Laughter burst out over the playground. Like a lot of weapons, laughter had two edges, and the tall girl in the green hijab was intimately familiar with both. She listened to it carefully, even while she joked, wary in case it turned.
‘Honestly, I spent a week in training, then I was plunged into this network of underground cage-fighting clubs. The face came from this one girl, vicious little thing half my height – she hid these tiny nails under the knuckles of her gloves. It was totally against the rules, but nobody cared. Every time she hit me it was like getting a facial from a wolverine.’
A handful of students, bundled up against the February cold, clustered around Pen. She resisted the urge to draw the headscarf closer around her face under their scrutiny.
One of her audience, a superior-looking blonde in a fake-fur coat hissed impatiently, ‘But seriously, Parva . . .’
‘Seriously, Gwen?’ Pen shrugged. ‘Seriously, it was a jealous lover, said if he couldn’t have me, no one could.’
Laughter again, but more hesitant this time, and it quickly petered out. Gwen Hardy’s eyes widened slightly and she said, ‘What . . . actually?’
‘Sure,’ Pen deadpanned. ‘Or maybe it was an angry cat – mutantly big – Catzilla, basically. Had claws out to here,’ she mimed. ‘I can’t quite remember, mind. It was a while ago—’
‘It was four months ago.’
‘Yeah, but it was only my face, it wasn’t like it was important . . .’
‘Parva!’ Gwen’s smile was achingly wide. ‘Will you just tell us already?’
Pen licked her uneven lips, wishing her current strategy involved a little less playing court jester to Gwen’s little crew. Still, she had disappeared without warning for three months and returned with a reconstructed lip and a tangled thatch of scar tissue over her cheeks. If you wanted back into school society with all that baggage, you needed the backing of somebody influential.
She made a show of sizing the three of them up, as though deciding how much truth they could take: Gwen Hardy, whom Allah in his loving wisdom had made pretty and bright and hard-edged as a diamond-cutter, stood next to her boyfriend Alan Jackson, who was just as smart, but given to speak only in soft monosyllables. Everything about him was as lean and efficient as the muscular frame zipped into his football team jacket. Next to Alan, and trying not to be too obviously excited about it, was tiny, freckled Trudi Stahl. Trudi had replaced recently graduated nightmare Harriet Williams at the crank-handle of the school’s rumour-mill, and still seemed to be catching her breath at finding herself in such exalted company.
Pen beckoned them forward and they shuffled in, obscuring the shapes and muffling the noise of the younger kids who were kicking tennis balls across the asphalt until a breathless kind of intimacy enveloped them.
‘Well?’ Gwen demanded.
Pen drew in a deep breath and said softly, ‘I was kidnapped by a living coil of barbed wire – the servant a of a demolition god whose fingers were cranes. I was its host, and it sent me to kill Beth Bradley, but she freed me from it instead. I held the monster down with my body while she cut it off with a sharpened park railing.’
There was a long moment’s silence, then Alan made a tchk sound in the back of his throat and laughed. Gwen actually stamped her foot and puffed out a little condensation-cloud of frustration even as she grinned, but it was Trudi who spoke. ‘Damn,’ she said. ‘I actually thought we were going to get something there.’
The bell sounded the end of morning break and, chatting, whooping and swearing, Frostfield students converged on the doors to the main block. Anyone under sixteen was at least nominally in a blue and grey uniform. From above, Pen thought, it must’ve looked like a tide of dirty water streaming towards a plughole.
Gwen shouldered her satchel and slung an arm around Alan’s neck. She pulled him in and kissed him ostentatiously. At length she broke away and asked, ‘What’s now?’
‘Maths,’ Alan replied.
She rolled her eyes and Trudi, taking her cue, groaned along.
‘Eff. Eff. Ess,’ Gwen said. ‘With the new woman? Foreign-Chick?’
‘Whatever. Can any of you even understand a word she’s saying with that accent? I never thought I’d say this, but I seriously miss Salt. Did you get anywhere finding out what happened to him, Tru?’
‘Nothing solid, but a couple of the year 7s are spreading it that he’s been suspended,’ Trudi replied. ‘Apparently some girl said he touched her up.’
Pen felt her stomach muscles clench. ‘Really?’ She managed to keep her voice even. ‘Who?’
Trudi looked a little crestfallen. ‘They didn’t know.’ ‘Selfish, lying bitch.’ Gwen snorted in disgust. ‘Whoever she is, she’s just out for attention, and she’s going to screw up our exams while she’s at it. Now, if some boy had said Salt went for him . . .’
She left it hanging and everyone laughed, including Pen, even though it wasn’t funny and her ears and chest were burning, even though she could feel the laughter pressing its blade against her stomach, because sometimes that was what you had to do.
‘You not coming, Parva?’ Gwen asked when Pen didn’t follow them towards the door.
Pen shook her head. She pulled a cartoon-mournful face and drew an invisible tear down one cheek with a finger.
‘Still playing the trauma card?’ Gwen said with a good-humoured tut. ‘Lucky cow. Still, I don’t blame you. If I could get away with skiving it, I would.’ She tucked her arm through Alan’s, and the untouchable pair sauntered inside. Trudi hung back with Pen. She tucked a coil of red hair behind one ear. ‘You will tell us, though, Parva,’ she said, her voice kind; concerned. ‘The stories are fun and all, and Gwen’s cutting you some slack, but sooner or later you will tell us how your face got so fucked-up.’ She tilted her head and studied Pen’s cross-hatched cheeks. ‘I just wanted to make sure you knew that.’
Pen forced a smile. She felt her scars bend: a dozen mocking, mirroring mouths.
‘Sure, Tru,’ she said. ‘It’ll be good to talk to someone.’ ‘That’s what friends are for.’ Trudi rose onto tiptoes, kissed her on the cheek and headed in through the doors.
Pen walked against the tide of the students into the play- ground. Something cold landed on her eyelash: snowflakes were drifting from the yellowing clouds. She pulled her headscarf tighter around her and shuddered.
You will tell us.
She should have known that was coming. Pen was hanging around with Gwen because her . . . patronage – she couldn’t think of it as anything other than that – kept the rest of Frostfield off her back, but Gwen didn’t do charity. She wanted to be seen to be the one the damaged girl opened up to, the one who could get the answers to the questions the whole school was buzzing with.
Where did Pen go for those three weeks last autumn? What was it that had mutilated her face?
And where on earth had Beth Bradley, Pen’s best friend, a girl she never used to be seen without, gone?
Buried in her thoughts, Pen almost walked into the school perimeter wall. She shook herself and bent double against the snow. The wind had started up and now it shrieked up and down octaves and stripped her face raw. She was grateful for it – everyone else would have hurried indoors and there was less chance of being seen.
The old junior block jutted out into the playground in front of her, bandaged up in hi-vis tape like an injured brick limb. Some workmen had found asbestos in it while Pen had been gone and the whole structure had been cordoned off. Orange cones marked out the edge of the forbidden zone.
Secret spaces can open up so fast in the city, Pen thought.
Wary of the CCTV, she squeezed herself in behind the tangle of spiny evergreen bushes that grew by the wall and edged her way towards the fire escape at the back.
The air inside was dank and cave-like, but out of the wind it felt warm. What little light penetrated the muck-smeared windows silhouetted little funeral cairns of bluebottles. Pen picked her way along the corridor, climbing over a couple of toppled-over lockers, and ducked into a doorway on the right.
It had been the girls’ bathroom once. Toilet-stall doors stood open, plastic seat lids down and covered in dust. Sinks jutted from the wall like pugnacious chins, with a long frameless sheet of mirror-glass still screwed in above them.
Just to be sure, Pen checked inside the stalls, but she was alone in the room.
Anxiety bubbled in her throat as she stepped up to the mirror. She saw herself up close: the scars criss-crossed her cheeks like cracks in broken glass. Luckily Dr Walid had owed her father a favour from their university days, so he hadn’t charged when he rebuilt her nostril and her lower lip using a graft taken from her thigh. Camouflage, carefully applied, could conceal the border between them and the surrounding tissue, but it left a flat texture, a wrongness that couldn’t be disguised.
There was only so much you could hide from people if they got too close.
‘It’s all you, Pen,’ she whispered. ‘They just rearranged you a little bit.’
Gradually her gorge subsided. It helped to be here, in this mildewed, tumbledown bathroom, the only place in the world she could find someone who understood.
She leaned over the sink and rapped on the mirror with her knuckles. ‘Hello? Hello?’
Her voice echoed hollowly off the tiles.
Hello? Hello? ‘Hello.’
In the mirror, Pen saw a slender girl walk out of one of the toilet stalls; the same stalls Pen had looked into and knew were empty. The interloper stepped up behind her, put her arms around Pen’s waist and settled her chin on her shoulder. Pen felt the pressure from the girl’s hug and the comfort- able heat from the cheek next to her own, but she didn’t bother looking sideways; she knew she’d see nothing there. She kept her eyes on the glass, studying the reflection that appeared not to be cast by anyone at all.
The clothes were different; the girl in the mirror had obviously been shopping. She wore tighter jeans, a stylishly cut leather jacket and a pair of heels that meant she had to stoop slightly to hug Pen. The girl’s headscarf looked new too, an expensive-looking raw silk in pigeon-grey.
The face though – the face was identical: fine-featured, brown-skinned, even down to the intricate asymmetry of the scars.
Pen looked into the mirror and saw her reflection doubled. Two copies of her looked back.
The girl next to her reflection broke into a grin and the slashes that framed her mouth became something quite beautiful. ‘You look good, girl,’ she said.
Excerpted from The Glass Republic by Tom Pollock. Copyright © 2013 by Tom Pollock.
First published in Great Britain in 2013 by Jo Fletcher Books, an imprint of Quercus Editions Ltd., 55 Baker Street, 7th Floor, South Block, London, W1U 8EW.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Pan Macmillan Australia solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.