It’s a cold October afternoon when Rachel invites the new girl home after school.
They walk side by side, Rachel and Rail, in matching school uniforms of blazer and blouse, skirt and tights, swapping parental horror stories.
“My olds still think I’m a little girl,” Rail says, scuffing her shoes as if she wants to put a hole in them. “Mum made me take off my make-up and earrings before school, like she wants to me to look ten years old.”
“School rules,” replies Rachel. “A bit of lip gloss, that’s about all we get away with.”
“Whatever,” Rail says. “I only agreed to checking out that stupid place because they promised me the new iPhone.”
If you don’t get in any trouble, her parents had said. And when they said get in, they meant cause.
“It’s a good school,” says Rachel. “Not very exciting, but the teachers are decent. Sounds like your parents just want you to succeed.”
Rail roars with laughter. “If they knew half the stuff I do when they’re not looking.”
Rachel smiles. “Like what?”
“Let’s just say,” replies Rail, crossing the street without looking, “I know how to have a good time.” When they reach the next pavement, Rail adds, “It helps when you know older kids. Most of my mates have already left school.”
“That’s cool,” Rachel says. “My mum lets me do what I like, pretty much, but I’ve got a baby brother and she needs me to help out.”
Rail makes a shuddering groan. “Uh. Babies are disgusting, all poop and noise.”
Rachel laughs. “Scott does get noisy sometimes. Mainly when I’m changing his nappy.”
Rail nods. “I didn’t mean your brother’s disgusting. I’m just glad I’m an only child.” She smiles at Rachel. “Less competition.”
“Maybe. I tell you one thing,” says Rachel. “My mum would probably kill me if I got my hair cut as short as yours.”
Rail touches the back of her neck and grins. The back of her head is shaved short and she has a fringe of blond that she is permanently flicking out of her eyes.
She laughs. “Dad freaked. Said ‘Abigail, you look like a boy,’ like I’d ruined his life. But Jesus, I’m sixteen, it’s my hair. If he had his way I’d have my hair in…” She gestures at her new friend. “Well, like yours, to be honest.”
Rachel smirks. “Pigtails are big in Parkdale.”
“Seriously!” says Rail. “No offence, but half the kids at your school, I couldn’t believe it. And the uniform.” She groans, picking at her blazer. “It’s too much. If I end up staying, there’s no way I’m wearing this thing every day.”
Rachel shrugs. “They’re strict about it, but the primary school one is worse.”
“Whatever,” says Rail. “I wear what I like.” She runs her hand along a garden hedge, looking for prickles, waiting for resistance. “Are the kids here really all well-behaved? They look too perfect, like they’re faking it.”
Rachel nods. “Not a lot of delinquency going on. If you’re still here for Halloween, you’ll see a lot of fairy princesses and not many witches.”
Rail rolls her eyes. “That’s so babyish. I haven’t dressed up for Halloween in years.”
They walk around the corner, past a mother and a small boy who smiles from his buggy and babbles Rachel’s name.
“Friend of yours?” Rail asks.
“I do some baby-sitting,” Rachel says lightly and then asks, “So do you think your folks will like this town?”
Rail sighs. “If the rest of Parkdale is like your school, they’ll love it. Perfect kids, all prim and proper.” She shakes her head. “They’ll move here in a flash.”
“Well, I’m not that prim,” says Rachel. It’s her turn to shrug. “I wear the uniform and everything, but I have fun too.”
Rail nods. “Yeah, of all the kids I met today, you’re the only one I thought I could stand.” She reaches and gives Rachel’s hand a squeeze. “My parents won’t move here if I have anything to do with it, but let’s stay in touch anyway.” She swings her arm and Rachel follows, and with an unspoken agreement, they’re friends. “You can come visit me in Manchester, I’ll show you a good night out.”
“I’m up for that,” Rachel says.
Rail looks at her approvingly. “You’re fit,” she says. She points at Rachel’s chest. “Good tits.” She laughs. “Wouldn’t have to pay for your drinks.”
Rachel shrugs. “I have plenty money.
Rail laughs. “Me, too. That’s not the point.”
Rachel stops walking and points. “That’s my house, across the way.”
“Cool,” Rail says. All the houses in the street look the same but she doesn’t make the observation. Instead, she pulls a slim, white object from an inside pocket of her schoolbag. “Going to need a puff before I meet your mum.”
Rachel blinks in surprise and waves her away. “You can’t do that…you can’t just smoke in the street. We’re in our uniforms.” She peers at the self-rolled cigarette. “You’re an airhead?”
Rail nods, nonchalant. “Take the edge off, you know?” She pats the pocket of her blazer. “It’s all right, I’ve got mints for after, your mum will never know.”
Rachel shakes her head. “If we walk into the house high at four ‘o’ clock, yeah, I think she’ll notice.”
Rail sneers. “You’re just chicken.”
“No, I’m just not an idiot.”
Rail stiffens. She looks Rachel up and down. “Maybe this was a bad idea.” And in a moment, they’ve gone from besties to strangers.
“Look,” Rail says, “No big deal. I’ll call my mum, they’ll probably want to tell me all about their house hunting anyway, and I can tell them about my day at Pigtails Academy.”
She pulls out her phone and brings the screen to life, a stiff and determined expression on her face.
“Hold on,” says Rachel. “We’ll have a good time. If you really want to have a smoke, we can do it in the back garden after I tell Mum we’re going upstairs to do homework.” She smiles. “Won’t be the first time I’ve climbed out my bedroom window.”
Rail’s expression softens. “Yeah, all right.”
“Just have to play it clever, that’s all,” says Rachel. She gives Rail a sweet smile and twirls one of her pigtails. “If everyone thinks you’re a perfect angel,” she says in a honeyed voice, “you can get away with a lot of stuff.”
Rail laughs. “Fair enough.”
They cross the street and Rachel opens the front door.
Rail frowns and asks, “Don’t you lock it?”
It’s Rachel’s turn to laugh.
They play happy families in the living room. Rail sits on the edge of the couch, she perches, while Rachel cuddles her baby brother and Rachel’s mother sits in an armchair.
“Did you have a good day?” Rachel asks the baby, who goggles adoringly at his big sister. “Did you have a bouncy day?” she asks brightly, bumping him gently on her lap, earning an excited gurgle for her trouble.
Rail keeps a thin smile plastered to her face, looking around the room, eager to stay away from the drooling infant. She has never known how to interact with babies.
“Rachel and Scott are very close,” says the mother, catching Rail’s eye. “I expect he probably sees her as a second mummy, to be honest.”
Rail nods. “Cool.” She examines her finger nails. How long is Rachel going to play with the stupid baby? Rail thinks of the pre-rolled cigarette in her bag, she thinks impatiently of doing something so much more grown-up.
“You have an unusual name,” says the mother, who looks like an older version of her daughter. Same generous chest, long legs, shiny blond hair, same sparkling blue eyes, except for some lines.
“Yeah,” Rail replies, volunteering nothing. She won’t bother telling Rachel’s mother what her parents thinks of the nick-name. When she was a little girl, she was Daddy’s Princess Abigail, she was Mummy’s Abby-Wabby, she was Buttons and Peaches and anything they cared to name her.
But names like that ceased being cute for Rail about the same time she stopped wanting to dress up in pink and ribbons, and she would refuse to answer to anything but Abigail.
Her parents had a couple of years to get used to that, to make peace with it, before their daughter took it a step further and threw out her Christened name, and started writing Rail on her schoolbooks, spray-painting it on walls, screaming it over thumping music on Saturday nights.
Sometimes she thinks it’s time to change it again. Sometimes she thinks she’ll call herself Off. And when her parents give her that pained look, as if she’s broken their hearts all over again and ask, “But darling, why?” she’ll jut her chin at them and say, “You’re both so dense.”
“That’s your special song. It’s just for you, isn’t it, Scott’s special song because you’re…so…happy!”
Back in the living room, Rail watches as Rachel holds the receiver of a toy phone to the baby’s ear and grins as he claps his hands clumsily and gurgles with evident delight.
“Oh yes,” the mother coos, “Baby loves his twinkles!”
Rachel laughs. “He really does.” She looks into the baby’s face. “Reckon you’re gonna be a pop start when you’re older, sing songs and boogie, make all the girls swoon, aren’t ya.”
The mother laughs and turns to Rail. “What do you think, Rail?” she asks brightly. “Do we have a future Justin Bieber on our hands?”
“Mum,” Rachel says, “Rail doesn’t like Justin Bieber, she’s not a six year old.”
The mother frowns. “I know, honey, I’m just saying.”
Rail cringes. How ridiculous. Is this her life if she stays in Parkdale? Best friends with this girl, who had seemed the best of a bad bunch in school but now is doting over her baby brother?
Rail’s hand curls over her phone in her blazer pocket. A real phone, not a toy, not like the one the baby is currently trying to cram into his mouth, and it would be real easy to text her father now, get him to come early. She can make an excuse, anything will do. Christ, she’ll feign appendicitis to get out of this goody-goody house.
‘What kind of music do you like, Rail?” the mother asks.
Nothing you’ve ever heard of, Rail thinks to herself. She shrugs. “All kinds.”
“I’ve got music on my phone,” the mother says, “I know you girls like to listen to music when you’re doing your homework. It’s mostly Disney songs, though, the baby loves them.” She give Rail an appraising look. “Maybe you’re too old for Frozen and Moana, but some of the girls in Rachel’s class still like it.” She looks to Rachel. “You had that Disney sleepover, honey, remember?”
Rachel blushes. “Mum, that was eons ago!”
Her mother shrugs. “Feels like yesterday.” Her eyes get a faraway look and she says, “All the girls came dressed as their favourite princess. We had two Belle’s didn’t we, honey.” She smiles. “Do you remember?”
“Rail doesn’t want to hear about Disney sleepovers, Mum,” says Rachel, laughing. “She’s not in primary school.”
The mother nods. “I know, of course.” She smiles at both teenagers. “You both look so smart in your school uniforms.” She gives her daughter a soppy look and says, “I remember when I used to pick you up from primary school, you looked so sweet in your pinafore.” She smiles dreamily. “Remember those frilly ankle socks you insisted on wearing. I always thought they were only for flower girls at weddings but you told me all the other girls wore them and you were right!” She frowns. “Do the primary school girls still wear those socks, Rachel?”
Rachel shrugs, stroking the baby’s head. “No idea.”
Rail goes to her new friend and crouches beside her. “Can we go to your room now?” she whispers. “Your mum’s a bit full-on.”
Rachel giggles and whispers back, “Wait ’til she gets out the photo albums.” And then she looks over to her mother. “Mum, Rail and I’ve got maths homework, we’d better get cracking.”
“Okay, sweetie,” the mother says. “I’ll bring you girls a snack.”
They’re interrupted by an insisted grunt from the baby, and all three females look to see that the phone receiver is lying in his lap.
Rachel cuddles the baby tight and says, “See you soon, Scott, see you at din-dins time.”
The baby giggles and reaches for Rachel’s face, making her laugh as he paws at her skin.
“You just sit on your bum-bum and listen to your twinkles,” Rachel says, shifting him off her lap and passing him the toy phone receiver.
Scott shakes his head and ignores the red plastic, reaching instead for his sister.
Rachel tilts her face at him. “Not like your twinkles?” She puts the receiver to her own ear and Rain wrinkles her nose as she sees the baby drool on the toy.
The baby’s eyes widen as he watches Rachel’s theatrical reaction to the music.
“Oh, what lovely twinkles,” says Rachel in a tone reserved for the youngest of children. “Wanna listen, Scottie?”
She passes him the receiver and the baby grins but rejects the phone once again. All he wants is Rachel, all he wants is a cuddle with his big sister, and for a fleeting moment Rail wonders, what’s that like, to be in Rachel’s lap, to be stroked and petted, and Rail blushes at the very idea. She’s not like that, not one bit, but it doesn’t stop the idea filling her mind before she shakes it away.
“Silly boy,” Rachel says fondly, and then she frowns, tapping the receiver against her chin thoughtfully before her expression lifts and she points the mouth-piece at Rail. “Have a listen, Rail,” says Rachel brightly, and Rail is sure her new friend is talking to her like a she’s a toddler before she understands the tone is for the baby’s benefit.
Rail looks down her nose at the toy and shakes her head. “No thanks.” It’s covered in baby slobber, it’s the very last thing she wants.
“Come on, Rail,” says Rachel pointedly, giving her a nod. “Listen to the twinkles and you can tell Scottie how much you like it.” And then Rachel says softly, between gritted teeth like a ventriloquist, “Just for a second, then we can go to my b-e-d-r-o-o-m.”
“Oh,” Rail says, and now she gets it. Placating the baby is the price of admission, the only way Rachel will let them go upstairs.
She sighs and takes the receiver gingerly between her thumb and forefinger, holding it to her ear.
At first there’s nothing, no sound, and Rail opens her mouth to say as much, and then she understands, it’s all just pretend, it’s just a game, this piece of plastic has no real music, and then she understands something quite different.
There is music, faint but it’s there, and she’ll have to clamp the receiver to her ear to hear it.
She won’t do that, she won’t let that drool-coated, germ-infested plastic touch her face.
A moment later, Rail is doing just that, and it’s disgusting, she’ll get a cold or something worse from the little brat, but she’s pressing the phone to her ear anyway, because she’s been promised a reward.
It’s the music that tells her about the reward. Impossible but true, impossible but Gospel, the music tells her to listen.
Rail closes her eyes and hears the twinkles, and they’re not for stupid babies, they’re for pretty teenage girls, they’re just for her, and they’re better than any band, any download she’s ever heard.
Rail listens, imagining the club that played music like this, it would be sold-out every night, it would be packed and buzzing, and no one would need drugs or booze, the music would be enough.
Because doesn’t this feel like a few puffs on her special cigarette? Does this feel like so much more than taking the edge off?
In fact, as Rail listens to the twinkles, she understands that this music isn’t for going out and being bad, it’s for staying in and being good, it’s for home, being home with family, a family like the one she’s with right now. Isn’t that lucky?
Rail nods her head, answering the phone’s question. She can sit right here, she can sit on her bum-bum, she can listen to the twinkles because it’s just right for girls like here.
She smiles, humming along, the receiver still jammed against her ear, and she agrees with the phone, with the twinkles, that this would be just the thing at the primary school disco. All the girls can wear their best dresses and dance to the music, so maybe it is going out music after all, but not for silly grown-ups or scary teenagers, only for good girls, good little girls like Rail.
After a moment, after forever, Rail feels a hand on her shoulder and she opens her eyes to find Rachel looking expectantly at her.
“Good twinkles, huh?” asks Rachel. “Good for babies?”
Rail blinks. Babies? She’s not a baby, she’s a…No, Rachel didn’t mean her, she was talking about her brother.
Rail looks at the baby, wearing blue overalls with a grinning, remarkably friendly dinosaur on the bib and a four-letter word on top.
It’s not spelled correctly, but then again, babies can’t read anyway, and the idea makes Rail giggle uproariously, and she giggles even harder when the baby smiles and laughs open-mouthed in response.
What’s it like? Rail wonders, to be so small, to be so dependent on everyone else? It must be weird, when everyone is so much bigger, when they do everything for you. And then Rail thinks, the baby’s sister and mother look at him so sweetly, talk to him so kindly, like he’s the centre of the universe.
And for a split-second, Rail is jealous and then she blinks in surprise, in disgust, at holding the drool-covered red phone receiver so close to her face.
“I feel a bit sick,” lies Rail, dropping the red toy, a moment before she realises it’s true. She does feel funny. Dizzy.
She looks down at her shoes, looking lost and orphaned by her feet. She must have kicked them off, although she can’t remember doing so.
There are other things she can’t remember, although when she tries to think of them, she laughs again at the idea – it’s impossible, isn’t it, to remember what you’ve forgotten? – and she laughs and then she feels suddenly so cold that she starts shivering.
“Oh dear,” Rachel’s mother says, “Are you poorly?”
She gets up from her chair and when she offers Rail a hand, Rail takes it, nodding, giving up control and letting Rachel’s mother lead her from the living room.
“My shoes,” says Rail weakly.
“Don’t worry about that,” Rachel’s mother replies, “Rachel will look after them, won’t you honey.”
They both look back to find Rachel nodding and giving Rail a sweet smile, fluttering her fingers in a wave that seems both childish and flirtatious at the same time, before Rachel turns her attention back to the baby.
Freezing, teeth chattering, Rail follows Rachel’s mother into the hallway , and she pulls her blazer around her, wondering at how the sleeves swamp over her hands, and then producing a belch so loud it almost startles her to tears.
“Suh-suh-sorry!” she says, her face reddening at her shivering stutter and high pitch of her voice, and then gaping in horror as her school skirt falls from her waist and puddles down around her feet.
“Goodness!” Rachel’s mother exclaims, but it sounds more like a story-book voice than real concern. “Let’s get you upstairs so you can have a little lie-down, sweetie. I think you just got over-excited.”
Over-exited? Like a toddler?
But Rail agrees mutely, not trusting her mouth to not embarrass her again, stepping out of the skirt, looking at her tights that have bagged around her legs without falling down. They go upstairs, and Rail is glad of the mother’s hand, large and confident around hers.
She just needs a little lie-down, just like Rachel’s mother said. She has had an exciting day.
They walk along the landing and Rail almost laughs at the incongruity of her blazer, looking more like a funny dress than a coat, reaching to her knees.
They pass one room and Rail looks in to see the baby’s nursery, and for a moment Rail is sure that’s their destination, that the mother is about to undress her and put her in a nappy, stick a dummy in her mouth and place her in the baby’s cot. What’s even weirder is that Rail is sure she wouldn’t protest, she wouldn’t do anything but gurgle and kick her feet like a real baby.
“Here we are,” says Rachel’s mother gently, steering Rail into the next bedroom. “You can lie down on Rachel’s bed, honey.”
Rail doesn’t reply, her teeth too busy chattering. She doesn’t protest as the mother undresses her like a small child, removing the baggy blazer, the baggy everything, leaving her naked and exposed until Rachel’s mother pulls the duvet over her, tucking her in at the sides.
“There,” she says, “Feeling warmer now?”
Rail nods. She’s not shivering any more.
“Snug as a bug?” ask the mother sweetly.
Rail smiles. Just like Daddy…Dad used to say after reading her bedtime story. Mum was the best at bath-time but Dad told the best stories because the story always had a little girl called Rail in it. Until she got older, Rail thought her father was magic.
“Okay, sweetie, close your eyes and have a little nap.” Rachel’s mother puts the back of her hand to Rail’s forehead. “Yes, I think you just need a little lie down and then you’ll be right as rain. I’ll call your mummy and daddy, let them know, okay?”
Rail nods, blinking heavily. She almost tells Rachel’s mother that her phone is in her blazer, that the number is in her contacts. But she doesn’t bother, she’s too sleepy to bother. Rachel’s mother can work all that out, that’s what grown-ups do. All Rail needs to do is have a little lie down. She looks up at the mother’s smiling face and then she closes her eyes.
She’ll be fine after a little nap. She’ll be right as rain.