Extract

(Chapter 1 – The Hamster)

The woman was still there. She’d been marching up and down the school gates for most of the afternoon, stopping only to sit at the bus stop for a few minutes at a time. A large dog followed her with small, hobbling steps.

I turned back to the page in front of me, and began to count – the pictures, that is, not the steps. “One, two, three…”

Whose mum was she? Definitely not of anyone I knew. Then again, the empty chair at my desk was good at reminding me that getting to know people wasn’t something I spent a lot of time doing.

“Five, six…no, four…”

I pressed my finger against the page and looked at the clock hanging above the blackboard, then narrowed my eyes to stop the hands spinning in my brain.

Something past two, or maybe three. Clocks were so useless – I never even wore the new watch Mum had bought me for my birthday last year. The school bell ringing in the afternoon was the only time I ever wanted to know about anyway – time to go home.

Perfect.

“Five, six, eight, seven…oh no, that’s wrong!”

The twins sitting in front of me looked around and burst into giggles.

“Pay attention, you lot at the back,” crowed Miss Lauren.

Ignore them all, I told myself, taking a deep breath. I’d been feeling sick all afternoon, almost as if the chips I’d eaten for lunch had turned into an army of potato goblins enjoying a game of tag in my stomach. The smell from the old schoolbooks Miss Lauren had dumped behind my desk only made the feeling worse.

A light wind blew in through the top of the open window next to me. Outside, the cobbled playground was deserted and an empty double-decker bus was just pulling up outside the school gates. The bell wouldn’t be long. It was the last day before the Easter holidays and I was looking forward to our family camping trip to the Yorkshire Dales – a whole week far away from home, school, and everything in between.

I stared back outside. The woman was now hanging around the corner of the caretaker’s house just across the playground. What was she up to? She wasn’t the caretaker’s wife or even one of the teachers. I drew closer and pressed my nose against the cold glass. She was wearing a long white overcoat and had blonde hair that flowed onto her shoulders, while the nervous-looking dog paced around her legs.

Blonde Woman produced a black object from her pocket and held it up to her eyes. Binoculars? What was she looking at? Had she spotted me?

The woman turned and disappeared behind the corner of the house, the dog following her like a shadow.

I shook my head and went back to the book.

“Eight, seven…”

Just as I realised my counting was still muddled, and eight came after seven, the twins began to whisper my name like a pair of witches casting their spell. I looked up and saw why. Miss Lauren was marching up to my desk with her arms folded and her eyes fuming like a pair of volcanoes about to erupt.

Her voice was anything but warm.

“Jennifer, what are you doing?”

I caught my teacher’s eye for a moment before looking back at the page. There was a picture of hundreds of fairies flying around a young man and woman asleep together beneath a tree. Lovely, beautiful fairies. We were doing our English lesson, and Miss Lauren had told us this was a scene from a famous play at the theatre.

I lowered my voice to a whisper, hoping the twins wouldn’t hear me. “Um, I was trying to count the fairies, Miss.”

Miss Lauren stared at me. “Could you say that a little louder, please, Jennifer.”

I felt my temperature rise – I could almost see the thin red line shooting up the invisible thermometer stuck to my potato goblin-filled belly.

“I was counting the fairies in the picture, Miss.”

The whole class erupted into peals of laughter, except for Miss Lauren, who looked like dried lava. She picked up my jotter and raised her eyebrows. I went red, knowing she’d seen the scribbles on the page – all I had to show for my efforts to copy down her writing from the board.

“Did you write this?” she asked, without really expecting an answer. “I just cannot understand why you have to be so misbehaved all the time. Are you incapable of paying attention?”

Miss Lauren paused, and ruffled her bushy hair. “Well, since you obviously don’t enjoy being in my classroom, you can go and stand outside for the last ten minutes.”

I felt the tears welling up in the distance as I looked back at Miss Lauren. “That’s not fair.”

The twins gasped.

Miss Lauren turned scarlet and hissed. “Jennifer, I’m going to ask you politely one last time. Leave your desk and stand outside until the bell goes. I will speak to you then.”

I raised my voice to stop the tears. “It’s not my fault I can’t write it down like the others! It’s not fair!”

Miss Lauren clapped her hands and yelled. “Get OUT!”

She was so loud I shook and wobbled the chair. My heart pounding, I got up and hurried through the middle of the classroom, all the while ignoring the mutters and whispers mushrooming around me like the cloud from a nuclear explosion.

“She’s weird…”

“Look at her shoelaces…”

“Even her mum says so, doesn’t she?”

They hated me. They’d always hated me. I felt I could march back into that classroom with a box of matches and burn the horrid place down, making sure everyone choked on the flames.

I slammed the door and crouched against the wall, taking in mouthfuls of the stale oxygen in the foyer.

A tear dripped out of my eye and teased its way down my cheek. I brushed it away so quickly it was almost a slap. I hoped I wouldn’t throw up until I got home. In a way, I wouldn’t mind even if I did. I’d started the year hoping things would get better, but the others had just become worse, and at least the old teacher hadn’t shouted like Miss Lauren – well, at least not as much.

The sound of the Year Five door opening broke the silence. Before I had time to get up and hide, two girls came out and pushed open the double doors at the end of the corridor. One of them looked around and saw me, giggled under her breath, and tapped the other girl on the shoulder.

“It’s that Jennifer…”

“Yeah, she’s always in trouble…”

As the double doors swung shut, something small and furry slipped inside and crawled across the floor.

I blinked, and it had gone.

Was I seeing things? I wiped my eyes and looked again. There it was, this time running over to the other side of the corridor. My pulse quickened. I shook at the thought of Danielle Fox letting a mouse into Cannock Chase Primary just to scare me. She was always talking about how she was going to ‘get’ me one of these days.

I wondered if I should go back inside and tell Miss Lauren. No, I decided – she could go and chuck herself from one of the windows on the third floor for all I cared. I wasn’t going to let her make fun of me again.

The thing moved closer along the opposite wall, its light ginger fur becoming easier to see on the dark muddy red of the carpet. I trod forward to get a better look, wondering where the mouse had come from. The head teacher liked to show off to bored parents about how the school was always clean and tidy – I wondered what she’d make of a mouse hanging around the Year Six classroom.

I bent down on one knee. To my surprise, the mouse was holding a small piece of folded paper in its mouth. In fact, I realised the mouse wasn’t really a mouse at all, but a hamster, like the one my sister Amy had kept for a while last year until she’d driven Mum crazy by letting it out in the dining room all the time.

Someone must have brought their pet hamster to school and lost it. Or even set it free. I lit up at the thought that someone who definitely wasn’t Jennifer Brown was going to get into some serious trouble.

The hamster shuffled a little then picked up speed and raced towards me.

“Ah!” I jumped back towards the wall, my voice echoing around the empty foyer. For a moment, I expected Miss Lauren to rush out to see what the matter was.

The classroom door stayed shut – she probably just thought I was causing another scene. The hamster dashed from one of my feet to the next, then stopped and began to sniff around my shoelaces – which had come undone again – and let the piece of paper brush against the tips.

I tiptoed into the cloakroom, away from the hamster. Almost as if the creature understood what I was doing, it darted to the cloakroom door, dropped the paper and parked itself next to my shoe.

The two girls still hadn’t come back, and there was no one else in the corridor. After looking over my shoulder again, I bent down and picked up the paper.

In fact, it was a tiny brown envelope, about the size of my palm. I turned it over and over, wondering what I should do. On one side, there was a line of curly handwriting in dark ink. I’d never posted anyone a letter before, but I knew what you had to do: you wrote the person’s name and address on the envelope, then popped it into the post box at the end of the street. You didn’t give it to a hamster who liked to go to school.

Anyway, even if the letter was for someone else, it still wouldn’t make any sense to me. Keeping one eye on Post Hamster, I slipped open the envelope.

Inside, there was another piece of paper with a few lines in the same handwriting. I sniffed, wishing I knew what the words meant. I squinted at the letters and tried to join them up in my head to make some sense, but they seemed to move around like a crowd of hungry bees.

Annoyed, I put the paper back inside and turned to the writing on the envelope. Wasn’t it the name of the person supposed to read the letter?

Something was on my foot – it was the hamster again. Clutching my shoelace in its mouth, it dragged it as far as it could, before scurrying away back to the double doors.

I waited to see what it would do next. As if it had read my mind, the hamster began to sniff along the bottom of the door, then stretched up on its back legs and scratched the glass.

It wanted to get out!

I looked up at the clock in the foyer but didn’t bother trying to read it. Danielle Fox was capable of doing anything as far as I was concerned. I found myself feeling sorry for the poor hamster, whom she probably kept locked up in a gloomy cage in her filthy bedroom. Then something hit me: how could Danielle have known I’d be out here in the corridor or the hamster would even find me?

Maybe she was outside, watching. I looked again at the clock. The seconds were ticking by. My eyes shifted from the hamster to the paper to the clock to the classroom door.

Making up my mind, I grabbed my schoolbag from the cloakroom and rushed to open the double doors. Post Hamster shot ahead of me and slipped outside through a crack in the wall I was sure I’d never seen before.

There was no time to stop and look. I pushed open the main doors and ran after the hamster into the playground. Miss Lauren and the others might see me from the window but I didn’t care anymore. I had to find out if Danielle was here before it was too late.

Across the car park, the caretaker was opening the gates for the crowd of parents who’d now arrived to collect their children. The sound of the bell tolled through the air and the first group of toddlers ran out from the nursery.

Still no sign of Danielle. The hamster bolted across the playground and crawled beneath the rusty black gates. One of the women standing near the wall bent down, picked up the creature, and slipped it into her coat pocket. I stopped and stared – she was the one I’d been watching all afternoon.

Blonde Woman got up and looked straight in my direction.