Quarter Past Two on a Wednesday Afternoon (10 page)

The soles of her lace-up shoes slapped the mud path as she crossed into the park. No one was here. Anna sat on the bench and took out the orange juice and the Milky Way, which had gone squidgy in the bottom of the bag, and arranged them like a small picnic. Then she took out the magazine. Although there was no one in sight she had to glance around to check, in case a disapproving adult – a neighbour or someone Mum knew – should loom out of the bushes:
Just what do you think you’re doing, young lady?

Stalks of dried grass brushed her bare legs; the wood of the bench was warm through her skirt. She fumbled the pages of the magazine. It was so hot today that – if she thought no one would see – she could have taken her clothes off and let the air brush her skin. She imagined the warmth of wood against her bare bottom. The hot, tingly feeling made her limbs feel fuzzy. She felt daring and secretive for having such a thought.

Someone was coming. She rolled the magazine tight as a tube and thrust it into her bag, unwrapped the Milky Way and started eating it, swallowing too quickly; the sweetness caught in her throat, making her cough. She heard a girl’s voice, high and distressed. Two people were coming fast along the footpath that led into the park from the far side, a boy and a girl. Over the hedge Anna could see them from the shoulders up, their shirts bright white against the hedgerow. The girl was running, the boy chasing her: they were only playing. When the girl burst out into the park, Anna saw the swirl of long hair and her wavery way of running. Rose.

Rose mustn’t see her. Anna pushed the chocolate wrapper and the bottle into her bag, and was about to dart off behind the hawthorns and carry on walking home when she noticed that Rose was crying. Really crying. She ran across the park without seeming to notice Anna.

‘Rose! Wait!’ the boy shouted. A tall dark-haired boy. Jamie Spellman, whose magazine it was. Mel’s brother. Anna had seen him with Rose before but hadn’t known him make Rose cry. Perhaps Rose was upset because he wanted to try out those things he’d read about. He wanted to practise on her, in a private, secret place out there in the fields where they could lie down together with no clothes on while his hands went all over her. Where they could do
It
. It must be his fault.

She was heading for home, coming Anna’s way, running blindly with an arm raised to cover her face. Jamie was gaining on her. He sprinted close enough to grab her arm, and turned her to face him.

‘Leave her alone!’ Anna shouted hotly. ‘Leave my sister alone!’

They both turned, startled. Jamie released Rose.

‘Anna!’ Rose’s face was streaked with tears. In her frightened little-girl voice, she said, ‘It’s not Jamie’s fault. I made him do it.’

‘Made him do what?’ Anna was still thinking of the magazine picture.

‘Made him kill it,’ Rose whispered.

‘Kill
what
?’

‘There was a rabbit,’ Jamie said, scuffing a foot on the grass. ‘It had that rabbit disease, what’s-it-called, that makes their eyes go funny.’

‘Myxomatosis.’ Her voice muffled, Rose made it sound like
bixabatothith
; Anna almost laughed. Rose’s eyes searched her face; she wants me to cry too, Anna thought.

‘It was horrible,’ Rose whimpered. ‘The poor thing. Its eyes were all blobby and sore where it had been rubbing them. It was all mangy-looking. It didn’t even try to run away from us. I picked it up.’ She was rubbing her hands on her skirt, the backs and the fronts, rubbing off traces of rabbit, of disease.

‘They only die,’ Jamie said. ‘The best thing you can do is kill them. Rose told me to, so I did it.’

‘How did you do it?’ Anna asked, fascinated. ‘You haven’t got a gun.’

‘You don’t need a gun, stupid. I hit it on the back of the neck,’ Jamie said, with a flash of pride.

‘I watched him. I didn’t want to, but I did,’ Rose said, her eyes filling again. ‘He held its ears forward and he hit it—’

‘Like
this
,’ Jamie said, making a swift sideways chop with one hand. He looked at Anna to see the effect of his action. His eyes were pale blue, with clear whites. She imagined her own neck receiving the force of that movement that sliced the air like a karate chop.

‘– and that was it. Dead. It didn’t have time to squeal or anything. It twitched a bit, then went limp and soft. I hid it in the brambles. I couldn’t bury it – the ground’s too hard and I had nothing to dig with, but I found some flowers. Oh, Anna!’ Rose draped her arm round Anna, leaning. Her hair fell around Anna like a shawl, the way it did when they played at being Rosanna. She was limp and soft like the rabbit; if Anna stopped bracing herself, they’d both collapse to the ground. ‘The poor thing. Its eyes …’

‘But you did the right thing,’ Anna said. She couldn’t imagine herself crying so much over one dead rabbit. ‘You could have gone away and left it. That would have been worse.’

‘And I knew how to kill it properly,’ Jamie boasted. ‘Not everyone would have known.’

‘Let’s go home, Anna,’ Rose whispered.

‘Our bags,’ Jamie reminded her. ‘In the bushes.’

Anna picked up her own bag, and Rose and Jamie collected theirs, left side by side in the long grass. Rose had apparently forgotten about Jamie. He walked with them as far as the turning where he lived; then he said, ‘Are you all right now?’

‘Yes,’ Rose said, although she was still sniffling.

‘See you tomorrow then,’ he said, and Anna noticed he’d gone a bit red. He came close to Rose and kissed her cheek; she closed her eyes and accepted the kiss with the faintest quiver of revulsion. Jamie saw Anna watching, turned even redder and walked off quickly.

‘Has he done that before?’ Anna asked, as soon as he was out of earshot. ‘Was that why you went down the footpath? You left your bags in the bushes. Do you go there every day, to do kissing and stuff? Rose? Rose? What else does he do?’

‘Oh, shut up, will you?’ Rose flared. ‘I don’t care about stupid Jamie. I don’t want to see him ever again.’

Because he killed the rabbit, she meant. That struck Anna as unfair. She thought of Jamie’s hand breaking the rabbit’s neck, and the same hand touching Rose’s arm, tenderly, as he kissed her. Why did she let him touch her, if she hated it? Anna wouldn’t have minded being kissed by Jamie. He had such lovely dark eyebrows, and there was the way his school shirt bagged out over the slender curve of his back. Anna knew that girls giggled and blushed when he passed them in the corridors at school. Rose had told him to kill the rabbit and he did, knowing how to do it quickly and efficiently. He could have said no, or told her to do it herself. She wouldn’t have been able to. Anna imagined her holding the rabbit, her hand poised to strike, her face tight with the effort of willing. You couldn’t do it half-heartedly; you’d have to do it, or not. Rose wouldn’t have been able to, and she’d have to put the rabbit back in the long grass to go on suffering, with its terrible bulging eyes.

An ice-cream van came along the road, playing a snatch from
Greensleeves
, and Rose’s mood changed. ‘I’ll treat you,’ she told Anna. ‘I’ve got money. What would you like?’

The ice-cream man was quite young, with a sun tan and blond hair, and he was chewing gum. When Rose went up to the van his jaws stopped moving and his eyes fastened on her with interest.

‘Hello, darling, what do you fancy?’ he asked her, and she giggled.

‘What have you got?’ she said, tossing her head and flicking her hair back. Her eyes were bright and shiny but no one would guess she’d been crying.

‘Well now, that depends.’ He propped himself on one elbow. When he smiled his mouth went up at one side but not the other. ‘Something with a bit of crunch? Or a long slow lick?’

Rose’s expression was half shocked, half delighted. ‘What do you want, Anna?’

‘A Funny Face,’ Anna said, pointing at the picture on the glass window.

‘Oh yeah? I thought you already had one,’ the ice-cream man told her, straight-faced, then looked at Rose with his lopsided grin and half a wink. She made a prim face, but Anna could see her mouth twitching at the corners and knew she was only pretending to look disapproving. ‘Yeah, I know,’ the man said to Rose, leaning forward on his elbows, ‘it’s hard to make your mind up, with so much on offer. Take your time.’

‘A plain choc-ice, please,’ she said. Three younger children came up behind, jostling, holding up their money. The ice-cream man whistled
Greensleeves
as he passed over the Funny Face and the choc-ice, and when Rose gave him the money he took hold of her hand as well and pretended he was going to pull her inside the van. She giggled and snatched her hand away. The man grinned at her, then looked at Anna and pulled a long, miserable face. ‘Cheer up, ducky. It might never happen,’ he said in a Donald Duck voice.

They walked away unwrapping their ice creams. When the van passed them the driver gave a cheerful
toot-toot
, and waved at Rose.

‘Rose!’ Anna reproached. ‘You’re so two-faced, you are! One minute you’re blubbering all over me and the next you’re
flirting
with that stupid man!’

‘Some people,’ Rose said, picking off the chocolate edging and eating that first, ‘would have said thank you for the ice cream.’

‘Thank you,’ Anna said sullenly. ‘But I thought you were so upset just now? Were you putting it on?’

‘For goodness’ sake grow up, Anna,’ Rose said. ‘It was only a rabbit.’

They didn’t speak for the rest of the walk home. Anna ate her Funny Face almost without noticing, she was so cross with Rose. When they got indoors, Mum said, ‘What’s wrong with you two?’ and narrowed her eyes at each of them in turn.

‘Oh, nothing,’ Rose said. ‘Annie’s in a bit of a mood, that’s all.’

Chapter Six

Monday, and Anna was back in the office, behind her desk close to the front window, where she could see passers-by as they looked in at the properties displayed there. Sunila, the branch manager, was at a meeting at Head Office all morning, so it wasn’t until after lunch that she called Anna into her upstairs office to tell her that the trial period was more than satisfactory, and the post could become a permanent one, if Anna accepted.

Anna agreed and thanked her, and Sunila said, ‘Excellent! That’s great. I’ll get on to HR straight away and they can organize the contract. I’m really pleased you’ll be joining the team properly.’

As she went downstairs, Kiran and Sophie were looking at her with expectant smiles. Kiran made prompting gestures. ‘Yes?’

‘Yes,’ said Anna, and at once both were out of their seats, hugging her, talking of celebrating after work on Friday. Anna laughed with them, feeling, for the moment, happy. Now she would have colleagues, a routine, a regular salary. She liked them both: Sophie, with her cynical one-liners, and Kiran, fresh from university, ambitious and urbane, with a taste for sharp suits and ties that made him the butt of teasing.

The moment was broken when the young couple who’d been taking an interest in the window display came inside, and Kiran sprang to attention. Anna and Sophie, exchanging smiles, went back to their desks.

Anna took out her mobile and began texting a message for Martin:
Job now permanent
. She could have it all, just as Bethan had said: the home, the job, Martin – he’d assume she’d taken his advice and was seeing it his way, behaving like an adult at last.

What was she doing? These things were assembling themselves around her; she wasn’t choosing them, only surrendering control. She cancelled the message without sending it.

Last night she had dreamed her Rose dream again, the one where Rose came back. She came back only for Anna to push her away. The dream played itself like a film Anna had seen many times, familiarity only intensifying its horror. They’re in a plane together, sitting side by side. There are magazines, drinks, smiling attendants; she looks out at blue sky dotted with flat-based clouds of improbable regularity. Rose, in the window seat, is laughing, relaxed against the seat-back, turned towards Anna; she isn’t afraid of flying. Anna is always afraid. Her stomach clenches; Rose’s warm, laughing face makes something harden in her. Her intention is reflected in Rose’s widening brown eyes. Rose shifts against the restraint of her seat belt and presses herself against the arm-rest nearest the window; her gaze holds Anna’s. Anna has to close her eyes to do it. She stretches out both arms and pushes. She knows what will happen: the sides of the plane, the window, soften and sag like Dali wristwatches, rubbery, melting, holding Rose briefly as in a hammock, then thinning and splitting into chewing-gum strands with a mesh too loose to stop her from falling, spinning away into the immensity of sky and space.

A cry catches in Anna’s throat. Her arm lunges into a futile, too-late, meaningless grab. No one has noticed what happened, but she feels blackness close in as the sides of the aircraft reshape themselves around her. She sits tight and alone. No one knows what she has done, but she feels the terrible irrevocability of the outstretched arms, the push. The intention. She must hide her secret, but guilt chokes her and crushes her into her seat.

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