by Bryony Allen
All day long at school, Alice had been in turmoil.
Number one: she knew that she had to return to the confectionery shop to replace her father’s present – it had become a bit of a tradition between them. Every year at birthdays and Christmas, father and daughter would give each other chocolate that they would insist on sharing. Even now, Alice enjoyed that brief moment of togetherness when she and her Dad sat and ate. Mum kept away out of appreciation, and Sophie left them alone as soon as she had tutted about her big sister being such a baby.
Number two: she knew that to go to the confectioners at the end of school meant another unavoidable encounter with the Populars. Why couldn’t they just leave her alone? She had never done anything to them; in fact, she always avoided them. Alice had judged them on first glance as those to avoid. They were so obviously the popular girls: fashionable, confident, wearing heavy make-up that no-one dared to call tarty, pushing the boundaries of the uniform code by wearing skirts that were slightly too short yet never being reprimanded.They were the rulers of year eight. Other pupils, and even weaker members of staff, allowed the girls to determine the social standing in school. If they decided to talk to you, then you became socially acceptable. If you were not worthy of their attention, you were a definite social failure. If however, like Alice, you resided in the social depths of friendlessness, you were fair game for whatever the Populars felt like playing.
Number three: she could not get the image of the smiling waitress out of her mind. It had been a smile of acceptance without the usual sneer, a smile that was alien to her. But it seemed to be saying more. It was the ‘more’ that had grabbed Alice’s imagination. She pictured herself going into the café, seeing the smile again and making a friend. They would share fun, watch movies together, go shopping, discuss which boys were hot or not, and swap secrets. A lovely dream, but Alice had spent too long on her own to dare to hope for a dream come true.
The previous evening, Alice’s upset state caused yet another session of interrogation led by her mum and dad.
“What’s happened this time? You must tell us so we can do something. Bottling it up only makes it worse.” They always knew: how did parents always know? They always wanted proper answers too; measurable, analysable answers that could suggest resolutions. “Nothing. Everything’s okay,” was never enough for them. Why couldn’t they accept that she did not want to talk about the same old things over and over again?
But Alice used her trusted migraines as an excuse - that and the excesses of year eight homework had provided some form of an answer to all the questions.
Alice even got into trouble at school that day. Mr Sherbet had yelled at her for day-dreaming (no, that was not his real name; his true identity dwelled deep in the archives of personnel files). Needless to say, that caused much sniggering from some of the Populars, who threw in comments about chocolate. Mr Sherbet tried to have a fatherly chat with her at the end of the lesson, but Alice called on the power of the migraine again to escape the pending questioning.
Three-thirty finally deigned to arrive, and Alice rushed out of school. She had been spotted, but foolhardy or otherwise, she did not care. Alice reached the parade in a record time of ten minutes. Unfortunately, so did the Populars. As Alice stood in the queue, waiting for the chocolate to be iced, Natalie, Samantha, Ailish, Jasmine and Ellie commandeered the bench again.
To attain their perch, they had been forced to point out to a few year six girls that higher status in the social standing table meant bench privileges. Those girls took their dismissal with good grace, taking note of the technique so they could use it in the future.
There was no guard of honour to greet her this time, although the quiet welcoming committee on the bench was worse. Alice felt their eyes looking her up and down, she felt the whispers smothering the last embers of her self-confidence, and she felt the extra loud ‘tut’ as if it was a knife poking her in the sides.
Embarrassment coursed through her body as she tried to balance school bag, purse and chocolate without dropping anything. It didn’t work. The bag fell depositing books, a pencil case, keys and a toiletry bag on the pavement. There were stifled giggles as Alice scooped up her belongings and stood up. Pleased with yet another victory, the Populars vacated their throne, and formed up in their usual manner:
Natalie and Samantha, the most popular, beautiful, well dressed and socially successful in front linking arms; followed by Ailish in between Jasmine and Ellie, still popular, still beautiful, still well dressed and nearly as socially successful but with more than a hint of ‘wannabe’.
Natalie brushed against Alice as she swayed past.
“Oh, I am so sorry, Alice. How clumsy of silly me. Wouldn’t want you dropping that lovely choccy for Daddy again would we now?”