I knew that day was the day I would get caught shoplifting. I wasn’t nervous, I wasn’t shaky, I just waited to have my arm circled and it felt so good, so familiar.
I had stolen a bottle of nail varnish. Stealing beauty products was so clichéd, I knew but I’d slipped it up my sleeve in Boots and walked past all the other teenage girls, the bored girls with eyes ringed with kohl, the loud girls smearing lipstick on the backs of their hands, the girls with name badges trying to find women to spray with scent. All of those girls, talking about just one thing: last night, Friday night. What pub in town had they gone to, whether they got off with anyone, whether anyone got ID’d. There had been a fight; there was always a fight. I heard their shrieks and laughs and walked among them. To older people I know I’d look like one of them but I know the girls would know I wasn’t.
In another, less affluent, town these girls would be working at the chemist full time having left school. Here in the leafy suburbs of the capital they were strictly part time, uni bound, saving up towards gap years and holidays. Boarding school girls like me didn’t have part time jobs. We did voluntary work. We didn’t have to think about money. But under capitalism everyone has to be seen to work, so even the rich work for free, or pay to work, until they are judged to have experienced enough of what people call real life, to have become a real person. I was working towards becoming a real person. I suppose I still am.
When I’d left our room in the early morning light my roommate had been pretending to be asleep so she didn’t have to talk to me. I could tell from her breathing. I didn’t mind; I hadn’t wanted to talk to her either.
My roommate was the fat girl, the solitary fat girl in our year, in our school of very, very thin girls. Every last girl was trying so hard to be the most eating disordered that they ignored the anomaly in the all consuming (no consuming) weight wars.
I should have been grateful to have been sharing with someone who wasn’t going to beat me to the toilet after meals. The teachers were supposed to keep an eye out for bulimia, so we could only vomit in our private bathrooms. Other girls had to worry about metabolising those first calories if their roommate got a head start on decorating the toilet bowl. Lucky, lucky me, to be paired with the only girl who wasn’t even in the race.
We should have been allies, maybe: neither of us had any of the pretend friends other girls at school surrounded themselves with. I knew it was always safer not to deal with people, not to know their problems, or to risk them knowing yours. The fat girl and I, in our confined space, were intimately and deliberately distant. She was a lump in the bed with an airline’s mask covering her eyes. She had just returned from visiting her parents for Christmas. A red folding fan and a box of green tea on her bedside table suggested an Asian destination, but I would never ask. Lately, she’d been sleeping less and less, tossing and turning and moaning all night. I thought it was nightmares. I had them too, but said nothing.
Eager to escape the sleepless room, I pulled my heavy hair into a ponytail and put on a tracksuit. I chewed gum instead of eating or brushing my teeth. As I left the school grounds I noticed a small package from my parents in my pigeonhole. I left it unopened. Its return address was the low income country my father was blessing with his presence this year, covered in a multitude of stamps he would have sent a low income servant to pay for.
I could smell the school’s communal hangover. I had my own dry mouth and the start of a headache from drinking on my own, on my bed, as the fat girl silently looked through her magazine at thin girls. I hadn’t seen her drink for months but she didn’t seem to have lost any weight from it.
The page that I signed out was empty. The school was still asleep. Stretched out at the top of a slope, with its turrets and countless windows, it looked like what it was: a cross between a mansion and a prison. I wrapped my pure wool scarf around my face as I strode away.
I walked two stops so I didn’t have to get on at the Stonecroft stop, but as soon as I got on the bus I knew they knew where I had come from. I could see everyone judging me for being the boarding school girl, hating me for not having to work or worry about money. I got it; I really did. There’s never been a good way to be a poor little rich girl, especially not when your father’s money comes from running a charity. People ran races and collected coins with the idea that it was feeding “starving Africans,” but money doesn’t become food without white saviours on “competitive salaries”. When I saw people dropping their spare change in tins at Christmas, I thought of my school fees. I thought of my mother’s jewellery, blood diamonds she paid for in blood many times over as my father threw her to the ground, over and over. If I thought about it too long, it made me sick, which was useful, because I needed to be sick again and again.
The other teenagers made bad skin, brittle bleached hair and chipped nail varnish look so good. My presence made the air crackle even as they performatively ignored me and shouted at each other across the aisles they filled with their outspread limbs.
“You going out tonight?”
“Yeah, I heard Jo’s parents are in Spain so we’re all going over there. See you later?”
“It’s going to be EPIC.”
I disembarked the bus and walked to the chemist, pretending to be oblivious to everyone while hyper aware of everyone around me. It was the mode I had perfected in daily life, living in close quarters with dozens of girls who all hated each other but pretended not to, and it was perfect for pilfering.
Although the girls trying the makeup samples were supposed to smear them on the back of their hands, they rarely did, but daubed them on their faces, always looking directly at themselves and then at their friends for approval. When I caught myself looking at them in the mirror I looked away. I never looked at myself in the mirror, not directly, not in the eyes.
The day I got caught shoplifting I could see what was going to happen but I couldn’t stop myself from seeing it through, letting it happen. The nail varnish scooped into my sleeve. The walk towards the door. The walkie talkie being raised and the Estuary English “excuse me, miss”. The cold, concrete floor of the backroom. The arrival of the young, nervous police officer, who I could tell fancied me. He had a well cared for auburn beard and piggy blue eyes. I thought of his children, no doubt ugly copies of him, and shuddered.
I knew what card to play when he sat down with his notebook, leaning forward to hear my whispered replies to his questions. The tears flowed. The lower lip trembled. The head was thrown back. I tried to look like I felt sorry for myself because it was what they were expecting, and what they expected they could deal with. I wish it wasn’t always so easy to know what people expect, but they never let you down.
“I’m at Stonecroft because my parents are away in Africa. They care more about black children than me.” Appealing to white people’s racism never, ever fails, but you know that.
I turned on the self pity. “If I get arrested maybe then they’ll,” and here I let one tear, black from mascara, cross my cheek, “remember I exist.”
“It’s not like I can’t afford a nail varnish.” By this point the police officer was all but apologising to me as I squeezed out another tear, our eyes locked.
“I’m sure they care about you. They’d have you with them if they could, but I’m sure they’d rather you were safe back home.” People always say that parents must love you. I’ve given up arguing with them. Even if I had shown them the scars they would still have said that my parents cared about me. That’s sick. People said I was sick, but what sick really is, is pretending we live in a world where everyone’s parents love them deep down. Where men only hit women because they love them really. A nurse in the hospital had told me that when I was 10. I tried to believe her for a long time.
I knew better now. Time to use the myth of universal parental love to my advantage. The police officer looked like it was an effort for him not to hug me or at least pat me on the back. The fresh, crisp air as he opened the door for me helped me hold back the urge to vomit and I breathed deeply. It was done. I wiped away both tears, leaving a charcoal smear across the back of each hand.
The shopping centre I was leaving behind was full of large glass windows offering visions of perfect lives in cheap clothing but I’d seen behind the façade, to the windowless rooms and threats for those who won’t (or can’t) pay. I preferred it there, behind the veil where the ugliness lives. I always sought out the places where I belonged.
I took a deep breath at the bus stop, feeling clean again.
The day I got caught shoplifting, maybe something was telling me I needed to be away from the room. Did I know more than I would admit to myself? It’s likely enough; nobody lies to me more than me.
As I turned the key in the door I heard the fat girl calling out from the bathroom. I don’t know if she was crying out in pain or begging for help. When I opened the door, black hair was plastered to her forehead and she was flushed like she had been throwing up for a thousand years. She was lying on the floor holding something and there was blood, and shit, and more blood, pooling on the tiles like when I cut myself. Girls tried to kill themselves all the time, but this wasn’t that.
The fat girl had had a baby. In the four or five hours I’d been gone she had given birth. Had she known she was pregnant or had she lied to herself? She was feeding the baby, her baby, a boy, his cord cut with the nail scissors she kept under the sink.
I fell on my knees before the two of them. Despite the endless images of birth I’d seen, I was shocked. There’s a first time for everything. Her breathing sounded like a wounded animal. The baby did not cry and his face was blank.
My legs were shaking but at the same time I felt calmer than I ever had. I knew exactly what to do.
Despite my lack of allegiance to the fat girl I knew I had to avoid the other girls finding out. I wouldn’t be able to bear their speculation about how she got pregnant. I knew if I could imagine what they’d say (and I could) I was just as bad as them. Still, there were still things I couldn’t bear to hear out loud.
I wrapped the baby in one of the institutional white towels, emptied out my backpack and put him inside. His face was wrinkled and betraying no curiosity about the world he’d entered so recently.
Did the fat girl also find that even if you maintain the constant vigilance of a teenage girl you can still get caught? She let her guard down and now there was a person who could be alive 80 or 90 years from now. Would they be years spent wondering why his mother hadn’t kept him, why he wasn’t enough for her?
I found more towels and shoved them between her legs.
“You’re lucky,” I told her, “that I’ve made a lot of secretive trips to the hospital.”
She nodded, ready for me to take over. She was breathing very heavily. I tried to wipe off as much blood as I could with a wet cloth with a cordless phone in the other hand. Nobody was going to die and nobody was going to know. I put her in a sarong I could tie around her with the minimum of movement and tried to keep her awake and upright and alive until I heard the horn honk and I could hustle her out the door, wishing I could pick her up and carry her. It was deathly silent in the hall and I could feel relief flooding my body. I was getting away with it this time.
The taxi driver had a lot of questions but I kept my answers short and my poker face on until he stopped asking them. We pulled into the hospital, one of the old red brick ones. It looked like the kind of place where girls like her used to hide until they gave birth and left the baby behind like she would be.
Nurses have seen it all before, and those on triage took over without a word. As one of them wheeled the fat girl away, I wondered when I’d see her again.
I knew I’d never mention this and neither would she.
I left without saying goodbye to anyone, and without my backpack. On the bus home I found the nail varnish in my pocket. I added a coat of its shiny blue to my nails on the bus home, the better to hide the blood underneath them.
Kate Perris is a librarian living in London. She enjoys tatty seaside towns, charity shopping and charity shopping in tatty seaside towns. After years of trying to win the trust of strangers’ cats, she finally has her own cat, Pukunui. She tweets at @dansette and regrets every second of it.