Too surprised to talk, I was pulled after her across the canteen to a small table in the corner. I hadn’t noticed it, but now I saw that it was empty except for the girl’s tray. She sat down and indicated for me to do the same. I sat down opposite her, nervously pulling at the stalk on the apple. It seemed this school was stranger than I thought. It was full of upfront girls who nobody else seemed to notice. Like Meena, everybody’s eyes seemed to look at her without really seeing her. I looked up at the girl, who was eating a meat sandwich in small bites and watching me simultaneously with murky green eyes. It was like glancing into the depths of a forest pool. Her dark blonde hair was pulled away from her face into a ponytail, but a few stray wisps hung down at the front. Compared to my pale skin she was tanned, like she spent a lot of time outdoors in the sun. Though not at this time of year, being halfway through November.
The girl was studying me in the same way, taking in my appearance. I was willing to bet that I looked a lot like a startled rabbit. As though something had just occurred to her, she put down her sandwich and swallowed.
“Oh, yeah, sorry. I’m Willow.”
“Ruby,” I replied, setting the apple back on the blue plastic tray. “Um, what exactly did you - ?”
“First day at a new school is always a nightmare, right?” Willow shrugged, picking up her sandwich again and resuming eating it. “Thought you could use some company. Didn’t want to throw you to the wolves up there on your own, so to speak.”
Willow smirked at her odd choice of words and inclined her head towards the rest of the room. A few people glanced my way, but most ignored me completely. I had to admit that she was right - I would have been left hovering at the front for the rest of the lunch break, while the students whispered and laughed at my expense.
I began to eat my lunch slowly, thinking. My first day had been weird, but not really a nightmare. Two girls had singled me out today, and I guessed that I didn’t have much choice but to become their friends. There was nothing to dislike about them, once you got over their general pushiness, I supposed. And it was better sitting with Willow than alone.
When the bell rang she had packed away and disappeared so quickly with a hasty, “See you tomorrow,” that I found myself alone at the table. I followed the printed map of the school, which had been in the folder from Mrs Bream, to my English room where I found Meena already sat at the desk furthest from the front, which seemed to be her favourite spot in every class. She didn’t ask how I had got on by myself at lunch, and for some reason I didn’t want to mention Willow to her.
When the final bell rang there was an immediate scuffle for the door. Meena disappeared into the melêe, calling a goodbye in a singsong voice. When I finally got out of the door she was nowhere to be seen. I didn’t see Willow either, amongst the pupils who loitered inside the school and in front of it, crowding the steps.
I walked through the crowds and found the MonsterCar, as I had begun to think of it, parked halfway down the road. Groups of boys dawdled as they walked along the pavements, making no secret of their gawping faces. I climbed in quickly, glad that my mother was sitting quietly and not singing along to the radio or anything like that. I wondered why, if my dad had given her money to buy a new car, she had selected this conspicuously huge and sleek model. Her old car had been a perfectly ordinary Volvo.
I wasn’t in the mood for her bright, “How was your day?” chatter, so my answers were mostly monosyllabic. My bag, which had been pretty much empty that morning, was now full with the books I had acquired. I hadn’t been unfortunate enough to get homework on my first day, but I wished I had, because by the time we got home the day seemed like it had been a dream caused by my nerves. I wouldn’t have been surprised if I woke up at any moment, but I didn’t.