I do not remember the year Helen Davies came to school. I imagine she might have been there all along, skirting just on the margins of my attention. But when I look back it seems that one day, suddenly, she was there. She had probably been in my class all year – and maybe, even, the year before that – but for one reason or another she had been an insignificance; something neither wanted nor disliked.
The first thing I remember of Helen is her standing in the quadrangle with her brother, who was probably a year or two older than us, maybe ten or eleven. It seems to me now that they could have just dropped out of the sky – so sudden is their appearance in my mind – and at the same time that they could have been there all along, waiting patiently for me to see them. They were standing right by the hop-scotch corner – which was empty, possibly because they were there – both with small, crustless sandwiches in their hands. They did not seem to be talking or eating, just standing there, staring at the numbered squares, but not hopping, and not looking sad either, as far as I could tell.
Helen was wearing a grey and pink striped cotton-knit dress, with a slim tie round the waist, and even though it was not particularly pretty, and not new looking at all, I looked at her and wanted it – that dress – and therefore wanted to know her, or notice her, at least.
Helen and Simon Davies lived somewhere just out of town, and walked to and from school every day, together, which was rare. Most of us were dropped off and picked up by our parents, and a few came on the school bus, but no one other than Helen and Simon walked, as far as I know. Even though Simon was older than us, he wasn't in the oldest class at school, but he looked like he should have been, stretching out of his clothes and skin like a malignant growth, out of control. He towered over Helen, his meaty hands, arms and legs thick and slightly grotesque; his head large and lumpy, like a sprouting potato. Next to him Helen looked like something that could have just been blown in, on a high wind. She was small and narrow, with olive, almost dirty looking skin, and a cloud of short brown hair; always greasy at the roots, but fluffy everywhere else, quite soft looking, like cotton wool. From far off, her head looked like it had been caught up in a whirl of dust – a round, earthy tornado – so indistinct was the line between her hair and the air around it.
The two of them – Helen and Simon – were odd together, but somehow seemed to operate as one; two opposing ends of the spectrum, beauty and the beast – though Helen could hardly have been called a beauty, really, at all. But it was the quality they had, like characters who had just stepped out of a fairytale or a myth, eternally chained together, ethereal and world weary, in a painfully ordinary sort of way.
At some point, after I first noticed them – or first remember noticing them – everyone else seemed to notice them too. A morbid fascination developed, rippling through our class, and the entire school. Helen kept out of everyone’s way, sitting quietly at the back of class, but all of a sudden she carried with her a certain mystique. Nobody in our class had ever paid attention to Simon, who was simply older than us, and ugly; too big and overbearing to be picked on. But he began to draw attention to himself, and because the bigger kids just ignored him, we were more than happy to comply. We began to call him Simple Simon, though I don’t think any of us really knew what it meant. It would make him go into an instant rage, lumbering around the playground, his flubbery lips sending out showers of spit, him sort of laughing to himself, hysterically, despite the lurching and the fury. We all found it exhilarating – this reaction – and would squeal and coo, scattering ourselves around the playground. Helen wouldn’t move or make a sound; standing or sitting somewhere on the edge of it all, watching and yet not watching; waiting for him to stop.
Sometime nearing the end of that year, my two best friends, Rachel and Myra, somehow started to slip out of my grasp. Myra had been premature as a baby, and had something wrong with her lungs, and she got sick at some point in that year, and was in and out of hospital, in and out of school. She had been the glue that stuck the three of us together, and Rachel suddenly didn’t want to play with me any more, at morning tea or lunch. It was not that I was alone, or entirely friendless, but all of a sudden a gap opened up, and Helen Davies slipped into it, quite fluidly, allowing herself to be moved in and out, according to need. It would not have happened, I'm sure – our vague, blurred friendship – if I hadn’t noticed Helen in that dress, that day, and wanted it more than life itself. She was simply a means to an end.
I started to find myself sitting with her and Simon sometimes, in the corner of the playground. I would take my lunch over, on the days when Myra was not there, slightly intoxicated by the way Simon stared at me with his large, wet eyes, and tried to make conversation, his tongue always getting in the way. I felt so wanted, by them, by him and Helen, as if all the wanting I had inside me was somehow eased by being on the receiving end of it, for once. I could pretend that I was somebody that I wasn’t, when I was with them.
Up close, Helen and Simon had a smell about them, like wet clothes that had been left in the washing machine too long, or vase water that had gone bad. A slightly rotten, dirty water smell that emanated from their bodies, but only when they moved in certain ways. They had identical lunches – such small, square sandwiches, a piece of fruit, a biscuit wrapped in greaseproof paper – and matching, black puffy schoolbags. Helen took tentative, dainty bites of the food, as if she was trying to avoid some terrible sharp thing hidden in there. She spoke to me casually and calmly when I was with them, a touch of reproachfulness in her voice, her hands often pressed against her knees.
‘Do you like Mrs Day?’ she asked me one lunchtime, after we’d put our lunch boxes back in our bags. Mrs Day was our teacher, and was kind enough, but bland, not young or old, pretty or ugly; certainly not a topic of conversation.
‘I guess so.’
‘I like her,’ said Helen, ‘and Simon likes her too. He had her last year.’
Simon – always introspective unless riled – was standing beside us, twitching his fingers back and forth, sucking slightly at his bottom lip.
‘Simon likes reading when he’s at home,’ Helen said, ‘and Mrs Day lent him books out of her shelf, to bring back with him.’
She spoke slowly, almost as if reciting a script.
‘What's your best subject?’ I asked her.
Helen did not look so sure, but she answered straight away.
‘I like reading too,’ she said.
It must have been nearing the end of the year – in the final school term, at least – that Helen and I started playing cats and kittens, not every day, of course, but on the days when Myra was away sick, and I had no one to sit with for morning tea or lunch. She asked me quite abruptly one day, her mouth still full of sandwich, Simon beside her, eating his too.
‘Would you like to play cats after this?’ she said, not really looking at me when she spoke, but almost directing the question at Simon. I could see the bread inside her mouth, a fleshy white pulp.
‘OKay,’ I said, as if I didn’t care either way, though secretly I was pleased.
We went right out to the edge of the field to play it, Simon loping along beside us, although we hadn’t invited him to be a part of the game too. Helen was wearing ordinary clothes that day, not her grey and pink striped dress, and she started getting herself ready, like a surgeon preparing for an operation. She took off her worn grey shoes, and her socks, and laid them side by side, and undid the buckle of her watch – adding it to the pile – and pulled up the sleeves of her cardigan, high, so they were bunched right up above her elbows. She got herself down on all fours then, and started to meow.
Simon and I watched this whole process with a sort of dumb curiosity, still standing on the grass, fully clothed. I felt a faint disgust, and delight too; a desire not to look and to look at the same time. I don’t know what it was that made me feel this way – perhaps just her eagerness, the methodical joy – but I felt that that feeling was going to be significant, somehow, in my life.
Helen meowed and pawed at my feet with her hands. I actually did want to play cats and kittens with her, and because I was glad that she had chosen to be the cat, me the kitten, I leant down, and took off my shoes, and got down on all fours and started to meow and purr too. Simon just stood there, watching us, his big red hands hanging by his sides.
Once I was spending time with Helen Davies, I began to notice how Mrs Day clearly watched out for her, though in a quiet, almost secretive, way. She never asked impromptu questions of her, about mathematics or spelling, like she did with the rest of us, and because Helen never put her hand up, she never had to answer questions, at all. I knew about Simon and Mrs Day and the books, and sometimes I wanted to shout out that I knew, during quiet reading time after lunch. There was something in Mrs Day’s small grey eyes and oval fringed face that made me suspicious, as if she knew more about all of us, than she would ever let on.
‘And Helen can go with me!’ she would say, shrilly, when the class had divided into even numbered teams, and Helen was the odd one out. She would get her to sit beside her then, up at her desk, and would talk to her quietly, opening and shutting the drawers, placing small things I could never get a glimpse of in Helen’s upturned hand.
As the term was winding up, sometime before the Christmas holidays, Helen wore her dress to school again. Perhaps that was only the second time she had worn it – the first being the day that I remember noticing her – and when she walked into the classroom that morning her head seemed to be sitting very straight on her neck, quite tall. Myra was still unwell, sometimes just coming in for the mornings, and so Helen and Simon and I had been spending most lunchtimes out on the field, away, it seemed, from the rest of the world. I felt seized by a strange joy when Helen appeared in her dress, as if I was in the company of a beautiful person, though in class I never spoke to her at all.
It was just as I had remembered – the dress – a light pink and grey stripe, a low rounded scoop neck, gathered in round the waist with a tie of the same material, little tasseled bits on its end. It was like a dress in a magazine – though it had a slightly dull, worn quality – grown up, somehow, ladylike. The neckline showed off the tan of Helen’s chest, which looked polished, that day, like wood.
I watched her all morning, almost infatuated, even the ball of her hair seeming lovely, sitting above that outfit. By lunchtime, I could hardly contain the words.
‘I like your dress,’ I said to Helen, who was sitting with Simon in the quadrangle, waiting for me, I guess.
She smiled a small smile, and patted the material on her leg.
‘Where did you get it?’ I said, trying to be subtle. ‘I’d like a dress like that.’
Helen took a bite of her sandwich and chewed it, and swallowed.
‘We made it,’ she said. ‘On the machine.’
She said the words matter-of-factly, as if the topic didn’t interest her at all, and when I tried to question her further, she just tucked her lunch box back into her bag, looked at me, and meowed. She wanted to play cats and kittens again, and even though I was growing tired of it, I agreed, not really having anywhere else to go.
On the last day before the Christmas holidays, the school had a special assembly in the School Hall. Myra came for the whole day, though her mother sat on the side with the teachers, and I found myself surrounded by Myra-nearly-died-in-the-hospital fans. I was like Myra’s shadow, that day, and I basked in her reflected glory.
All the teachers got up one by one and handed out certificates, the names written on them in curly black loops. Myra got a Bravery Award for spending so much time in hospital – something I didn't think really deserved a school award – and she got up and stood in front of the whole assembly, holding the certificate in front of her chest, her white bony legs bowing outwards round the knees.
After Mrs Day had read out all the names – Most Improved Speller, Best Sportsperson – she leant behind herself, and picked up a certificate made of thick gold card.
‘And finally,’ she said, her voice high, quite bell-like, ‘we have an award for ‘Beautiful Behaviour,’ which goes to,’ she paused for dramatic effect, ‘Helen Davies!’
There was a soft pattering of hands through the hall. Helen stood up and seemed to float across the floor towards Mrs Day, her feet hardly making a sound on the wooden floor.
‘Congratulations, Helen!’ Mrs Day said, as she handed her the certificate. Helen didn’t turn towards the crowd of students sitting on the ground, like everyone else had. She reached out her hand, almost gingerly, and without a moment’s pause, turned and walked back to her place, shuffling her way through the cross-legged bodies. She was sitting in between the twins, Adrian and John – who both had teeth that burst out through their lips, as if they were trying to get away from the gums – and she just sat there, absolutely still, the certificate placed squarely in her lap.
The bell went at three o’clock that day, as always, and Myra’s mother shuffled her away. It was the beginning of the summer holidays, a few weeks before Christmas, and there seemed to be a vibration echoing around the school; excitement, and something else too, a sort of melancholy.
My mother couldn’t pick me up that day, I was going to have to catch the bus, and as I walked out the school gates I spotted Helen and Simon, standing side by side by the concrete wall, waiting for something. They looked towards me as I started to walk past them, and I realised with a lurch of queasiness that they were waiting for me.
‘Kate!’ Helen called out.
I turned slowly and deliberately towards them and walked over to where they were standing.
‘Hi,’ I said.
Helen was holding her certificate in one hand and in the other she had a small paper bag, with little paper handles that her fingers were looped through. With her bag on her back and both her hands occupied she seemed even more dwarfed than usual, standing beside enormous Simon, who had both his arms free.
‘My mother says, would you like to come and play in the holidays?’ she said, hardly managing to keep the words in order, her voice was so fast and breathy.
I shifted on my feet, and fiddled with the edge of my sweatshirt, trying not to look at Helen’s face, which was so open and filled with hope.
‘I don’t know if I’ll be able to,‘ I said, though I think I muttered it, really.
‘My mother says she could call your mother if you’re not sure,’ Helen said, lifting her voice at the end of the sentence, as if it was a question, not a statement.
I felt as if her need might devour me, so palpable was its quality. The sound of voices all around me seemed far away, wavering slightly, warped. The day seemed suddenly darker, though it was probably just a cloud slipping over the sun.
I didn’t want to go to Helen and Simon Davies’ house, which would smell, I imagined, like them, but stronger, and where their mother was, who was so fat, someone once said, she couldn’t even fit in a car. They had misunderstood. They did not understand the arrangement we’d had.
‘I don’t think I’ll be able to,’ I said.
Helen didn’t seem to hear me, or if she did she didn’t let on. She lifted her arm, holding the paper bag out towards me.
‘We found some extra in the sewing basket,’ she said. ‘Have a happy holiday.’
I took the bag and only glanced inside; I already knew what would be there.
‘They’re only off-cuts, my mother said, not enough for a dress, but I thought you'd like them anyway,’ said Helen. She was still speaking so fast, as if getting all the words out was a strain.
‘Thanks,’ I said. ‘Thanks very much. Have a happy holiday too.’
I turned instantly away from them, then – Helen and Simon – and started to walk rapidly towards the bus stop, the paper bag banging against my leg. I only allowed myself one glance back before I turned the corner, and the sky seemed to go even darker when I did; a coiling darkness, like smoke. Helen and Simon were still standing by the school gate, side by side, their faces turned towards me. They were watching me go – the disappearing lurch of my back – and when I glanced around, they were smiling, smiling, as if I could never do them any harm at all.