Close your pretty eyes, p.4
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       Close Your Pretty Eyes, p.4

           Sally Nicholls
 
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  “But what about me?” said Liz. “If I wanted to visit you, how would I know where to come?”

  “You wouldn’t,” I said. “I’d be gone.”

  I had a pretty good time with Liz. It’s tiring living with strangers, always trying to be nice in case they realize how horrible you are really and go off you. I hadn’t realized quite how tiring it was until I had an afternoon off.

  It was nearly seven when we got home. Tea was bubbling on the hob and Jim told me to “run and put your things upstairs – quick.”

  I would have gone round and up the bigger stairs at the other end of the house, but everyone was looking at me, so I had to go up the little creepy servants’ stairs, round the corner where nobody could see me, on to the landing where anyone could be waiting to leap out and grab me, and—

  There was someone there.

  It was a woman. I was absolutely sure of it. I could smell her, this weird old-lady, dry-skin, alcohol-and-tobacco-smell, with coal-smoke, and milk, and something medicine-y behind it. Whoever she was, she was close.

  I froze. Was it my mum? Was it Violet? Could they have found me? My mum did used to say she’d come and find us in our foster homes. She never did it, but this time maybe she had?

  I stayed absolutely still, straining to hear her. She didn’t smell like Violet, and she smelled older than my mum. I waited. There were footsteps coming down the upstairs corridor towards me but I was too scared to move in case she heard me.

  I was in the landing space, hidden from anyone looking up from downstairs. I was completely alone.

  And suddenly I was swept over with that same feeling I’d had when I’d first seen the photograph of the Victorian woman on the landing. A feeling of being small, and alone, and powerless, and living in the house of someone who wanted me to suffer. It made me want to cry, but I was too terrified to make a noise. I just stood there, as the footsteps came closer. Whoever it was came down the corridor, and then the stairs began to creak, as though someone was walking down them towards me. But there was nobody there. The footsteps were empty.

  I tried to open my mouth to scream, but I couldn’t.

  There’s a thing I do when I’m afraid. I took myself out of that place. My body didn’t move, but I hid my mind somewhere far away, somewhere safe.

  When I came back, the woman was gone.

  HOME NUMBER 13

  LIZ

  Liz was what is called a specialist placement. The idea was that I was supposed to live with her for a year and a half, and she was going to teach me how to be a good little girl, and then I’d be all ready to go and be perfect in some other family.

  I moved in with her after my second set of adoptive parents, Dopey Graham and Grumpy Annabel, gave me the boot. I don’t blame Graham and Annabel for dumping me. I was pretty horrible to them. I broke all Grumpy Annabel’s ornaments, and I pissed in her bed, and I threw plates at her, and told her lies, and broke all the toys they gave me, and kicked and bit and hit her. I was surprised they kept me for so long actually. If I’d been my kid, I’d have chucked me in the dustbin months ago. But they were both kind of idiots.

  Dopey Graham was practically crying when he dropped me off.

  “You know we still love you, sweetheart,” he said. “You’ll always be our little girl, whatever happens.”

  “Yeah, whatever,” I said. “Can’t you go now?”

  Dopey Graham looked like I’d punched him.

  “Aren’t you going to miss us?” he said. “Your own mummy and daddy?”

  “You’re not my daddy,” I told him. “And she’s not my mummy. And I never want to see either of you again!”

  “Princess. . .” said Dopey Graham, and then he did start to cry, but I spat at him and ran into the house, where I didn’t have to see him. He and Grumpy Annabel were just like the first set of idiots who wanted to adopt me. They kept saying how much they loved me, but I knew they’d chuck me out in the end. I just knew it.

  I didn’t want to go and live with Liz at first. She was a lady living on her own, and they were always the worst. Violet was a lady on her own, and so was my mum. Also, all the social workers kept going on about how she was going to make me behave and how “you won’t be able to try any of your tricks with her,” so I figured she was probably going to beat me up. I knew from living with Violet and my mum how women made you behave. Cigarette burns, and hitting you, and locking you in the cellar. Not that it ever worked. I was still just as bad with them as I always was.

  Living with Liz was . . . interesting, though. She wasn’t anything like I’d expected. When I told her, “I wish you were dead! I hate you!” she didn’t get angry like my other foster mums did. She just laughed and gave me a hug and said, “Well, I love you!” like she really meant it.

  It was really, really hard to get her angry. Like, the first day I was there, I told her I wasn’t going to eat her stupid food, and she just laughed and said, “All the more for me, then!” and carried on munching happily while I sat there feeling like a fool.

  “What am I going to eat?” I said eventually, and she said, “How about breakfast?”

  If I screamed and threw a fit, she just went and worked in her garden. Once, I followed her outside and started pulling up her plants, and she went straight back inside and locked the door. I pulled up all the vegetables in the garden and stamped on them, and threw the dirt at her window. She left me out there for ages, until it got dark and I got tired of stamping on things. Then, when I was quiet, she let me in and gave me a big bowl of porridge.

  “Aren’t you angry?” I asked. Usually it drove people mad when I broke their stuff. It used to scare my old adoptive mother, Grumpy Annabel. I was eight when I stopped living with her, but I used to scare her all the time.

  “I’ve been watching Match of the Day,” said Liz. “I’ve had a lovely evening.” And I felt tired and sad and lonelier than ever. She didn’t care about me. She didn’t care that I’d been out there all evening in the cold.

  “Maybe next time you can watch too,” she said, and she gave me a hug. I wriggled away.

  “I broke all your stupid plants,” I told her.

  “I know,” she said. “We’ll need to do something about that tomorrow.”

  In my other homes, I could get away with anything, and nobody could punish me. If they told me to say “sorry” or go to my room, I wouldn’t. My first set of adoptive parents got scared of trying to punish me because I used to get so angry when they tried. I used to kick their kid and smash holes in their walls, and in the end they decided it was less hassle not to tell me off. Liz didn’t tell me off either, but she did make me pay. I had to replant her vegetables – all the ones which weren’t dead, anyway – and pay for the ones I’d destroyed by doing stuff for her, like hoovering and mopping and loading the dishwasher.

  “I won’t!” I told her the first time. She just handed me a spade and a pair of gardening gloves and smiled.

  “Take as long as you want, pet,” she said. “I’ll be inside. I might make some fairy cakes.”

  And she just left me there. I stuck my tongue out at her. If she thought I was going to do her stupid gardening, she had another think coming.

  Instead of gardening, I made myself a den in her hedge. I built a roof from old tarpaulin, and dragged in the birdbath for a table. I wrote

  PRIVATE

  OLIVIA’S HOUSE

  DEATH TO ALL INVADERS

  with little pebbles on the earth. It took ages, but I sort of enjoyed it. I pretended it was my house, and I was going to stay there for ever and ever and ever, and make Liz be my slave.

  It was a nice pretend, but it got a bit boring by lunchtime. I thought maybe Liz wouldn’t give me any food, because I’d been bad, but she did. Chicken soup and bread with lots of cheese. She’d made a whole tray of fairy cakes too.

  “Are they for me?” I aske
d.

  “Of course, love,” she said. “We’ll have some when you’ve finished the garden.”

  She wasn’t going to give up on that stupid garden. I slumped further down in my chair.

  “It’s too hard,” I whined, in the baby voice that always worked on my old adoptive father, Dopey Graham. It didn’t work on Liz, though.

  “Off you go!” she said, cheerfully. She was always bloody cheerful.

  I trudged into the garden. I’m not going to do her stupid work, I thought, but somehow the fun had gone out of the fight. It started to get cold. Liz turned the living-room light on, and I could see her in the living room doing something with paper and glitter and card. It looked fun.

  I sat there dribbling earth through my fingers all afternoon. Liz came to fetch me at teatime.

  “I’m not digging your stupid garden,” I told her.

  “That’s OK, pet,” she said, and she gave me another hug. “There’s always tomorrow.”

  She never gave up. In the end, you just got bored and did whatever it was she wanted.

  In most of my other homes, I got to be boss. Liz never let me be boss. In my other homes, it was a big fight.

  “You will do what I tell you!”

  “No, I won’t!”

  The families where I didn’t get to be boss were the ones with people like Violet, who made you stand in a cold shower if you didn’t do as you were told, or put you in the cellar. Liz didn’t do that. But she always made me fix whatever mess I made. And if I was rude to someone, I had to pay them back by doing something nice.

  “But I’m not sorry!” I said, after I called that day’s new social worker a lazy fat cow. “She is a lazy fat cow.”

  “No arguing,” said Liz. She never let me argue. “You’re rude to someone, you make up for it.” And I had to make a SORRY card for the fat cow and send it off to her. Huh.

  It was scary not being the boss. But it was also nice, because it was hard work being in charge, and sometimes – maybe for half an hour or so – I could forget that I had to be, and I liked that.

  The other thing Liz did was, she never said I was wonderful or lovely or beautiful, like some of my other families did. But she was always setting sneaky traps to make me do stuff, and then she’d go, “Nice work, Olivia,” or “Well done!”

  I was never sure how I felt about that. Part of me would be pleased, like, I did something good. But the rest of me felt weird, because I’m not someone good, so when she said I was, it was like I didn’t know who I was, and I hated that. I didn’t like being evil, but at least I knew who I was when I was horrible.

  So after she’d told me that, sometimes I’d go and do something really bad, like break all her plates, smash smash smash, or call her a stupid bitch.

  “Do you like doing bad things?” Liz asked me, once.

  I gave a sort of shrug. Of course I didn’t like it. But it was who I was.

  “Do you like getting so angry?” she said, and I shrugged again.

  “It’s what I do,” I said.

  “It doesn’t have to be,” said Liz. But I never believed her.

  I felt safer living with Liz than I’ve felt since I can’t remember when. I always had to be on my guard when I lived with people like Dopey Graham, because I knew if anyone came to do anything bad to me, he’d probably welcome them in and offer them cake. Anyone stupid enough to think I was cute and cuddly would be easily fooled. But Liz was smart. Liz I thought maybe wouldn’t be fooled. I was never entirely sure, because people like Violet could be pretty clever. But I felt a little bit safe, which was better than nothing.

  Also, Liz knew how evil I was, and she didn’t get freaked out. Usually, people liked me at first, then they found out how bad I was and dumped me. Liz didn’t. She was like a superhero. I could fire evil at her and she just swallowed it up.

  Or so I thought.

  I liked liking Liz, and being liked, but it was always really, really scary because I knew when she dumped me it would be horrible. Every time she did something cool, I’d think This won’t happen in my new house, and then I stopped liking it. And she did some really, really cool things. Like finding out where Hayley was, and making her parents let me see her.

  My sister Hayley is adopted. Her mummy and daddy were supposed to adopt me too, and I lived with them for nearly a year, but then they changed their mind and sent me back. When they kicked me out, I was supposed to still see Hayley, but I never did. Well, I saw her once, but it was weird and awful and Hayley’s parents kept glaring at me like I was going to smash Hayley over the head with a chair, which I would never do.

  I only did it once to their kid, and it was his fault for being such a moron.

  Anyway, I hadn’t seen Hayley for three years, but Liz knew all about her, and one Saturday she told me we were going to see her.

  I was really nervous. I thought maybe Hayley would have changed, or she’d have forgotten me, or maybe she only liked me because she was little and didn’t know any better.

  We met Hayley and her dad in a park. She was five the last time I saw her, and now she was eight. She was nearly as tall as me, and her fair hair was darker, and cut short. I said, “I don’t like your hair like that, why did you cut it?”

  She looked a bit surprised, and said, “I don’t know . . . I might be growing it again, I haven’t decided.” And her dad gave me this look, like, This is why I didn’t want to be your daddy. I didn’t like it, so I grabbed her hand and said, “Let’s go play on the swings,” and I ran off to the play park, with her running after me to keep up.

  When we got to the swings, I said, “You sit on them and I’ll push,” because that’s what we used to do when we were little.

  Hayley sat on the swing and I pushed, but it wasn’t the same. She was bigger and heavier, and she didn’t look like she was enjoying it.

  “Why don’t you like it?” I said.

  “I can push myself now,” said Hayley, and she started swinging herself back and forward. I stepped back, feeling stupid and kind of hating her a bit.

  “I’m bored of the swings,” I said. “Let’s play on the climbing frame!” So I ran over to the climbing frame and hauled myself onto the top. Hayley followed, kind of slowly.

  There was a row of bars all along the top of the frame. I balanced the soles of my trainers on the bars and raised myself slowly to my feet. Hayley shrieked.

  “What are you doing?” She sounded just like she used to when she was little. I started walking along the top of the frame, arms outstretched.

  “Olivia!” said Hayley. But at least she looked interested, which she hadn’t before. Her dad ran over to us and said, “Olivia, come down this instant!”

  I ignored them. I took another step forward, and another, just to prove that I could. Then I dropped on to my knees and swung myself down through the bars. Hayley’s dad grabbed my arm and started shaking me.

  “What on earth are you doing? Do you want to get yourself killed?”

  “That’s enough.” Liz came forward and put her arm on Hayley’s dad’s shoulder. “Olivia, I don’t think we’ll play on the swings any more. Let’s go for a walk instead.”

  I thought about arguing, but I knew if I did, she’d just put me in the car and take me home. So I tugged on Hayley’s hand and said, “Come on, let’s go.”

  I thought Hayley would probably hate me now she’d seen Liz and her dad boss me about, and maybe she wouldn’t come. But she did.

  “Your dad’s a moron,” I told her. “Do you want me to ask Liz if you can live with us instead?”

  Hayley went pink. “I’m OK. . .” she said anxiously. Just for a moment she looked like the Hayley I remembered.

  “It’s all right,” I said. “If you don’t want to live with me, I don’t care.”

  “No, it’s not. . .” Hayley screwed up her mouth. “I do want to liv
e with you. I do! I just. . . I like my mum and dad too. And they wouldn’t let me go anyway.”

  “I bet they would,” I said. “They dumped me. They’re going to dump you when you’re not cute any more.”

  Hayley didn’t say anything. She looked like she was about to cry. I felt mean. Hayley was the one person who always loved me.

  “You’re probably OK,” I said. “They always liked you better than me. Would you really like to live with me?”

  “Of course I would!” said Hayley. I wondered if she meant it. “I cried and cried when you left. Ask my dad if you don’t believe me.”

  I put my arm around her shoulders and gave her a squeeze.

  “Sisters for ever,” I said. “For ever.” And she nodded her head up and down, just like I do.

  “I promise,” she said, dead serious.

  But I haven’t seen her since.

  OLD AMELIA

  “Who’s the woman in the photo?” I asked Jim, that evening. “The really old one, on the landing?”

  Jim was in his study, working on his laptop. He didn’t look cross at me for interrupting, though.

  “Ah. . .” he said. “That’s Amelia Dyer. Our celebrity.”

  “She’s famous?” She didn’t look famous. She looked too old-fashioned and ugly.

  “Well. . .” Jim smiled, “a Victorian celebrity. She was a terribly wicked old lady. She used to live in this house.”

  “She used to live here? Who was she? What did she do?”

  “Slow down,” said Jim. “Olivia. Calm down.”

  “But who was she?” I shouted.

  “Olivia.” Jim looked at me. I wanted to kick him, but I wanted to know about Amelia more. So I just glowered at him, sending bolts of I hate you boring into his head and turning his brain to green mush. Jim went on calmly typing. I waited, but he didn’t say anything more.

  “Who’s Amelia Dyer?” I said again. Jim didn’t look up. “Please.”

 
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