I swing open the front door and step back, a bit unnerved. Not because I’m not pleased to see Natalie, but because of all the stuff she’s holding. She’s got a gift basket of bath oil and a teddy bear holding a banner saying Get Well Soon and some books and magazines and bars of chocolate and a massive card.
“Hi,” I say faintly. “Wow.”
“We wanted to visit you before,” says Nat in a rush. “But your mum said…” She swallows. “Anyway. So we’d already bought all this stuff. It’s just been sitting there in the hall.” She looks at her laden arms. “I know. It looks a bit mad.”
As she edges in, she’s eyeing up my dark glasses until I say, “What is it?”
“People at school told me they’d seen you in those.” She points at my dark glasses. “You know, in the street. Even when it’s raining. No-one knows why you wear them all the time.”
“It’s just…you know.” I shrug awkwardly. “Being ill and everything.
“Oh.” She seems a bit freaked out. “Right.”
She comes in and dumps the stuff on the kitchen table and looks at me. For a moment there’s a prickly, awkward silence, except the ticking of the clock, and I think Was this a mistake?
I’m tense like a cat. I’m wary. It’s not the way I expected to be, but seeing Nat is bringing back all kinds of things I’d put away in my mind.
“I’m sorry.” Her voice comes out in a miserable gush. “Auds, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry—”
“No.” I shake my head, not wanting to go there. “You don’t have to be sorry.”
“But I should’ve— I didn’t—” Tears are trickling down her face. “I still can’t believe it happened.”
“It’s OK. Look, have a drink.”
I pour us both some elderflower. I should have realized she’d be upset. In my head I’ve skipped past all that. Or trudged through it, more like. Worked through it, is what Dr. Sarah would say. Processed it. Like I’m a cheese slice machine.
I don’t think Nat has processed an awful lot. Every time she looks at me, fresh tears pour down her face.
“And now you’re ill.”
“I’m fine. I’m a lot better. I’ve got a boyfriend!”
OK, that sounded a bit abrupt, but let’s face it—this was the main purpose of inviting her over. To tell her I’ve got a boyfriend. Immediately her tears vanish and she leans forward, avidly.
“A boyfriend? From the hospital?”
FFS. What does she think, that I’m some mental case hanging out with another mental case because that’s all I’m fit for now?
“No, not from the hospital,” I say impatiently. “It’s Linus. You know? In Frank’s year at Cardinal Nicholls?”
“Linus? You mean…Atticus Finch?” Nat seems flabbergasted.
“Exactly. He gave me this.” I point at my T-shirt. “Today. Isn’t it cool?”
“Is that a picture of rhubarb?” She looks confused.
“Yes. It’s our thing,” I say casually.
“Wow.” Nat seems unable to get over this news. “So…how long have you been going out?”
“A few weeks. We go to Starbucks and stuff. I mean, it’s just…you know. Kind of fun.”
“I thought you were, like, properly ill. Like, in bed.”
“Well, I was.” I shrug. “I suppose I’m recovering or whatever.” I rip open a bar of chocolate and break it into pieces. “So, tell me about school.”
I force myself to ask it, even though the word school leaves a nasty sensation in my brain; a kind of poisonous imprint.
“Oh, everything’s different now,” says Natalie vaguely. “You wouldn’t believe it. Now that Tasha and that lot have left. Katie’s totally changed. You wouldn’t even know her. And Chloe isn’t friends with Ruby anymore, and you know Miss Moore left? Well, we have a new deputy head now and she’s brilliant—” Natalie breaks off from her jabbering. “So, are you going to come back?”
The question hits me like a punch in the stomach. The idea of going back to that place literally makes me feel ill.
“I’m going to the Heath Academy,” I tell her. “I’m going to go down a year, because I’ve missed so much school time. I mean, I’m young for the year anyway, so it’ll all work out…”
“You could go down a year at Stokeland?” suggests Nat, but I wrinkle my nose.