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Authors: E.R. Murray

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BOOK: Caramel Hearts
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Chapter Sixteen

In Full Swing, Marching Up and Down

“Hey, sorry I m-missed you after school, Liv. I'd have waited longer if I could, but you kn-know how Mam worries. What happened to you, anyway?”

Sarah looks at me suspiciously – she thinks I sneaked off again.

“I wasn't sure about the homework, so I stayed back to ask about it.”

It's amazing how fast lies can come out of my mouth sometimes. Sarah raises an eyebrow but I'm ready for her. I roll my eyes dramatically.

“I know, since when did I care? Hatty's on my case.”

“You look knackered.”

“Thanks! Glad I can count on you for moral support.”

It's enough to stop the questions. If I could tell Sarah about the bag, she'd know what to do. But I know how much she hates stealing, and I still haven't made it up to her properly for ditching her for Mad Dog. I hardly slept a wink last night, worrying – but Sarah can't bail me out this time.

“Let's get school over with. Another day of imprisonment and torture!” I say.

“It's not
that
bad.”

I give Sarah my best “have you got two heads” look.

“We've got Careers Studies after registration class,” she says. “We'll see more of Chris today!”

“You're obsessed. It's embarrassing,” I say, turning my face away in case I blush. I wish Jack was in Careers Studies too.

We giggle the rest of the way to school. When we get there, it's like a disturbed ant nest. Thousands of pupils in burgundy uniforms swamp the corridors. Our usually calm registration teacher, Mrs Pearl, flaps and fusses as she redirects us to the Main Hall. A whole-school assembly has been called.

“I wonder what's up with her,” says Sarah. “Must be something bad.”

I shrug, dragging my feet, as we follow the others.

Even though it's full, the hall is deadly silent. We find a pair of empty chairs with our registration group and sit down. After a while, the whispering starts. Everyone's looking at each other, wondering what's going on. What's happened? Has someone died? But as soon as the head teacher, Mr Morrelly, walks in, everyone shuts up – apart from some moron at the back, who isn't paying attention. He'll get it later.

Mr Morrelly paces at the front of the hall. He's in full swing – marching up and down, with his arms clasped behind his back.

“Someone's in for it,” whispers a lad a few rows behind us.

I glance at Sarah to see if she's figured out what's happening yet, but she's busy concentrating on the front of the hall.

Mr Morrelly clears his throat.

“I'm afraid I have some grave news. As a school, we've experienced something terrible. Something shocking.”

A whisper ripples around the room.

“Quiet!” calls Mr Morrelly, waiting for silence before continuing in his baritone. “I'm afraid our beloved cook, Mrs Snelling, has been the victim of a terrible crime. Her ankle is broken.”

I can't help gasping. I slap my hand over my mouth to hide the noise, but Sarah has already heard. “Oh my god,” she mouths. I feel sweat bead on my forehead as I mouth “I know” back.

Surely this isn't anything to do with me.

“Her injury is the result of a terrible theft,” continues Mr Morrelly, raising his voice to shush us. “Yesterday, at approximately four o'clock, Mrs Snelling returned to the kitchen to check on something for today's lunch. And some spiteful person – possibly a recipient of that lunch later today – took advantage, and used the opportunity to steal her handbag.”

A weird noise – a mixture of shock, admiration and disgust – erupts from the others. I shudder and start to burn up. The heat racing through my body makes me feel sick, so I lean forward and take deep breaths to try and make the nausea go away.

“We are hoping, of course, that this awful attack was not carried out by an Egerton Park pupil. That it was an outside job. Who would want to belong to a school where pupils behave that way? Who'd feel safe coming here if it turns out to be one of our own?”

A loud murmur travels around the room as he lays it on thick. Sarah glances at me, wide eyed and open mouthed. She could never contemplate doing something like that. Why can't I be more like her?

I bunch my fist and dig my nails into the palm of my hand, shoving my arms between my legs so
Sarah can't see. Old Mozzer makes it sound like it was some evil, preplanned attack – something Mad Dog's dad would be involved in. I feel like shouting,
I didn't hurt her – it was nothing to do with the bag!
But thankfully, I'm not that stupid. I sit quietly, listening hard. I want to make sure no one knows I was involved.

“We would be grateful,” continues Mr Morrelly, “for any information leading to the resolution of this crime. Mrs Snelling has generously requested that we be lenient to any pupil that steps forward. She has asked for the police not to be involved.” Old Mozzer shakes his head slowly, his face turned to the floor. “She has even offered a cash reward to anyone who brings in evidence that leads to her bag being recovered. The bag contains something very precious, something irreplaceable. What a shame for something like this to happen to someone so kind.”

An electrified chatter shoots through the pupils. My stomach churns and gurgles loudly, like it's trying to give me away.

“Of course, if the perpetrator does
not
own up, and is
found out
…” Mr Morrelly's arm bolts out. His extended index finger seems to point at every one of us. We all shrink back like we're conjoined, a string of paper dolls. “There will be dire consequences. We're talking police, suspension – possible exclusion.”

Pausing, hands clasped behind his back, Mr Morrelly lets the flame that he's ignited work its way around the room. From Year Seven up to Year Twelve, there are whispers, sniggers and accusing stares. Everywhere, kids
plot with their friends against their enemies, preparing lists of suspects. I imagine myself to be invisible and it's working. Until Jack's warm, brown eyes search me out. I quickly look away.

“Attention!” calls Mr Morrelly, satisfied that the message has spread sufficiently. “Thankfully, I also have some good news for you. Something positive has come out of this – something we can all be proud of.”

The room silences. I exchange confused glances with Sarah, digging my nails deeper into my palm.

“Jack Whitman, would you come out to the front, please?”

Again: an excited rumble from the pupils. I hold my breath as Jack shuffles to the front, glowing puce. When he reaches Mr Morrelly, the head teacher grasps Jack's hand and shakes it hard, like he's an adult.

“This young man heard Mrs Snelling's cries and came to her rescue. Then he had the foresight and kindness to make sure she was as comfortable as possible before contacting the emergency services and alerting me. Can we have a round of applause, please?”

For some weird reason, as the clapping begins, I feel really proud. Relaxing my fists and resting my hands on my knees, I sit up straight. But then I think about Mad Dog's throat-slitting gesture and slump back. And what if Jack puts two and two together and mentions my name? As I slide lower in my seat, I run my fingertips over my palm, searching out the half-moon imprints.

“As a reward,” continues Mr Morrelly. “I have decided to allow Jack's registration group to choose their own end of year trip. Mrs Pearl, see to it that the destination is chosen democratically.”

This time only our class explodes with cheers. The rest of the school stays quiet – probably jealous. Sarah shoves me delightedly but I can't muster the same enthusiasm. All of a sudden, I'm leaning forward, grasping my stomach as sharp, stabbing pains attack my gut.

“What's wrong?” asks Sarah.

It hurts too much to answer.

“Your mam's been playing up again?”

I nod, feeling rotten for lying again, but I want her to leave me alone. Shame courses through my body and, when Sarah starts rubbing my arm encouragingly, I swear I'm going to throw up. I close my eyes and swallow hard.

“Quiet, please!” calls Mr Morrelly, his smile switching to a serious stare. “I'd like to finish by saying, I hope more of you will take a leaf out of this young man's book. Assembly dismissed.”

As we file out of the hall, I feel Jack's eyes following me.

Does he know?

I put my head down and escape, hoping to be invisible in the crowd. But it doesn't take long for Sarah to find me.

“Who would do something like that? And to poor Mrs Snelling?” she asks. “They must have issues.”

“What if they didn't know the bag belonged to Mrs Snelling?”

“It obviously belonged to someone. Would you have taken it?”

My jaw clenches and I avoid her eye.

“No… But maybe they were desperate.”

“Still no excuse for stealing.”

“They might realize what they've done and bring it back?” I say.

“Yeah right. They'll be in a heap of trouble anyway, so what would be the point?”

Sarah's words stick in my head all day, playing over and over, like when a speck of dust gets trapped on one of Mam's records. Scritch, scritch, scritch.

Chapter Seventeen

Screwing Up Her Nose Like I'm Diseased

Arriving home, I check the bag. It's still hidden – in the exact spot that I left it. After assembly today, I feel anxious touching it, like the bag might suddenly yell out or trigger some secret alarm at the school or something. But Sarah is right – there's no way for me to sneak the bag back now everyone knows it's missing, and I'll only get in trouble anyway – so I decide to put its contents to good use instead.

I sneak out to the shops for some pastry, leaving Harriet caught up in her uni work. My hands tremble every time my fingers brush the stolen £20 note in my pocket. I can't stop thinking about a short story we read in English. A thief steals a valuable artefact from a museum, not knowing that it's been dusted with a special powder that glows under UV light. The police trace the thief as a suspect. He denies everything, but the case is sealed as soon as the UV lights come out. Each time I touch the note in my pocket, it's like I can feel something dusting my skin.

As I wander down the food aisles, I begin to feel better. The hum of the chest freezers drowns out my guilty thoughts as I hunt around the frozen goods for puff pastry.

“Liv!”

I look up to see Jack waving at me from across the freezer. He's with an elegant, expensive-looking lady. She gives me a brief, disapproving glance before heading towards the deli section, nose upturned. I'm guessing it's Jack's mam and my first thought is,
I can't imagine a woman like this being beaten up by a drunk
. Jack mutters something, the woman nods, and then I realize: he's heading my way.

I quickly smooth my eyebrows and fluff up my hair, wishing I'd made more effort. I'm not wearing any makeup, and I haven't run a brush through my hair since lunchtime. My skinny jeans and striped T-shirt look fine, but how can I look Jack in the eye without mascara? No wonder Jack's mam looked down her nose at me.

“How are ya, Liv? What you up to?”

I hardly dare to look up, but it's difficult to make a freezer seem that interesting.

“Just getting a few bits of shopping. For baking. You know?”

Inside, I want to curl up and die. Why would Jack want to know about baking? What a stupid thing to say.

“Mum doesn't have stuff like that in the house. She's always on diets.”

“Like my sister, Harriet. Only she's always on a see-food diet.”

Despite the lame joke, Jack laughs.

“Well, if I saw your food, I'm sure I'd eat it,” he says.

As we both grin at each other like idiots, Jack's mam appears.

“Aren't you going to introduce me to your friend?” she says, her voice clipped and unfriendly.

Jack looks half nervous, half relieved.

“Mum, this is Liv. She's in my year at school.”

“Pleased to meet you,” I say, offering my hand.

The gesture feels stupid and I'm painfully aware that my palm is ice-cold from poking around in the freezers. Mrs Whitman accepts my hand limply, without making eye contact. When our hands separate, I watch Jack's mum wipe hers on a tissue, screwing up her nose like I'm diseased. Without acknowledging me any further, she signals to Jack with a nod of the head that it's time to leave. Jack looks horrified.

“Sorry, Liv, I've got to go. Enjoy the baking!”

I lean back into the freezer, select the pastry I need and head straight for the till, feeling like I've died a little inside. I grab a Coke and some prawn cocktail crisps – blue cheese and onion are out of bounds – hoping they'll make me feel better. As I hand over the money, I expect my fingertips to glow.

* * *

“What are you making for us this time?” asks Harriet.

I continue melting the butter and sugar over a low heat. I can tell from Hatty's eyes that she's forgiven – but not forgotten – my cruel remarks about her weight. I should feel bad and apologize, but as Harriet peers into the saucepan hungrily, all I can think is… at last, I'm finally good at something!

“Don't look so smug, Delia Smith!” says Harriet, sucking in the smells. “Seriously, though – what is it?”

“Eccles cakes.”

“What are they?”

“Dunno. Pastry, currant-y things. Like Granny makes, apparently.”

Harriet nods, even though neither one of us knows what that's like. Mam grew up in foster care. She was given up for adoption, but it never happened. No one chose her. Mam spent her childhood going from one children's home or foster house to the next.

Spying the pre-made pastry, Harriet points, mock horror on her face.

“Hey, sis, you're cheating!” she cries, and ruffles my hair in the way that winds me up. But I decide to make allowances today.

“It's not cheating. It's what the cookbook says to use.”

“Sorry, bad joke. Where's this recipe book that's got you so fired up anyway?”

I stop, mid stir.

“It's over there. From school. Home Ec.”

“You don't do Home Ec,” says Harriet, narrowing her eyes. “You took Art instead.”

She picks up the polka-dotted book, turning it over in her hands. Before she can peek inside, I snatch it out of her grasp.

“Liv, what are you up to?”

“Nothing! I need the recipe – just in case. Don't get your knickers in such a twist. Just because I don't do Home Ec – that doesn't mean I can't borrow a book!”

“True. But there's no need to overreact. It's just—”

“What?”

“Nothing. Forget it, Liv.”

“No, go on!” I insist.

I lift the saucepan off the heat and throw the currants, candied peel and nutmeg into the liquid gold as dramatically as I can, forgetting to inhale the scents as the recipe suggested. I'm too busy waiting for my sister to dig herself into a great big hole.

“You didn't steal it, did you?”

My body turns rigid and the muscles in my arm ache as I stir. I think of the look on Sarah's face when Mr Morrelly told the school about the theft. I imagine watching Mrs Snelling fall and seeing Jack run to her rescue. And, worst of all, I think about getting rewarded for it as part of Jack's registration class.

“I'm not judging you,” continues Hatty. “At least you're interested in something. I just—”

“Just what? You tell me to be responsible – then when I am, you accuse me of stealing.”

“I take it back. Sorry. I want us to be straight with each other, like sisters should be.”

I don't know whether to laugh or tell her where to go. Where was Hatty when things started getting really bad last year? The time Mam “accidentally” put her hand through the glass table, the time she locked herself in the bathroom and threatened to kill herself. My first period, my first bra – where was Hatty's sisterly concern then?

“I'm sick of this. You're always on my back,” I mutter.

“I just want it to be like the old days, before all this crap happened.”

“Then start acting like my sister and not my mam.” I churn the mixture and my stomach churns with it. “You're such a control freak.”

“If you do well, you can get out of here…”

“What? Run away like you? Is that what you want? Some of us are happy to stay where we are.”

“If you stay here you'll end up miserable. You've got to see different things, meet new people. The world doesn't have to be like this.”

Harriet's voice grows squeaky and her eyes fill with tears. It's so pathetic.

“If that's what you think, you're dumber than you look. No one from here gets out. You can try, but look at Mam… She left and then came back.”

“See? It was coming back here that did it! She should have stayed in London – even without Dad. She was happy there, Liv. I just want what's best for you.”

Sticking my hands into the flour bag, I sprinkle the surface. The powder looks so light and airy.

“So that's why you left? Ran away so I had to cope on my own?”

“I didn't run away, Liv. I went to university to better myself.”

She puts her hand on my shoulder, but I shrug it away.

“So you're better than us now, are you?”

“I didn't mean that! I want to improve things for us. You understand that, right?”

“No. I don't understand,” I say, as snottily as I can. “I don't see how you being selfish benefits anyone but you. You're as bad as Mam. Now, if you don't mind, I've got to concentrate. I've never rolled pastry before, and it's meant to be difficult. Even when cheating.”

Harriet opens her mouth to say something, but instead backs away, her eyes on me the whole time. I pretend I don't notice and persevere with the pastry – pressing, shaping and rolling it to the required thinness.

“Is there anything else I can help you with?” I ask.

Shaking her head, Harriet leaves me to it. Hands covered in flour, I stare at the empty space my sister leaves behind. Then I open the recipe book, clear my throat and continue with the Eccles cakes.

BOOK: Caramel Hearts
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