by Charlotte Williams
I sat on the desk in our room. The bright yellow curtains were pulled back, pillars of fading light falling over my round, youthful face, a sheen of sweat speckling my skin. I wasn’t used to the temperature in France. Even in the evening, it was too hot for comfort.
Robert was playing football with his friends by the coaches, parked in the shade of the sports academy we were staying in. I’d never seen such old buildings. The stone was bleached grey under the scorching sun, gargoyles balanced on the rooftop. Two long blocks in an L shape formed the main dormitories, while my friends and I were placed in two circular buildings tucked away into the treeline of the surrounding woods.
The drivers shouted at them to move away in case they smashed a window. Robert and his friends didn’t care. Laughter rang through the air as they darted back and forth in their teams, goals hastily constructed out of water bottles and balled-up jumpers.
It was our first proper trip since starting secondary school. Three-hundred Year Seven students had crossed the English Channel on a ferry four days prior, each excited for what the week ahead held. Some were looking forward to seeing the Bayeux Tapestry, while others couldn’t contain their joy at visiting Mont-Saint-Michel. Others were just happy to be away from home.
I didn’t care where I was so long as he was there too.
By the end of the week, I’d have asked him to be my boyfriend.
“Do you like him?” Grace asked from her perch on my bed. “You know, do you really like him?”
I kept my back to my friends. The color of my rosy cheeks didn’t show in the reflection on the glass. “I think so.”
“Does he like you?” Emily ran a brush through her hair, working out the tangles that had formed while we were on the beach earlier.
I shrugged. “I don’t know…maybe.”
Sophie stopped packing her bag, came up behind me, and peered over my shoulder. “Have you even spoken to him?”
We didn’t need words, though. Our connection was stronger than that. We’d never had more than a handful of conversations during classes. We were put in a group together in Drama for several weeks. It was the only subject I hated. Before our group was due to perform, I approached Miss Dowling. It was difficult to breathe, I felt sick, my body flushed with heat. It was hard to contain my tears.
“I can’t do it,” I said, pulling her to the side while everyone else practiced. “I’m too scared. Please don’t make me do it.”
She showed me no sympathy. “Sometimes you have to do things in life you that don’t want to do. You are going to perform, Charlotte. I don’t care how afraid you are.”
Tears flowed freely. The black curtains were drawn around the room, the lights went down, and the spotlight went up. I was blinded by its brightness. It was a blessing in disguise because I couldn’t see the rest of the class watching me. Frozen with fear, all I could do was cry. My lines disintegrated from my memory.
Robert managed to improvise, his personality bursting across the stage, captivating our audience’s attention. Everyone forgot about me. Drama was his best subject; he just had a talent for it.
Another time, in Geography, we’d been put in a group of four, tasked to make a poster on mountain ranges. I offered to do some illustrations. He complimented me on them.
We were in the same French class and were assigned seats next to each other. I’d show him the answers to any questions we didn’t know. I eventually got moved to the other side of the classroom because I wasn’t paying enough attention to the teacher.
I’d never spoken to a boy that much before. It was like a thousand butterflies were contained in my stomach whenever I was around him, their wings beating frantically inside me. It wasn’t just that, but also the looks that drew me in. Sometimes I’d catch him staring at me while we were working… Perhaps he was only looking because I stared at him so much.
It didn’t matter. There was something there. I knew it.
“We go back home tomorrow,” Grace reminded me. “You said you were going to ask him out before we left. You don’t have much time.”
I rested my cheek against the warm glass. A butterfly fluttered past. “I was thinking of doing it at the disco later.”
“That might work,” Emily said, chucking the hairbrush onto my white pillow.
“It could be really nice,” Grace agreed.
I knew it would be nice; I’d planned it all out in my head. The disco was being held in a small hall in the woods just up from our accommodation. It was going to be perfect. Flashing lights illuminate the darkness, people dancing to the blaring music as I seek Robert out in the crowd. His eyes widen when he sees me standing there in a dress, or maybe some make-up.
“Can we go and talk somewhere private?” I ask.
“Sure,” he says.
We go outside, walking away from the hall a little, but not too far in case the teachers come searching for us. We sit on a fallen tree as fireflies dance through the air, swirling around us like falling stars. The wind filters through the branches, the leaves whispering sweet melodies. An owl hoots overhead.
“I don’t know if you know, but…” I tuck a strand of hair behind my ear. “I really like you.”
Silence lingers between us for a while. I can’t look at him. The breeze caresses my cheeks, the coolness embracing me as my heart thunders in my chest.
“Say something,” I whisper, unable to wait any longer.
“I like you too,” he says. Our eyes finally meet as he takes my hand. “I…I think I love you.”
Then we lean in, our lips parting, growing closer and closer until…
“Well.” Grace glanced at her purple watch. “We ought to get ready. We’re supposed to be there at eight.”
Grace and I arrived later than everyone else. In a state of pure excitement, I’d misjudged my step and fallen down a flight of stairs while speaking to Miss Edwards, the head French teacher. She instructed me to see the first-aider.
Mr. Durram walked us up to the hall. He’d been enjoying a few drinks outside of our accommodation, a small group of teaching assistants gathered around on fold-out picnic chairs, but we pestered them until he agreed. Night had just settled, and neither of us knew where we were going.
I peered past the trees, scanning my surroundings in search of the perfect place to have my conversation with Robert. Everything blurred at the edges, the growing darkness contorting the landscape through a shadowed veil. A creature loomed through the thicket on my left.
“Oh my god,” I said, my heart tightening as though it was gripped in a vice. “Is that… Is that a bear?”
“What?” Mr. Durram stopped.
“There!” I pointed.
He sighed. “Charlotte, it’s a shrub. They don’t have bears in France. Where are your glasses?”
“Oh, I forgot them,” I lied. I’d left my glasses behind intentionally; they made me ugly. I wanted to look as pretty as possible when I spoke to Robert.
Perhaps you should have worn them. At this rate, you won’t even be able to see him among the crowd.
“Did you forget your common sense as well?” Grace said, covering her mouth to try and hide her amusement.
“I’m nervous.” I elbowed her in the side.
Mr. Durram carried on walking. “What’s there to be nervous about?”
“Oh, nothing,” I mumbled, my head lowered.
Grace couldn’t contain herself. “She’s going to ask out a boy,” she said with a giggle.
“Oooh,” Mr. Durram cooed. “Which boy?”
I glared at Grace, shaking my head. Don’t you dare.
“He’s in our tutor group,” Grace said.
Mr. Durram scratched his chin, his jawline coated with stubble. “The ginger one?”
“The loud one?”
“The tall one?”
“The small one?”
“That’s enough,” I said. “We’re not going to tell you, so you’ll just have to wait and see.”
The trees around us parted, the path winding up to the grey building at the top of the hill, broken branches and showers of leaves covering the roof. Yellow lights flickered through the frosted glass. An echo of voices drifted through the entrance: the heavy oak door was propped open with a small wooden wedge.
Mr. Durram shoved his hands into his jean pockets. “Well, I’ll leave you guys here, unless you’d like me to escort you both inside.” His lips twitched. “Can you see it, Char? It’s just up there. You won’t get lost, will you?”
“Piss off.” I linked arms with Grace, hauling her up the trail. “I’m not blind.”
“Have a good night, girls,” he called after us. “Oh, and Char?”
I glanced over my shoulder.
“Good luck, yeah?”
“Thank you.” I waved. “Try not to get eaten by any bears on your way back.”
After he’d disappeared into the shadows, Grace turned to me, dropping her voice to a whisper. “He’s so handsome. Don’t you think he’s handsome?”
I grimaced. “God, no. He’s like thirty-something.” My eyes widened. “You don’t fancy him, do you?”
It was Grace’s turn to blush.
We were bickering about how weird her attraction to our teaching assistant was when we entered the hall. I stopped in my tracks, half-blinded by the bright, fluorescent bulbs. Everyone stared at us. There were no colorful lights, no music, no dancing. The students were divided into five groups; one was larger than the rest, the pupils sat with their backs against three of the four walls.
“I thought you said this was going to be a disco,” I said under my breath.
“I thought it was!” Grace glanced around. “Well, that’s what Emma told me.”
I rolled my eyes. “Why did you believe Emma? She’s a certified liar. She told Jessica that she had five black Labradors, but Ella went to her house, and saw she had two Golden Retrievers and a chocolate Labrador.”
Miss Edwards walked over, her long black hair falling out of its bun. “I didn’t think we’d see you this evening, girls.” She glanced at my swollen thumb. “It’s nice of you to join us.”
“Where’s the disco?” Grace asked.
Some of the boys near us snickered. “Disco? What are we, in Year Six?”
Grace crossed her arms over her chest. “You can laugh, Colin, but at least I’m not crying about it like you did when you lost a game of musical statues at leaving disco last year.”
His face turned bright red as laughter exploded around him. “Why’d you have to bring that up?”
They’d always had a difficult relationship. I’d been there when they got married on the amphitheater in Year Four, the red canopy suspended above reflecting their love for one another. They swapped Haribo rings and promised to keep them forever. Grace’s lasted two weeks. Colin ate his before the bell rang at the end of the day.
That was the first crack in their relationship. On a Friday afternoon, Colin hosted a game of Deal or No Deal in the classroom, using the lockers as the boxes. I always wanted to be picked as a contestant, but I was never one of the lucky ones. We had to call him ‘Noel Edmonds’ during the game. Grace was his glamorous assistant, and we had to call her ‘Mrs. Noel’. Even the teachers loved it.
During one game, Grace stood up, ready for her cue. He told her to sit back down; she wasn’t part of it that day. It wasn’t long after that that they announced their divorce.
“Enough,” Miss Edwards said, shifting uncomfortably on her feet. “There’s no disco. I think someone made up a silly little rumor, although there’s no harm done. We’re just playing games. You don’t have to join in if you don’t want to.”
We spied our friends by the wall opposite us. I noticed that Robert was in a group partaking in the activities. I didn’t want him to see me running; I was extremely conscious of my weight.
“I think we’ll give it a miss,” I said.
Miss Edwards nodded. “Perhaps that’s best.” Her eyes lingered on my hand. “We don’t want any more accidents today.”
We crossed the room as the groups started playing handball, and joined our friends.
My sister prodded my thumb with her light blue Nintendo stylus. “What did they say?” Emily asked.
My lip turned downwards like I’d bitten into something sour. “Mr. West put some ice on it, but he doesn’t think it’s broken.” I held up the digit in question. “How can you even tell? It’s like an egg. It’s definitely broken.”
Emily nodded. “Aren’t they going to do anything?”
I shook my head. “Mr. West said that we’ll be back in England soon, but they’re taking Mia to the hospital right now because she twisted her ankle playing volleyball.”
“They could’ve taken you with her,” Sophie said. The others agreed.
“They didn’t have enough spare teachers to go with me, apparently.”
“Which is a huge lie,” Grace said. “All of the teaching assistants are outside our block drinking beer.”
Sophie played with her hair, unwrapping her braid, then winding the strands back together. “At least you can speak to Robert now that you’re not going to the hospital.”
“Shh!” I looked at the girls next to us, making sure they hadn’t heard. “I don’t know if I will.”
Emily looked up from her Nintendo, her Animal Crossing character standing by the river, waiting for a fish to take the bait. “I knew you’d bottle it.”
“I’m not bottling anything. This isn’t exactly how I imagined the evening would play out,” I said.
“Well, the night is still young,” Grace said. “You’ll find the right opportunity, and it’ll be perfect. You’ll see.”
The butterflies fluttered faster and faster in my stomach as the hours passed by. I couldn’t see Robert. People’s features blurred together, their defined edges smudged by my poor vision.
Those of us on the outskirts of the hall were outcasts; the teams consisted of the popular people. It was as if an invisible wall divided us. Even though we were only eleven, there was already an established hierarchy, a social standing set in stone by some deity none of us knew.
They played handball, benchball, and dodgeball. The rest of us talked. Sam put three Britney Spears songs on his Walkman, which we sang along to until one of the popular girls complained that we had ‘no taste’. Her friends kicked up a fuss, and we had to turn the music off. Sam argued that we had to listen to a hundred pairs of feet thundering through the hall. We decided to huddle around in a circle, with the phone in the centre, the songs contained within a ring of friends.
At ten o’clock, Miss Edwards announced that it was time to head back to our accommodation for the night. We’d be expected in bed by eleven-thirty, half an hour later than usual. I guessed that, as it was our last night in Normandy, they were feeling generous.
It was now or never.
We began filing out of the hall. My sister dropped her Nintendo stylus, and it took us ages to find it. I kept looking around, waiting for Robert to pass by. Only a handful of students remained; he wasn’t one of them.
“What are you going to say to him?” Grace asked as we headed back down the path, our arms linked, beams of torchlight marking our way.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I think I’m just going to be honest with him. I’ll say that I’ve liked him for a really long time, and I can’t keep my feelings in any longer. I hope he feels the same.”
“He will,” Grace reassured me. “I’ve seen the way he looks at you during lessons. Besides, what’s not to like?”
“Right.” I squeezed her hand, reassuring myself rather than her, then let go. “Wish me luck!”
“Good luck,” my friends said.
Hurrying down the path, I darted past other students, searching for his face among the masses. Some people shot me odd looks or asked if I was okay. I felt sick. Those butterflies in my stomach were churning up a hurricane with their wings. I’d never felt so nervous before.
The torchlight faded behind me, an orange lamp emitting a dull glow at the end of the path, the lights illuminating the sports academy polluting the sky. I couldn’t see any stars.
I heard his voice in front of me.
It took a second for my vision to adjust. I blinked, making sure my eyes hadn’t deceived me.
He was holding hands with Amelia. They slowed down as he took off his hoodie, and gave it to her. Their friends gathered around, cooing sweet words, telling them how happy they were. They looked like the perfect couple, they said. They knew it was going to happen on the trip because they had all heard how much he liked her.
I froze. The butterflies turned to stone, dropping in the pit of my stomach with thuds so loud I could hear them ringing in my ears.
“Kiss her,” their friends urged. “Go on, kiss her!”
He gave her a peck on the lips. Everyone cheered with excitement.
Grace, Emily, and Sophie caught up with me. I didn’t need to explain why I was rooted to the spot, or why tears filled my eyes; they saw everything.
It was a silly dream anyway, imagining that we could be together. He was popular, funny, smart, and athletic. She was popular, funny, smart, and athletic. I was unpopular, too quiet to make any sort of impression on anyone, too shy to ever say anything to those who intimidated me; that was everyone. I wasn’t athletic. I liked food, and it showed. I wasn’t particularly smart.
If I was smart, I would’ve thought things through. I would’ve known that it was never meant to be.
“Oh, Charlotte,” Grace said, wrapping her arms around me. “I’m so sorry.”
“Did you know?” I asked them, eyes wide as I pleaded for the truth.
“No,” they said. “We had no idea.”
I walked out of the woods in silence. They kept telling me how sorry they were, how they thought we’d work well together, how I hadn’t misread any of the signs. They linked their arms with mine.
“Do you want to stay out here for a little while?” Sophie asked. “It’s our last night here, after all. Don’t let this ruin it.”
I shook my head. “I have some last-minute things to pack,” I lied, “but I’ll come back out when I’m done, I promise.”
Grace offered me a small, sad smile. “Do you want me to come with you?”
“I’ll be fine,” I said. “You guys stay out here. It’s our last night, after all. Don’t let me ruin it.”
I headed back into our dormitory, trying to slip past the teaching assistants still gathered on the grass, a handful of chairs left unoccupied. Mr. Durram spotted me. He called me over, a half-empty bottle of beer in his hand.
“Well?” He took a sip. “Why aren’t you with your boyfriend?”
I wrapped my arms around myself. “He’s not my boyfriend.”
“You didn’t ask him?”
He tapped his silver ring engraved with a Celtic symbol against the dark glass. “Why not? Go and ask him now.”
“I was going to ask him, but he’s already asked someone else.”
Mr Durram peered into the distance. “Ah, right. Yep, I can see them.” He took another swig. “There are more important things than relationships. You have your whole life ahead of you. You’ll forget this ever happened in a year or two.”
“I hope you’re right.”
“Don’t dwell on it too much, Char. You’re better than that.”
“I’ll try not to.”
He didn’t know it, but that was who I was by nature. An overthinker. Someone who dwelled on things far more than anybody ever should.
I disappeared inside, ascending up the winding staircase that, only a few hours ago, I’d fallen down and, contrary to Mr. West’s expert opinion, had resulted in me breaking my thumb. I focused on the pain, trying not to think of my utter humiliation.
Instead of going into my room, I went out onto the bridge that connected the two circular buildings we stayed in. The cool air kissed my cheeks. An owl hooted in the trees behind me. I rested my elbows on the railings, watching my fellow pupils down below.
My friends were speaking to other people, chatting away about the trip, wondering what we’d be doing in the morning before heading back to the ferry. Someone pulled a timetable out of their pocket. They showed each other photos they’d taken, promising to send them over messenger once we were home.
Everyone was united in their excitement of returning back to the UK, to their loved ones. Nobody wanted to go back to school. For the first time since moving to secondary school, when we were all in the same scary boat, everyone seemed equal. I couldn’t differentiate between faces. Everyone was just human.
I felt like an outcast more than ever.
I didn’t know it at the time, but it foreshadowed events still to come. I’d end up feeling more and more like an outsider, especially after the bullying started, and I’d eventually drop out of school. My friends would no longer be my friends. I’d become completely isolated from the only world I’d ever known. My self-confidence, as well as my mental health, would be left in tatters. I’d have to start again, have to build my life back together piece by piece, dealing with the effect these people had on me for the rest of my life.
I didn’t know it at the time.
I felt a twinge of sadness in my stomach, seeing them all so happy, enjoying the last evening of the trip. I stayed out there for a while, my distant presence entirely unnoticed, watching over them as though I was a ghost.
When everyone started heading back to their dorms, I slipped inside and began packing my things.
I was ready to go home.
About Charlotte Williams
Charlotte Williams’ writing is her life’s essence. It’s her bright, burning, blazing passion. Having a sister named Emily, she’d like to consider herself as a modern-day Bronte sister who didn’t make the original cut. Williams is a University student studying Creative and Professional Writing at Exeter College. As a child, she would only watch The Lord of the Rings when Gollum was on-screen, but now it’s her favorite work of fantasy. Her three favorite characters from the US The Office are Dwight, Mose, and Creed. She writes because there are too many stories in her head, and to stay sane, she needs to release them into the world.