The hall floor creaked. The thin sliver of light beneath the door flickered then went dim. I held my breath, hoping she hadn’t heard too much.
“It’s time to go sleep now, okay?” Mum’s voice was muffled through the door, but if I could hear her, she could certainly hear me. I should have been more careful.
“Okay,” I said, in my sleepiest sounding voice.
“I mean it,” Mum went on. “No more radio. It’s past ten, and you’ve got school tomorrow.”
I snuggled down into my duvet. I could tell by the tone of her voice that she wasn’t really cross. “Okay, sorry.”
“Good. Goodnight then.”
“Goodnight.” I closed my eyes. “And goodnight,” I whispered into the empty room.
I woke to a cool, golden dawn and a stomach full of jelly. It was going to be a great day, and just the thought of seeing my friends was enough to get me moving, even after a whole summer of lie-ins.
I steeled myself for the cold air, then pulled back the bedclothes and slid out onto the carpet. My hair was tangled and in my face, but I could hear the shower running in the next room. Mum was already in there; I’d have to wait.
My new school bag sat on the desk, already full of all the things I’d need today and tempting me to go through them one more time. I needed to check I had everything anyway, I told myself. I pulled it closer and opened the top. Pencil case, books, paper, hairbrush and the tiny make-up bag I’d gotten for my birthday, complete with lip gloss and blusher, all ready to go. Just looking at it all made me itch to get on with the day. My stomach was so wriggly I wondered if I’d be able to eat my breakfast, and I had to take a deep breath and tell myself to get a grip.
The shower sputtered to a dribble, then stopped. The bathroom door clicked open. I pulled my towel off the radiator and had just reached for the door knob when I hesitated. Had something moved behind me? With a glance over my shoulder, I could see that nothing was out of place, and I grinned. Then I raised a hand, waved at the empty room and slipped into the hallway, eager to get ready and out the front door.
Mum dropped me off at my new school on her way to work –for my first day only –and within five minutes I was chatting with three friends from my old school as we headed off for registration. There were so many more kids at this school and it was so much bigger than my last one that I kept getting lost in the corridors. But it was more exciting than frightening, and together we all managed to find the right rooms until lunchtime. That morning went so quickly I found myself eating lunch before I’d even caught my breath.
It was a lovely autumn day, still warm and bright, and we decided to sit outside to eat our sandwiches and watch one of the school teams practicing on the fields.
“What did you do all summer?” Emily asked. She was sunning herself on the grass next to me, shading her eyes with a tanned hand while crowds of boys ran up and down the pitch in front of us.
“Hmm?” I turned to her out of my day dream. “Oh, not much.”
Emily grinned at me then glanced up at the boys. I felt my cheeks turning hot. I knew exactly what she was thinking, and I didn’t want to go there.
“What did you do?” I asked her, instead of answering.
Emily shrugged. “We went on holiday to France for two weeks, it was okay. Dad made us look at lots of museums.” She made a face and turned to Holly. “At least I got a tan though. What about you, Hol?”
Holly chuckled as she pushed her glasses up her nose. “I met up with Javier,” she said. “It was okay.”
I pushed myself up off the grass to stare at her. “Okay? It sounds better than okay to me. I can’t believe you met up with him! How did you manage it?”
A grin spread across her face. “I convinced Mum to invite him back for a few weeks, because it had really helped my Spanish.”
We all laughed. I shook my head at her; I couldn’t believe how she got away with this stuff.
“You’re unbelievable,” Emily said. “I wish I could convince my mum to invite someone that cute to stay with us.”
“The only boys I saw were Mikey and Toady,” I said, rolling my eyes.
“I knew you’d seen him,” Emily said, turning to point a finger at me. “You can’t tell me you don’t fancy him.”
“You know I can’t stand Toady.” I had hoped she would forget all about him over the summer. Emily thought my cousin was extremely cute, even though he was a complete prat. “And he’s my cousin. Yuck!”
“Did you have to stay at your aunts?” Holly asked, breaking up the argument before it could get going.
“No, but Mum was too busy to do much and I had a job at the shop with Milly, so the only kids I saw all summer were my cousins.”
“At least you made some money,” Emily said, taking a long slurp from her juice. “I can’t believe your mum let you get a job. My dad keeps saying not till I’m fifteen.”
I couldn’t help grinning. “I know, it’s really cool. And she said I can keep doing it on weekends so long as I don’t mess up at school. Only after I get settled in here, of course.”
“What are you going to do with all the money?” Holly asked.
I shrugged. “I dunno, put it in the bank I suppose.”
Emily sighed. “You’re nuts – I’d be buying loads of makeup and stuff with it!”
“Yeah, but you’re a bimbo!” I said, pulling a face. We all burst into giggles.
Lunch finished too quickly. The bell hurried us out of the sunshine and back into the classrooms before we’d even caught up on everyone’s summer. But, for that first day at least, I didn’t mind; it was so exciting to be starting at a new school.
By the time the last bell went I was wondering if every day was going to be so busy and exhausting. All I could think about was getting home and having some dinner, but I still had homework to finish before I could curl up in front of the TV.
At the gates, Holly hurried off to meet her dad, and Emily and I headed off together.
“Mum was dead set on picking me up,” Emily said. She hefted her bag a little higher on her shoulders. “I told her no way!”
“You’re lucky,” I said. “My mum’ll be at work until at least seven.”
She shook her head. “You’re the one who’s lucky. I’d love to have the house to myself.”
Emily had four brothers and sisters, and her house was never quiet. She couldn’t understand why I got fed up of being home on my own. I sighed.
“I can’t believe how much homework they gave us.”
“I know, you’d have thought they’d give us the first night off!”
We both shook our heads. All those new books were exhausting to carry.
“I suppose they want us to take it really seriously,” I said. “Like it matters how we do at school now.”
“I know,” Emily said. “I mean, if we were sixteen I could understand it, but did you see Mrs Richardson going on about our end of year exams?” She snorted.
I laughed too, and we plodded on down the road. The weather was still warm and my bag was uncomfortably heavy on my back. I could feel my shirt getting damp in the heat and sticking to my skin, and my keys were pulling at my trouser pocket.
It took us ten minutes to get to Emily’s road, but we didn’t talk about much other than all our new teachers and which ones were the best. I waved goodbye to Emily at the crossing, promising to meet her there the next morning. Then I set off for home. It was another 20 minute walk over the bridge and past my aunt’s deli, back to my empty house.
We had all agreed during the summer that I was old enough to be at home by myself now that I was at secondary school, so I didn’t have to spend my afternoons with Sandy and my cousins anymore. This was both a good and a bad thing. Good, because Toady, my 16 year old cousin, was a big pain. And the little one, Mikey, was sweet but really annoying.
But it was bad too, because Milly, who was two years above me at school, was my best friend and I didn’t get to see her much apart from when I was at the shop because she helped her mum so much. My aunt hadn’t been well for years, and Milly was always doing something or other for her, or taking care of Mikey.
None of them were outside when I passed, so I carried on down the road, around the corner and past the little park to our house, where it stood almost right on the pavement. Getting my keys out from where they’d been pulling at my pocket, I headed up the steps and unlocked the door.
Inside the house, I breathed a big sigh of relief and dumped my bag in the hall. It was quiet in here. No matter what I might say to my friends, it was kind of cool to be home all alone, free to do whatever I wanted. I knew I had at least 3 hours until Mum came home. More than enough time to have something to eat, do my homework and chill out in front of the TV for a bit, watching whatever I liked.
Our house was small and quite old, but it was beautiful and decorated in all sorts of interesting things Mum had found through her work. There were old statues, strange paintings, faded wall hangings and odd, carved wooden chests and tables in every room. It was tidy, but most people thought it was cluttered – that was just because they didn’t understand how lovely everything was.
I took two minutes to make myself a sandwich, then headed for my favourite window seat to watch the birds fighting over peanuts in our tiny garden.
I nearly fell off my seat. Gulping down my mouthful of sandwich, I turned around, but there was no one there. I relaxed again.
“Phew,” I said, waving at the empty room and then picking up my sandwich for another bite. “You scared me.”
“I’m sorry,” said the voice, so close that if I’d been able to see its owner they’d have been sitting right beside me. “Who did you think it was?”
I shrugged. “Some crazy person who’d gotten into the house without me knowing?” I laughed. It was hard to get used to speaking to a disembodied voice. Trying to decide whether it sounded more like a man or a woman had done my nut in for weeks, but I’d had all summer to get used to it by now. “But it’s just you.”
“Yep, just me. How did your first day at school go?”
I nodded and swallowed my mouthful. “Good. It was fun.” “That’s good. Were your friends there?”
“I bet you had lots of fun together.”
“So what’s the plan for this afternoon?” the voice said, and I sighed.
“I’ve got homework to do.”
“No way – already?”
“That’s not fair.”
“Tell that to my teachers,” I said. “We can talk later though.”
There was a brief pause, then the voice said, “Sure.”
I grabbed my plate and ducked into the kitchen to leave it on the sideboard.
“Speak to you later then,” I called over my shoulder, heading for the stairs. There was no answer.
My new homework was so much harder than my old stuff. It took me almost until Mum came home to finish it. By the time I heard the front door bang open and her footsteps in the hallway, my head was aching and I was feeling much less excited about my new school.
“Anne?” she called up the stairs, then I heard the rustling as she took off her coat and shoes. I closed my workbook with a long sigh, rubbed my eyes, then got up to meet her.
“Yup,” I called back as I came down the stairs. She looked up, and I saw how tired she looked again; her hair was all fuzzy and she had big bags under her eyes. But she smiled when she saw me, and before I’d even reached the bottom step she folded me into a big hug.
“How was your day?” I said, following her into the kitchen.
She shrugged. “It was okay.” She flicked on the kettle. “I had a big meeting in London and spent most of the day on trains getting there and back.” She flashed me a grin. “How was your day? I was thinking about you.”
I grinned, but only half-heartedly, and handed her two plates. She took them, placed them on the side, then turned and smoothed back my hair with a long look.
“It was great,” I said, pulling away to get food out of the fridge. “Emily and Holly met me and we have all our classes together.”
Mum nodded, turning back to the hob and starting to throw things into the pan. “I’m glad. Maybe you can go and spend some time at Emily’s house after school some days? Do your homework together?”
Our dinner began to sizzle and pop and the kitchen filled with the sweet smell of lemon grass. My mouth began to water.
“I think I’ll need it,” I said, filling up a glass of water and going to sit at the table. “My homework tonight was so hard.”
She shot me a sympathetic glance and tipped the steaming vegetables out onto plates. “Here,” she said. “You’ll feel better for this. And we can have pancakes for desert if you like.”
I tried to look pleased – pancakes are my favourite food ever – but the throbbing in my head was even worse and all I could manage was a nod.
Mum frowned at me and put her fork down. “You are tired, aren’t you?” she said, reaching out and squeezing my hand. I nodded, focusing on getting the hot food into my mouth.
“Well,” she said, sitting back and picking up her fork again, “if you don’t object, I think it’ll just be a bath and bed after dinner.” She smiled at me, looking almost as tired as I felt. “We’re a right pair, aren’t we? Don’t worry – it’ll get easier.”
I nodded again. I wasn’t going to argue with her; I was pooped.