. On the landing was a black-and-white photo of an old woman. She looked really old; Victorian or something. She had white hair and wrinkles and she wore a bonnet. She was staring straight into the camera and scowling at me like she hated me. I
hated her. She looked just like my old foster mother, Violet, who was evil, evil, evil.
Stare all you like, evil woman,
I don't care
I thought. But I did care. Just looking at her made me remember horrible things, like what it felt like to be hated, and what it felt like to be small and completely in someone's power. It was as though the woman in the photo was made up of the worst parts of all the worst people I'd ever lived with: my mum, and Violet, and all those temporary homes where they just wanted rid of me as soon as possible.
the hatred coming out of the photograph, and it made me not-at-all-happy about this new family. Why did they have a picture of this woman on their wall? Was she a friend? A relation? Was she going to come and visit? I'd sort of hoped that a friend of Liz's might be OK. But a woman like Violet was a real problem. Could Victorian people still be alive nowadays, or was it too long ago? I moved schools so much, I kept missing the Victorians. I knew they were older than The Beatles, and spitfires, but I wasn't sure if that meant they were all dead. Paul McCartney wasn't.
I went downstairs. Carole and Jim were in the kitchen, drinking tea and talking about me. Harriet was drinking squash.
“Hello, Olivia,” said Carole. “Unpacked already? That was quick.” I scowled at her. Daniel laughed.
“Dad, can we show Olivia outside?”
“Yeah!” said Harriet. She waved her hook enthusiastically. “Come and meet the pig! And the goats!”
“Go on, then,” said Jim.
“I expect I'll be gone when you get back,” said Carole.
“Goodbye?” she said. “Thanks for bringing me?”
I gave another shrug. “See you,” I said, not looking at her. Then I went out the kitchen door, pushing against her as I passed.