During lunch, Valorie sent a message to Charley.
‘Don’t think I can make it to today’s session – my parents want to talk. Hope you’re OK -Val.’
She held the phone in her hand for ten minutes, but received no reply. Charley usually kept his phone switched off before 3pm.
Amrita sat next to her a few minutes later.
‘Are you OK?’ she asked.
‘I’m fine,’ Valorie lied. ‘How about you, Amri?’
‘Not too great,’ Amrita said. ‘I’ve had no-one to talk to really. I mean, you being away from school those last couple of times… I had to hang around with the girls in my Maths group.’
‘You mean the group… Amanda, Maria…?’
‘Yes. And that’s not much fun. All they do is talk about people behind their backs and what they’re going to do at the weekend and stuff. I mean, they’re alright, they’re never mean to me, but…’
‘You can’t really…’
‘Yeah, get on with them.’
‘Nor can I, to be honest.’
The two girls looked at each other.
‘Aren’t you eating?’ Amrita said.
‘No. I forgot to make lunch. You?’
‘I’m not eating either. I made a tomato and cream cheese sandwich, but…’
She reached under the table, into her bag, and pulled something out. Valorie stared. The thing, whatever it was, had clearly once been a sandwich, because it was still wrapped up in the cling film. But now it had become a sticky, sodden lump. Absolutely inedible.
‘Oh dear. It’s gone all soggy.’
‘Yeah,’ Amrita said, tossing it into a bin. It missed, but she didn’t go to retrieve it. ‘I’ve got enough money with me for a muffin,’ she offered. ‘We can share one if you like.’
The muffin was very nice. Valorie and Amrita had shared it, picking bits off while they talked. They had a good laugh about the powdered sugar on the top, pretending it was arsenic. It had been just like old times.
Amrita left her at the school gate, saying she had ‘stuff to do’, and they went their separate ways.
Valorie was left to walk home alone, wondering what her parents needed to talk to her about. Was it her lack of homework? Had they seen her with Charley? Or maybe… Valorie put a hand over her mouth. Maybe her father had told her mother that she was a Wizard, and this was some sort of interrogation!
She quickened her pace, not wanting to face whatever was waiting for her at home, but not wanting to make her parents angrier by being late.
Valorie sped home, and put in the key. The door slid open. She went in.
‘Val, is that you?’
‘Yes, Mum, ‘ Valorie yelled from the hallway.
‘We’re in the kitchen.’
Valorie hung up her coat and walked in.
‘Sit down,’ her mother said. Valorie quickly sat.
‘I’ve had some letters from school yesterday about unauthorised absences.’
Oh no. Oh no, no, no.
‘It says you’ve been absent three times this half term. Now, one of them was that time you were sick, but I’m beginning to doubt that. Be honest with us,’ Mrs Morse said, ‘have you been bunking off?’
‘No,’ Valorie said, and silently cursed herself for being so stupid.
‘Well then, why have you been away from school so often?’ Mr Morse asked. ‘Do you hate school or something?’
‘No! Well, I don’t always like it, but…’ Valorie buried her head in her hands. ‘I haven’t been skiving, Mum.’
‘Oh yes? Where have you been then?’
‘I haven’t been anywhere! I’ve been at school!’
Mrs Morse stood up, drumming her fingernails on the surface of the table. ‘Look at this letter,’ she said. She pulled it from her handbag. ‘Look… absent on the 9th and 14th… you said you were ill that day. And it says you were absent yesterday as well. What does all this mean then? Are you too good for school now?’
Valorie stood up, her eyes stinging, her heart beating in her neck. ‘I’ve been in school, Mum! I don’t just bunk off school!’
‘Do you want me to phone Amrita?’
‘No! Just… argh!’
Valorie’s fist hit the table, and she spun out of the room, covering her dewy eyes.
‘Hey! Val!’ her father shouted, but she just kept going, up the stairs to her room. She shut the door.
Flopping down on her bed, she buried her face in the pillow, quietly sobbing. Why was everything going wrong? She hated school. She hated magic. And she had no one to blame but herself for mucking everything up.
She stayed like that for about an hour. By then her eyes were dry again, and the mutterings downstairs had stopped. The house was quiet.
Valorie wasn’t hungry, and didn’t want to face her parents again over dinner. She wriggled under the duvet, bringing it up to her chin. She flicked on an audio book CD, putting it on fairly loud. She paid attention to the noises, trying to forget about the discussion she’d just had.
She was listening to a fact tape for kids. Side A was about the human body, and side B was about Planet Earth. She didn’t really care about that stuff anymore, but as a kid she’d listened to it constantly. She’d memorised all the facts by heart. She knew how big Mount Everest was, and who was the tallest person ever was, and how much excrement the entire human race produced in eight days. Listening to those familiar facts now was strangely soothing.
Valorie’s eyes drooped. She fell asleep.