At school, the primroses were coming out. Brighton was eleven, and every day now there was something new emerging.
The girls at break time had a thing about the primroses. It was a signal – the first primrose under the lime tree, the first milky-yellow flower to flop free from those dark, wrinkled leaves. They lay beside it on their tummies, chins touching the mud-soft grass. From here, the primrose was the whole foreground.
They had learned about foreground already in Art, and often went around the field with their eyes wide, pupils dilated, trying to take in as much of the scene as they could. The background – which they had learned was usually a hill or a mountain – was sprawling and diﬃcult to comprehend here: it consisted of the fields beyond the fence, which were always changing, pathways of uneasy trees between them, and beyond, no mountains, just more of the same. Mud, crops, grass, distance. The foreground, however, was whatever they stood in front of or whatever they held in their hands. It could be anything they wanted it to be.
Brighton was looking at the primose, but she was not one of the girls in the front row. She lay on her belly in the triangle between two other girls and instead of resting her chin on the ground, she propped herself up on her elbows and watched the flower between those two girls’ faces. She was watching the girls’ faces as much as she was watching the primrose.
The light – so cold and white it didn’t really feel like sun – touched the girls’ cheeks and exposed the down on them. White-blonde on one girl, pale brown on the other. Girls were just creatures when you looked at them like this, Brighton thought. Then they got up – Maria and Laura – and became giants as they stepped over the other girls. Lace-trimmed ankle socks.
‘It’s begun,’ Maria said.
Brighton turned over onto her back to keep looking at them as they walked arm-in-arm around the trunk of the lime tree, examining the other tuﬀets of leaves that might soon produce primroses. The grass had already wetted Brighton’s shirt on both sides.
‘One flower and eleven girls,’ Laura said.
‘One of us is going to do well next year,’ Maria said.
The girls had a thing about the primroses predicting success. Every year, there was a threshold and some girls passed it while others failed. Last spring, the primroses had signified which of them would be best at singing. They all wanted to be singers, but not every girl had the talent. From the music room, they would look out at the new primroses, thin as tissues, and see the body-tight costumes of singers on Top of the Pops. Some of them would have a special future; they could feel it in the air.
This spring, the primroses signified high school, where they were all headed. Not everyone would do well at high school. They had known older girls, sisters and friends and neighbours, who had gone oﬀ to high school last year, and now, when they saw these girls around the village, it was clear whether they had done well or done badly. They either strutted or they slumped along the pavement with their book bags falling oﬀ their shoulders. Their hair either bounced and flicked or it frizzed. Was it a transformation that had occurred? No, it was more like a revelation. The truth of each girl had been there all along, high school had only revealed it; Brighton knew this in a way that made her stomach ache.
Now Maria and Laura turned to address the other girls, who were still laying in the mud around the first primrose.
‘But which one of us is it?’ Maria asked. ‘Who does this primrose refer to?’
Laura weaved around the bodies of the girls. Brighton held herself fast to the ground, as if she were the primrose, the tough roots of it, the papery bulb, the green, hideous leaves, trying to conjure a delicate wisp of a flower – up – from her face for Laura to see.
‘I think I know,’ Laura said.
‘I think I know, too,’ Maria said.
The bell rang and they all got up. As they crossed the field, back to the concrete playground, they floated for a moment, buoyed up by their secrets, before they lined up again outside the classroom and their minds turned back to English and sitting still.
After school, Brighton took her shoes oﬀ outside, a fat fringe of mud around the soles. She went straight upstairs, taking her plate of bread and butter with her, to sit before her doll’s house.
She had had the doll’s house since she was very small – they found it at a charity shop and Welly had spent a whole week repapering the walls and painting the tiny window ledges with the same cream paint she’d used in their own living room. Brighton had been obsessed with the house at six, seven, and eight; in fact, if she looked back into her memories of those years, it was the doll’s house she saw. Tiny shadows of tiny silverware. A perfect corner of rosebud wallpaper where she could place her fingertip to collect the dust. She called it spring cleaning.
Over the last year or so, Brighton hadn’t spent as much time with the house. Fifteen minutes, here and there. She might recentre the dining room table or pick up a tiny vase of paper flowers that had fallen over in the night, but, for some reason, she hadn’t wanted to stay too long. As if she might see something in the house that would disappoint her, or might suddenly fail to see something she had seen before – the dining room table, for instance, might start to look like a tiny circle of balser wood with a fat coat of clear nail varnish on top, and not an Edwardian antique at all.
But since the spring term started, Brighton had been going back to the doll’s house and spending hours there. She didn’t know what she did there exactly. Mostly she just watched the rooms, while in her mind a track murmured along; the track didn’t have words as such – it was more of an undertone, whose rises and falls indicated drama.
Sometimes she would just lay in front of the cut-open rooms of the doll’s house and eat her bread – breathing through her nose as she chewed. The feeling of watching the house and filling up with soft, sweet bread was like magic, like managing to slip into another life.
Once the first primrose had emerged, the rest came thick and fast. Overnight, another four had broken through. The girls flew straight to the lime tree at breaktime for an emergency meeting.
‘So girls,’ Maria said. ‘That’s five.’
‘About half of us,’ Laura said.
They looked very serious, like doctors breaking bad news on TV.
‘I feel really nervous,’ Robin said. Someone rubbed her arm.
‘I think we should stand by the primrose we think is ours,’ Maria said. ‘Then we’ll see, if people are – deluding themselves.’
‘That’s something we’ll need to deal with.’
These were words they’d learned this term – deal, delude.
The girls edged around the primroses that had bloomed and stood two per flower.
Nobody took themselves out of the running.
Laura laughed and shook her head. ‘I knew that would happen.’
‘Let’s move things around a bit,’ Maria said.
She left her own primrose and went around the tree, taking the wrists of girls who were deluding themselves, and pulling them – gentle but firm – away from the spot they’d chosen. Sorry she said to each girl as she repositioned them.
Brighton and Robin were sharing a primrose. They were friends – they had been round to each other’s houses for tea – but now Brighton willed Maria to take Robin’s wrist and leave her with her own primrose; she willed it so hard she thought Robin might be able to hear. Maria stood in front of Brighton and Robin with a look of concern on her face. For a moment, Brighton thought it was because she was trying so hard to choose between them, but then she realised that it was because neither of them belonged with a primrose.
‘Sorry you, and sorry you.’ She took Brighton’s wrist and then Robin’s and dragged them both away from the flower. ‘I guess this one’s mine then,’ she said.
The boys didn’t know how primroses worked, but they were going through their own thing that term, so when they looked over and saw the girls on the field, they seemed to understand that it had something to do with high school. They were doing some adjudicating of their own. In games, boys were flying over the field, leaning their chests forward, slicing their hands back as if they were running in the Olympics. Any time one of them missed a ball, another would scream – reel his head back and scream at the sky. They were always screaming in frustration with each other. This meant something, Brighton could tell, like their primroses meant something.
Oﬀ the field, some of the boys were getting nicer, and some of them were getting meaner. Brighton found she could hardly look at them these days, because she didn’t know which way they would turn.
The nicest one was Evan. He sat next to Brighton a lot because his last name also began with a ‘C,’ and Brighton had always felt better with him than with the other boys, as if having a C-surname made them similar in other ways too. He was softer and more studious than the others – when he was drawing a shape on squared paper, his fingers pressed at the ruler seriously and carefully – but he was still a boy, and his voice had grown an extra dimension that spring like some of the others. It could go one way or another.
As the spring term advanced, the boys began looking sideways at the girls. Brighton crossed the playground and felt it happening. She looked down at her skirt in case it had blown up and was showing her knickers. Mistakes like knickers showing, wet patches, calling teachers mum or dad, they all seemed to happen more now. But Brighton’s skirt was fine. She crossed to the corner of the playground where the grass of the field met the concrete. Something about the way the boys were looking made it feel like she’d had no choice in walking over there. Then they stopped looking and were back on the field, screaming.
There were two more primroses by the March half-term, but the girls didn’t redo their auditions.
There was a sense that everything had been decided already, or even that the primroses didn’t matter much now anyway. Most of the girls stopped going down to the lime tree and instead hung around the edges of the concrete playground in groups. It wasn’t over yet but Brighton did feel that she had landed on one side of the primrose equation, while Maria and Laura had landed on the other, and that there would be fewer and fewer chances to change her fate, as the year sped towards summer.
Still there were moments when it seemed like it was possible for the whole thing to turn around.
The day they came back from half-term, there was a bake sale. Mrs Winthrop, the supply teacher that everyone liked, gave Brighton and Evan an extra job while the rest of the class was working on dressing tables and decorating cupcakes: it was to go out of the school grounds, across the road, and down to Mrs Lewis’ house to get more change for the float. Brighton and Evan knew which house was Mrs Lewis’ – the big, set-back house with the frightening dead vine still clinging to it in crispy bushes. Often, when they were arriving or leaving school, Mrs Lewis would appear from under the vine and watch them.
‘Mrs Lewis will have change,’ Mrs Winthrop said. ‘Here’s ten pounds.’
She got out her purse from the pocket of her coat. This was the first time a teacher had done anything like this in front of them. They saw bank cards and loyalty cards and the thumbed corner of a photograph. Brighton imagined a primrose, in the centre of Mrs Winthrop, lighting her from within like the flame of an oil lamp.
While Brighton stared, Evan took the money. He took it cautiously, and folded it in half to put into his pocket. Brighton saw him as a man-to-be – how one day he would fold money from a job and slide into a car, pat the dashboard.
As they set oﬀ, out of the school building, Brighton felt the jealous glares of other girls. She and Evan crossed the empty playground. The sun was now allowed free reign over everything. It was more like summer. They took the path to the school gate, and found it surprisingly easy to open; the latch was a simple iron seesaw in a groove. Once out, they both giggled. The road, with its tufted grass banks and loose clods of old tarmac, may as well have been an avenue in a city.
They criss-crossed from verge to verge, making the most of the freedom. Evan climbed up on the grass and ran his hand along the flint wall that bordered the field opposite the school.
‘We should take the long way,’ he said.
Brighton laughed. ‘Yeah. We should try and take as long as possible.’
There wasn’t really a long way to Mrs Lewis’ house; she was the school’s only neighbour and already they were at her garden. So they kept walking past the house and started down the long track that eventually led to the village. The track was perfect: the way it disappeared into the distance, the way its narrowness made everything else seem larger – the fields, the sky. There were thickets along the track and tumbling masses of cow parsley and even blousy, bright-red poppies. When the sun went in, Brighton saw even more between the tangles of the thicket: tiny thorns and spider-webs. They followed the track until they couldn’t see the school anymore.
‘I guess we should be getting back,’ Evan said.
But they stayed there for a few minutes, surrounded by farmland. Back at school, the smell of the air was always hot dinners – custard and beans. But out here, the smell was just air and mud. Brighton felt that it was possible she would enjoy life after school a lot, that there would be more and more moments like this for her.
‘Well,’ Evan said, looking at Brighton straight-on, in a way he never would have looked at her on school grounds. ‘This was great.’
Brighton nodded. ‘It was great.’
‘The letter C. I’m glad to share it with you.’ He held up his hand and they high- fived. His palm was very warm, and Brighton was sure that it felt diﬀerent to how a girl’s hand would feel, but she wasn’t sure.
They were soon at the start of the track again and Mrs Lewis was waiting for them in her driveway.
‘Did you get lost?’ she asked. She was smirking; she didn’t mind. They hadn’t thought that maybe Mrs Lewis had been warned that they were coming and would be looking out for them.
She took them inside her house. People had said it was a mansion, with a swimming pool inside, but it wasn’t. It was just a farmhouse, full of old furniture and old carpets, with dog hair drifting through the rooms. Mrs Lewis took them to her kitchen and made them each a Ribena. Evan handed her the ten pound note like they were doing a deal.
Before they left, Mrs Lewis shook both their hands. She said: ‘I hope you both go on to do great things. And if you don’t, that you don’t worry too much about it and just try to be happy.’
Brighton was on a high as they came back to school, and it was breaktime, so everyone was outside watching for them to return. She wanted to go straight to the primrose patch and see if anything had emerged for her, but as she crossed the playground, one of the boys in the year below – the one with the white-blond hair – called out:
‘Do you love Evan then?’ He was running, following the netball lines that had been painted on the concrete, swerving, as if stuck in an orbit. Then he stopped and looked at her – dead on – and in a flash seemed to see everything – everything she was and everything she ever would be. ‘You’re just a bit too ugly for him, Brighton-girl,’ he said.
She laughed and carried on walking, but she didn’t go to the primrose patch; she walked a loop of the field instead and went into the school building through the side door. She wasn’t crying yet, but she knew it was coming.
At the doll’s house, spring sun fell through the tiny window into the dolls’ living room. On the dresser, the plates and cups wobbled every time Brighton moved. She imagined herself to be the wind, a force that moved on all sides of the house. In the bathroom, a pink china toilet had come away from the wall in the latest storm and she bent a pipe-cleaner doll so that it sat on it, embarrassed.
Brighton was staying later and later at the house, laying on her belly past her bedtime, feeling her backbones and hips begin to set in that position. But as she watched the rooms and moved the objects around, the act felt more like playing pretend than it had before. When she moved a doll to the window, it wasn’t as if the doll was deep in the business of living, watching the garden, thinking about roses, but like she had been put into a pose and was now expected to stay there. Every night, as the moon lit her own house, Brighton watched the dolls’ rooms. She was trying to work something out – something that would help her in the daytime – but she never got far enough and by morning, she was back to square one, walking to school with her hands on her thighs to keep her skirt down.
In Art class, they were drawing their first still lives. It was wonderful, Brighton thought, a big, unexpected joy, to be able to spend a whole hour looking at an object on the table, and trying to draw it. Nothing else was expected of them, and they all – even the loud ones – spent the hour in silence.
When they went outside again after class, Brighton saw that the world was a tumbling assembly of still lives: even trees blowing, even football pitches and farmhouses, and church steeples and roof tiles, and even boys running, they could all be drawn, she thought.
The girls had been keeping away from each other; they had had enough to think about without the group talk of horse riding and high school and song lyrics. They were coming back together though, in these final breaktimes before the summer, pairs of girls would drift across the playground and join another pair and make a four. Maria and Laura began to conduct them again, waving to gather them and saying things to rally them, like right then, girls or we need a talk.
They were trying to learn diﬀerent dances, and sometimes they would make a game of it. One girl would try to spin without moving her head. This was something Laura had learned at ballet, and the rest of them had learned from Laura. It was good to be able to spin many times on the spot, but it was better to be able to spin just once and keep your head perfectly still. The girls took it in turns to try, but Laura and Maria always got two tries because they were the closest to getting it, and sometimes Brighton and Robin got skipped over.
As Laura span, and her grey school skirt lifted and settled, Brighton practiced her own spins by the wall – not at full intensity, but at a sort of half-speed – using the flints to push oﬀ and stabilise herself. She would be able to do it, she knew, if she could just practice for a while. Already the balls of her feet were learning how to turn tightly around one spot.
‘Woah, Brighton,’ Maria shook her head in disbelief. ‘You think your spin is more important or something?’
‘I guess it’s funny,’ Maria said.
‘I can practice while I wait for my turn,’ Brighton said. ‘There’s no law against us doing spins at the same time.’
Maria shrugged. ‘Okay.’
The routine relaxed. While Laura and Maria kept spinning in turn, the others practiced at random intervals, their bad spins landing heavy, splay-footed on the concrete. For a while, it seemed like they were having fun; Brighton even landed a few near-perfect spins and watched her skirt float back down to her legs, panting, like a real ballet dancer at the end of a solo. Then she felt a pair of hands take hers – suddenly she was spinning like a wheel, against her will, from her arm sockets rather than her feet. It was Maria. She was shorter than Brighton, so Brighton had to lean back further to keep them balanced. The toes of Maria’s school shoes ground into the concrete; as they picked up speed, Brighton thought she saw them smoke. She tried to laugh but couldn’t quite get enough breath. Maria’s face was blurred in front of her, but it was so close that she could smell it – Maria had a sweet, ferny smell. And her mouth was moving, saying something just to Brighton: ‘Look at yourself,’ she was saying. ‘Look at yourself.’
Brighton looked down instinctively, but she couldn’t see herself really, only Maria’s toes, and her own toes, and then, just for a moment, her skirt waved up and she saw her own pink, chubby knees, her thighs and the underneath bit of her knickers.
Maria let go and Brighton fell back against the wall. She and Maria were both laughing, but it was Maria whose legs had become lean and brown like a high jumper, and whose knickers were black like a woman’s, not white like a baby’s, and whose hair was gleaming and had settled right back where it started. It was Brighton who was blushing, not just on her face but on her calves and knees and arms and neck. That was the truth, and everyone was looking at it.
A few weeks before the end of term, summer had arrived on the playground. It was as hot as it would get before they all went away for the holidays and spent six weeks in their back gardens, in paddling pools, by the coast, or abroad in holiday homes and caravans.
The school fete was held on the field and the teachers dragged hay bales out to make a seating area for parents beside the beer tent. There was a row of barbecues where one of the dads would cook sausages, and a row of trestle tables where mums were lining up bottles of shampoo and wine for the tombola. Arriving on a truck were the swing boats, a giant wooden frame with three boats, carved like gondolas, hanging from the frame by iron rods. The whole structure was painted fresh each year, primary colours, red and yellow and blue. Everyone loved the swing boats. At fifty pence a ride, they were the most expensive thing at the fete, but they were worth it. You got to ride for five minutes, swinging up above the school and down again until it felt like you were flying.
Kids who had left the school last year and the year before came back for the fete. It was like a reunion. They met each other at the gate, now with high school haircuts and makeup on and actual skin-tight flared jeans. Brighton found she couldn’t tell which of them had done well at high school. They were all glorious, she thought. They were beautiful. The whole fete was for them, so that they could have two hours of fame in the sunshine.
Brighton and Robin queued up for the swing boats and watched the fete going on around them as they waited. Evan and his friend were next in line and got the swing boat next to theirs when the operator finally called them up.
Brighton leaned back into the wooden shell of the boat. It creaked. It was warm, from the sun and from the previous rider. Again, Brighton had the feeling that there would be many moments like this ahead, moments of leaning back and feeling the sun on her face.
Evan’s voice came from the next boat, which was already creak-soaring beside them. ‘What are you doing? It’s not a bath.’ He was teasing, but it was nice somehow.
The point was to pull the rope hanging from the frame and draw your end of the boat up and back; then you could let go and the boat would drop, and swing, wobbly and shallow at first but then higher and higher, and stronger and stronger. Brighton and Robin got theirs going, and soon they were swinging so high that Brighton could see right over the frame, over the conifers at the end of the field, and over the lime tree. She could see several villages – not just Hibwich but Tivenham and Windham and clusters of houses she couldn’t name – and other far-oﬀ things she’d never seen before: a windmill, a pigsty. If she turned to look down, over the school, she found that the grass whirled as if she were falling onto it and the people were just shapes and voices, that they blurred into one another, someone’s face becoming someone else’s feet, a belly, a pair of hands, a ponytail.
They were going so high that her bottom and lower back came away from the boat for a second at the top of the swing and then slammed back into the seat on the way down, but even this was not unpleasant. She found that she wasn’t scared. She was making it happen. She was pulling on the rope harder each time they swung, and each time she did, she saw things differently. Nothing stayed the same, not even for a moment.
Image © Kev Wheeler