By William Horn
Donna doesn’t say much. Donna likes to drive. Donna likes football. I think Donna is a lesbian, but I never quite pluck up the courage to ask. Donna wears jeans and t-shirts and sneakers every day, rain or shine. Donna has a sausage roll and a can of coke every day for lunch. She buys it at Gregg’s down the street for a pound fifty. She shows it to me and always says ‘bargain!’ The joy of the meal deal never gets old for her. Donna lets me put whatever music I want on the radio, Donna doesn’t care.
A lot of people work for my parents, most of them at my mother’s record company. She has two assistants, one of whom I like, the other I hate. And then there’s Donna. Technically she’s a driver, but really, she does a bit of everything for everyone. She runs errands for the front desk, buys groceries for the kitchen, she takes my aging raptor of a grandmother to her bridge games.
We are a hard family to work for—I know this at fifteen, having watched a revolving door of nannies and assistants hired, quit, fired. But not Donna. She deals with us just fine. She has her lunches by herself, and she doesn’t say much. We all think she’s a lesbian, and my brother wants me to ask her, but I’m a little afraid to know the answer. She’s wearing her Tottenham Hotspur t-shirt and it’s raining outside and she doesn’t have a jumper or an umbrella. She’ll get soaked and she doesn’t care.
I am envious of Donna. Envious that she is slender and eats a sausage roll every day. Envious that she gets to drive around in the car all day, no classes, no homework, listening to whatever music she likes. I am envious that, if she wanted to, she could just get into her car and drive away.
The drive between London and Bristol is long, the drive to boarding school, but it feels too short to me. I pack my trunk sullenly. I take my time. I can’t find my house tie, and I can’t find my smart shoes. I don’t want to go but I don’t have a choice. We leave late, and Donna is angry because she’ll have to drive back to London in the dark. I don’t apologize.
Mum kisses me on the forehead at the front door, Dad slips two twenty-pound notes into my coat pocket. Mum urges me to try and be good this year, or maybe just not to get caught so often. I sigh and frown and follow Donna to the van, where I help load the trunk into the back. We take off, Mum waving us away from her bedroom window, XFM on blast, London streets cramped and winding until we make it onto the motorway.
The sun sets over London in the rear-view mirror and soon we can’t see it anymore, headed west for three more hours. Neither of us talks until Donna pulls up at a petrol station and rest stop. She fills up the van and I meander around the shops inside: McDonald’s, Little Chef, Starbucks and Marks and Spencer’s. Donna will want a coffee, so I know I have some time. I remember the money in my pocket and make my way to the Marks and Spencer’s, stock up on chocolate and chocolate-covered cornflake bites and crisps and a few sandwiches. I spend 25 pounds, lock the change away in my bag, and try to forget about it. I will need more supplies later.
‘Would your Mum like you having that?’ Donna eyes my purchases.
‘She’s not here, is she?’ I say, obliquely.
‘I could tell her.’ Donna reaches for her phone.
‘Do that then.’ I shrug.
Food is a hard subject at home. The problem isn’t the food, the problem is the eating—the problem is my eating too much food, and no one feeling like they are able to stop me. The problem is that no matter how much or how little food I consume, no matter the kind or the quantity, I keep on getting bigger. The problem seems to be that I don’t care, and everyone else cares far too much.
I hold us up a little longer, deciding to pack my food away in the truck, hiding it all under the layer of underwear. I keep a sandwich for now, but the rest I bury deep, hoping to hold on to as much as I can for as long as I can. My housemistress is fond of a random search; this year I will be ready for her. This year I will be ready for them all.
We’re off again, our silver van pushing through the darkness, I roll down my window and turn the music all the way up, I see our reflection in the sides of other passing cars and wonder where they are going, wonder what my life would be like if I was in that Peugeot 306. Probably no better. I’d still be me, and that’s the problem, that’s the problem at school anyway.
‘Don’t they feed you at boarding school?’ Donna turns the music down, I can see the skin on her arms turning to goose flesh, I roll the window up only a little.
‘They put the food out; sometimes I can’t get to it,’ I answer.
‘Your legs broke?’ Donna takes a sip of her coffee, spills a little on her t-shirt but doesn’t seem to notice.
‘Something like that.’ I take a bite of my sandwich.
‘How long is that meant to last you? Looks like enough to withstand a siege.’ Donna, who doesn’t say, much can’t stop bloody talking.
‘Now you’re getting the point,’ I say, angry—but not at her, angry at myself for being angry at all. Anger doesn’t serve me. I have to stay calm and get smart.
We move in silence again, school creeps closer and closer, I watch the road signs count down our miles to Bristol bracing myself tighter and tighter until I am coiled like a spring, wound entirely up and ready to break or burst.
‘They’re a bit shit to you, aren’t they.’ Donna says, and it isn’t a question.
A bit shit? That’s one way to put it, one way to describe the laughter, the sneering, the name calling, the hands, the knuckles, the heels, the long stretches of loneliness, the short bursts of cruelty, and all the while my housemistress is overturning my bedroom, looking for things she knows I do not have, just to underline the fact that I am not welcome, that I should not be here that I will never belong.
‘Yeah, a bit shit,’ I say, touching a rib someone cracked last year that took weeks to stop hurting.
‘It won’t always be.’ Donna doesn’t look at me. ‘I promise you, it won’t always be. One day this will just be something you did. It’ll just be a bunch of wankers you had to put up with.’
Donna doesn’t look at me but her voice cracks a little and I wonder about her ribs, if someone cracked them, if she ever lay against the tarmac of a tennis court with her arms over her head just hoping to disappear completely, I wonder if she ever agreed to hate herself because it was what everyone else was doing, one last desperate attempt to fit in.
We are here, now, Clifton College. The Memorial Arch to the boys who fell in both great wars frames the dome-topped Chapel at the end of the walkway. History is what this school has in spades, names engraved in gilt on the walls of house halls, the history of Empire writ large and small in classrooms and locker rooms and libraries, Kipling spoon-fed at suppertime. We are late, but Donna doesn’t care, and when my housemistress starts to fuss Donna blows past her with my trunk, and I know I’ll pay for smiling later but I smile anyway.
We find my room, a single; a mercy, a door I can lock. She puts my trunk inside and checks the time—she has to get going, she has to get back to London, she is going to get into her car and just drive away.
‘Give ‘em hell.’ She looks at me fiercely; we don’t hug, we are English. As I watch her walk down the hallway, feeling more envious than I can bear, she doesn’t look back.
Now I am older and much time has passed. I’m at university, home for a break; Mum is dead, but Donna is the same. The sausage roll and coke costs two pounds now, a fact that makes Donna bristle with rage. She shows it to me and says, ‘Daylight robbery!’ She cannot forgive Gregg’s the extra fifty pence. She wears the jeans and t-shirts and sneakers still, but now a jumper has made its way into the mix, in case she gets caught in a drizzle. Donna is not a lesbian, or maybe she is, or maybe we decide it doesn’t matter because one thing is clear—Donna doesn’t care.
We are driving to pick up my sister, returning from her own boarding school, the radio turned up loud. We pull into the train station parking lot, and Donna checks the time, leaving the van idling as we wait for Gabriella to emerge.
‘What do you think of this then?’ Donna asks me, and I don’t know what she means.
‘I mean Gabs, going off to boarding school,’ she explains. I tell her that Bedale’s is a very different animal to Clifton, that Bedale’s is more a home for the neglected children of the artistic and rich, that Bedale’s last famous alumna was Lily Allen, expelled for hiking her skirt up and pissing on the quad. Gabriella and I are similar in many ways, but socially very different.
‘That’s different, all right. Still, you find wankers everywhere.’ I agree that this is true. Wankers are not specific. That’s the problem with wankers.
‘But you got through it. And it got better, didn’t it?’ says Donna, pulling the van up a little to make room for the car behind us.
I want so badly to tell her it did, I wanted so badly for her to be right that day, I was desperate for it to be true. I’m never sure how much to tell her, I’m never sure how much she wants to know. But I can’t lie to her.
‘No. No it didn’t. It never got better. I just got used to it.’
The rib healed and the bruises faded, they gave me hell but I gave it right back, and then time passed and it became something I did, just some wankers I had to deal with.
‘Thought that might happen. You were just a kid though, wanted to keep your chin up. Cared about you, even when you were a little shit.’ She looks at me, eyebrows raised a little, and I want to hug her but Gabriella is walking towards us, ready to go. I get out of the van and help her with her bags, we pile back in and Donna pulls away from the pavement, music turned all the way up, taking us home, through the light London rain.
Copyright Horn 2018