This story about a bullied schoolgirl was written a number of years ago now and was supposed to have been part of a larger set of interlinking short stories about a fictional town called Northden. In the end, only a few others got written.
If you want my honest opinion, the worst thing you can do living in a town like Northden is take anyone or anything for granted. It used to upset me whenever journalists visited here for whatever reason — and God knows the reason would usually be trivial. Normally it would be because a band were kicking off their first tour in years at the Guildhall, or because a famous sports celebrity had settled down in the smart “village” area just on the edge of the suburbs. I'd pick up the paper or magazine the article had ended up in and skim over the copy quickly. My eyes would jolt over the word 'Northden' in the mass of print like I'd unexpectedly seen my own name on an OBE list, my heart would jump with local pride, and then I'd read the usual words of condemnation.
'Northden is full of retired government workers... empty shops... an ugly garish army base... a town where rubbish chaotically floats down the quiet streets but nothing chaotically exciting happens...'
The journalist in question would normally have spent a few hours in total in my town before considering themselves fit to become national expert on its roots, the local culture, and the mind-numbing boredom. What they never understand is that boredom creates events and action, small pockets of explosive activity in different regions at unexpected moments. Every so often you can hear the action swell up around the town as you walk around. Blood normally follows. Most people would probably view that as being a very negative thing, but I just accept it as a certainty these days. Car crashes happen on motorways due to impatience, carelessness, and the armoured self-centeredness of the environment (and sometimes alcohol), and blood gets spilt in towns like this for similar reasons.
Then there were the town freaks. Londoners would never pay them attention as they swanned around taking notes. Where they saw a street full of rubbish and no action with only a small park to boast about, there was actually a street with a park which saw one of Northden's best known freaks seated on the nearby bench. They wouldn't see this, of course, because in London nobody's a freak. How terrible it must be to have your sense of perspective and your opinions of others snatched from you by cosmopolitan areas — to not notice people's characteristics, to see all faces as expressionless, straight faced eggs in large crowds. I'm a great believer in the value of freakishness, the need for recognising the character in the community. Which brings me on to my subject matter, Celeste.
I think Celeste was born to hippy parents, the kind you don't get very often in Northden. I know they weren't rich, though, and led some sort of alternative lifestyle, because I went to school with her, and parents in any other position in life wouldn’t have dressed her the way they did. She turned up as the new child one spring day, and I remember the teacher saying something really naff like 'the buds are opening up now and bringing new leaves, and so we too have got somebody new to look after'. The day sticks in my mind because they put her on my table, and I remember being sat next to this girl my brattish mind told me I wanted nothing to do with. I turned and had a good look at her. Her face was white, like she'd just returned from the toilet to be sick — a colour which contrasted awkwardly with a garish tie-dye top which hung loosely around her body. She also wore these bright little stockings and a little pair of scuffed brown sandals which we all knew were forbidden by our social groups even if the school was happy to let them through the door. She was a large girl as well — not fat, but almost there, that uncomfortable teetering amber distance between 'slightly above average' and 'overweight' marked on doctor's charts. You could picture a doctor pointing at a millimetre thick line between acceptable weight and obesity and saying 'Well, I suppose that's OK, but be careful' every time she went for a check up. I tried to ignore her as best I could — that thing your schoolfriends say about 'catching the lurgee' from some undesirable person, well that's not untrue, you know. If you associate with them too much, everything about them just rubs off on you, and even kids who are unaware can smell it on you. It becomes the way you walk, the way you talk, the rate you breathe at... God, I wasn't going to let her infect me like that.
It goes without saying she had a hard time straight away. If the boys were just amused by her, the girls loathed her with a passion. Sandra was the girl to be afraid of in our year, towering over the rest and being chunky in build – a buffalo reincarnated as a schoolgirl. She stormed over to Celeste first thing at playtime and grabbed her arm, dragging her off the concrete over the playing field of mud.
'New here, are ya?' she asked, as if the question were really necessary.
Celeste really looked ill now, as if she was about to throw up for real.
'Yes, yes', she stammered.
'Yes yes? Is that what they do where you come from, answer questions twice?' Sandra demanded. 'Besides wear sandals? Answer me, is it?'
'No', Celeste replied, nervously. I realised at this point that these were the first words she'd said all day.
'Oh, so it's me who's special, then? I see. Are you taking the piss? Are you taking the piss out of me, answering my questions twice?'
'No', Celeste replied. I was getting closer, and could make out the first traces of red, another colour, on her pale arm where Sandra was squeezing it. I couldn't help but think that it would probably be hurting me if I was on the receiving end. I winced for her, but tried to make my sympathy discreet.
'Seems like a fucking funny thing to do to me.'
Celeste flinched in horror at the word 'fucking', as if she'd never heard it before in her life. A crowd of girls had gathered, and they were now openly giggling at Celeste, laughing at the fact she was nearly crying with fear, giggling at the fact that Sandra would leave them well alone and instead pick on this strange girl who answered questions twice and looked completely wrong for this school. Life was looking up, and they couldn't help but feel good at this spectacle.
Sandra finally let go of Celeste and watched her drop to the floor into a mud puddle, which caused ripples of laughter growing into waves of derision from the crowd.
'Now you listen to me, girl,' Sandra warned her, 'If that's the way you wanna talk to me, you're now gonna talk to me that way all the time. Is that clear? Every time I ask you a question, you answer it twice, because I'm special, right? I deserve one more answer than everybody else. Is that clear?'
'Yes,' replied Celeste again.
'That's not fucking right!' spat Sandra, nudging Celeste hard with her feet . 'What do you say?'
'Yes, yes', Celeste replied again, weakly, knowing what the response would be.
The crowd of girls laughed again, exaggeratedly this time with piercing squeals, as if it was the punchline to the best joke they'd ever heard.
'Yes, yes', Celeste replied, more certainly this time. There were a few more giggles and Sandra walked away, her job done, and everyone lost interest. Celeste was still sat there in the mud puddle, hiccuping wildly and trying to fight back tears. You had to admire her ridiculous attempt at dignity. I don't know where the teachers were — I saw Mr Smythe, the teacher who used to be a vicar, wandering around at the other end of the playground rubbing his beard thoughtfully. I felt sure he must have seen something going on, but he was doing a very good job of pretending he hadn't if that were so. They were like that, the teachers there. Overworked and out for anything that gave them a quiet life. You learned not to depend on them pretty quickly.
So it went with Celeste all throughout school. Sandra was the main protagonist, of course — she'd constantly hammer home the fact that Celeste was ugly, and I'd look at Sandra's grey eyes with a wall of scowled flesh, her dark ash-like freckles smeared all over her face, her sheer size all capped off with this mousy shock of unruly thin hair and actually think she was the uglier of the two. This, however, was the unspeakable fact. Everybody knew it, I'm sure even Sandra must have realised, but nobody said it.
I think Celeste's parents must have complained eventually, because our teacher Mrs Rosegold started keeping her in at playtimes. So many girls were picking on her that it seemed like the sensible solution to the problem — she'd gone beyond being a victim and had now become a problem, travelling all around the school's circular political spectrum and colliding into the area labelled 'detention'. Looking back, if the stuffy Mrs Rosegold had met Celeste's messy, hippy parents with their horn-rimmed glasses and colourful beads, I'm sure she'd have had a hard time taking them seriously anyway. The girl was doomed.
Sat next to me during lessons, she'd started sucking hard on her thumb, the plumpness of her cheeks being pulled inward, and rocking backwards and forwards like a baby. Mrs Rosegold made no comment. She didn't even ask her to stop. I wish she had done, it would have made life much easier for me — it was kind of distracting.
I was relieved when she went to a different secondary school to me after that year. There was a darkness about her that I felt was seeping into me, having her around all the time. I rarely spoke to her, but I never picked on her either, and that was the closest she got to acceptance there. I could sense her approval of me, and it made me feel ill. It made me feel as if I knew that I was like her in some way, and it was only a matter of time before I was found out. You don't need that sucking in the same oxygen as you all the time — that reminder of how fallible you are.
After I left, I noticed her about town a lot, and she seemed much the same. She daren't smile at me or acknowledge my existence, but I paid attention to hers. I found her as curious as everybody else did, though perhaps not in such a spiteful way. Then all of a sudden — and I can't put my finger on the exact point — I stopped seeing her around. I assumed she'd moved house again. Her parents wouldn't have been the sort who could stay in one place for very long, I don't suppose. I was wrong, though.
At a club evening at Alligators two years ago, I became aware of this tall, slender looking girl staring at me, smiling. Her lips were pouting and glossy, like they'd been cut out from a magazine cover, the sheen reflecting all the club lights. Her hair was now black, a vacuum which emphasised the soft paleness of her skin. Her tits were large against her tight black top, and as she strolled over to me I noticed her nipples showing beneath the material. My heart, unsurprised and unexcited by most things, did a strange, cartwheeling leap.
'Don't you remember me?' she asked, smiling at me flirtatiously.
'No, no', I replied in shock.
She laughed at this, obviously finally glad that she could have the same effect on others — for it was Celeste. She spelt out the fact to me.
'I'm CELESTE. You must remember. You sat next to me at school, yes?'
'Uh.. of course!' I said. I was trying to take in the facts. This was all too confusing.
Did she want to dance? Was it now socially acceptable for us to do so? I gathered from the looks she was getting from other men that it must be.
'Thank you,' she laughed. 'I just wanted to say hello, that's all'.
'Er... would you like to dance?' I asked. I just had to try my luck.
'Sorry no,' she giggled. 'I'm with my boyfriend Andy, and he wouldn't like that. But thanks for asking'.
She simpered to herself and walked back over to Andy, stood waiting for her over at the far end of the club. I'd never hated her before, but I did now. I was proud of my vow of silence in the classroom with her, proud of the fact that I ignored her when everyone else was keen to draw attention to her. Now that she actually wanted attention, and had seen fit to rub my nose in her new status and highlight my own inadequacies, I just wish I hadn't bothered.
I knew her boyfriend Andy, and he was a much-sought after man by the women of the town. He had a huge, toned muscular body and a terrifying, dominant presence in any room. I used to watch all the petite girls of Northden giggling around him at Alligators, wanting him to take care of them. They knew he would be right to lead them down the streets at night. Rather them than me — he was a raging psycho, to tell you the truth. He was also Celeste's prize, and, I came to learn, she was his. He was dead proud of his girl — the first thing he'd do if he met anyone in the town was tell them about her, and if she was with him he'd divert attention to her as quickly as possible, seeking praise and approval for what he had acquired. He had no brains, that lad, but he knew he had a good thing on his arm and he wanted the world to know. Everyone would see two prizes in a bizarre exchange walking down the street together — the stupid boy with the previously untouchable girl, feeling grateful for each other's appreciation, validating each other with every step. I suppose that must have been a fair substitute for love, that double admiration and shock of success in life.
Celeste must have thought so, anyway. A year later, I bumped into the two of them walking along the High Street, and was horrified by what I saw. Andy had bitter anger on his face like I'd never seen before — a scowl that caused his eyes to be eclipsed by an intruding wall of flesh. He was tugging Celeste along the road impatiently, a Celeste with a bloated face, back to wearing garish, frumpy clothes and a ballooning bulge stretching beneath her dress. She looked ready to burst. I smiled at them both — he looked for all the world as if he was about to hit me, as if I were mocking his very situation, and she went back to her silent self and stared at her shoes. Nothing was said. I felt as if I had told an inappropriate joke or discovered some appalling secret about somebody else's family at a social gathering. They passed me by, and that was that.
I still see Celeste now. She's the figure on the park bench I told you about earlier. To watch her now, she's everything you'd have expected her to have turned into if you knew her at school — her baby is in its pram beside her, often in all weathers, and she sits there and with a free arm she rocks it to sleep. Sometimes, though, she'll suck her thumb and rock herself, rocking, rocking, rocking, her hand pressing hard on her lap as she does so, and I'll wonder how such a child can take care of the baby. The town seem more aware of her now than they were when she turned into Miss Northden. She is the subject of much local gossip and the odd joke, especially among the older housewives who doubt her abilities as a mother. I don't know why she sits in the park, though you can guess for yourself the reasons that are bandied around — mine is my personal favourite, though. I think that once you become the town clown, you're always the clown — the only way you can escape is to cross the border, and all other changes you try to make to your life will only be transitory. You are who you are, and people never forget here. I don't doubt Andy treats her terribly, I'm sure the child was an accident, I'm positive the park is her only private space away from everything that makes her life a misery, but these are all symptoms, not the cause or the main reason.
I do talk to her now, though. Now and again, I see her on the park bench and strike up a few words.
'All right there, Celeste, how's the kid?'
She doesn't say a word, but nods dumbly.
'Ah good. And Andy, how's he?'
She nods again, slower and less sure this time.
'Ah right. Well, I'll catch you later, I suppose'.
She just sits there, staring into the middle distance. Nobody of any importance notices her, but everyone else around here does. That's sort of how it works. That's what life is like, living here.