Friend Request – Laura Marshall

There are so many people I want to thank: My agent Felicity Blunt, for believing in me and in this book, and for the editorial insights that transformed my story. My brilliant editor Lucy Malagoni, for making my introduction to the world of publishing such an absolute pleasure, and the whole team at Little, Brown for their enthusiasm and support. Also Wes Miller at Grand Central for his insightful editorial input. Everyone at Curtis Brown Creative, especially my tutor, the brilliant novelist Erin Kelly. Special mention for my fourteen wonderful CBC course-mates for their feedback, support and friendship. Also Eleanor Moran for telling me about CBC in the first place, and encouraging me to go for it. The Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize, for seeing something in a very early draft of this book, with special thanks to Jo Ryan for her ongoing support and encouragement. Caro Ambrose and all at the Bath Novel Award who do such great work supporting their long and shortlisted authors. Special thanks to Emma, for being a great cheerleader, and for the CCTV advice. All my friends, who have been so supportive but especially Natasha and Claire, my first readers, who not only offered invaluable advice and encouragement, but had to suffer endless hours of debating plot points; Vicky, for the style advice and that brilliant idea about the nuns; and Hattie, Jane, Naomi and Rachel, for everything. Glen Wilson, for never forgetting that I was meant to be writing a book. My parents, Murray and Cecilia, for reading to me, and passing on their love of books; and my sister Alice, for all those games of the imagination. Thank you for making sure I grew up surrounded by stories. It’s what made me a writer. My boys, Charlie and Arthur, for supporting me and telling everyone and anyone about the book.

None of this would be worth anything without you. And Michael, for reading and offering advice and all those endless conversations about the plot; and for believing in me and supporting me from the very start. I wouldn’t be able to do any of this without you. I love you. Chapter 1 2016 The email arrives in my inbox like an unexploded bomb: Maria Weston wants to be friends on Facebook. For a second I miss the Facebook reference, and just see ‘Maria Weston wants to be friends’. Instinctively I slam the laptop shut. It feels as though a sponge has been lodged in my throat, soaking up water, swelling and clogging, leaving me struggling for breath. I attempt to breathe deeply, trying to get myself back under control. Perhaps I was mistaken.

I must have been mistaken because this cannot possibly be happening. Slowly I raise the lid of my laptop. Hands shaking, I go back into the email and this time there is no denying the bald fact of it. Maria Weston wants to be friends with me. It’s been a fairly unremarkable day up until now. Henry is at Sam’s tonight, so I’ve put in a long day working on some initial plans for a client who wants everything from walls to carpets and sofas in varying shades of beige and taupe, but at the same time doesn’t want the house to look boring. When I saw I had an email, I was glad of the distraction, hopeful of a personal message rather than yet another company trying to sell me something. Now though, I’d be grateful for marketing spam, and I long to go back to the mild tedium of a few minutes ago. This must be someone’s idea of a sick joke, surely. But whose? Who could think this funny? Who even knows the effect it would have on me? There’s an easy way out of this, of course.

All I have to do is delete the email, go to Facebook and decline the request without looking at the page. A part of me is screaming out to do this, to end it here; but another part of me – a quiet and buried part – wants to see, to know. To understand. So I do it. I click ‘Confirm Request’ and I’m taken straight to her page: Maria Weston’s Facebook page. The profile photo is an old one from a pre-digital age which has obviously been scanned in. Maria, in her green school-uniform blazer, long brown hair blowing in the wind, a small smile playing across her face. I scan the screen, searching for clues, but there is very little information on the page. She doesn’t have any friends listed or photos uploaded other than the profile one. She stares at me dispassionately from behind my computer screen.

I’ve not felt her cool gaze for over twenty-five years, not been the recipient of that look, which tells you she’s sizing you up, not in an unpleasant way, but appraising you, understanding more of you than you want the world to know. I wonder if she ever realised what I had done to her. The red brick of the school buildings lurks in the background, familiar in a way but strange too, as if it belongs to someone else’s memories, not mine. Odd, how you spend five years going to the same place every day, and then it’s over, you never go there again. Almost as if it never existed at all. I find I can’t look at her for long, and my eyes roam around the kitchen, wanting something mundane to fix on, a break from this bewildering new reality. I get up and make a coffee, gaining comfort from the ritual of putting the smooth shining pod into the machine, pressing the tip of my finger onto the button in the precise way I always do and warming the milk in the frother. I sit there amidst the trappings of my very comfortable, very middle-class, nearly middle-aged life. The kitchen gadgets and the photo on the fancy fridge of me and Henry on our first holiday alone last summer, a selfie taken by the pool: our skin salty and sun-kissed, a shadow around Henry’s mouth where the dust has stuck to the remnants of his daily ice cream. Outside the French windows, my tiny courtyard garden is wearing its bleak late-autumn clothes, paving stones slick with the earlier freezing rain.

Chipped plant pots trail the dead brown remains of my doomed summer attempt at growing my own herbs, and the darkening afternoon sky is a dull sheet of slate grey. I can just see one of the tower blocks that loom here and there like malevolent giants over the rows of Victorian terraces all turned into flats like mine that make up this part of south-east London. This room, this home, this life that I have built up so carefully. This little family, with only two members. If one of us falls, then what is left is not a family at all. What would it take to tear it all down, to bring it tumbling and crashing to the ground? Perhaps not as much as I thought. Maybe just a nudge in the back; a tiny push, so slight that I would hardly feel it. The kitchen with its muted dove-grey walls and bleached wood worktops is warm, uncomfortably so. As the coffee machine hums its everyday tune, I half-listen to the news on the radio, which chatters all day every day in my kitchen: a sporting victory, a cabinet re-shuffle, a fifteen-year-old girl who has killed herself after her boyfriend posted naked pictures of her online. I flinch at the thought of it, sympathy for her mixed with a shameful gratitude that there were no camera phones around when I was that age.

I move over and open one of the French windows, feeling the need for fresh air, but an icy blast slams it shut again. My coffee is ready, and I have no alternative but to sit back down at the laptop, where Maria has been waiting for me: steadily, impenetrably. I force myself to meet her eyes, searching futilely for any hint of what was to happen to her. I try to see the photo as a casual observer might: an ordinary schoolgirl, an old photo that’s been sitting on some mother’s sideboard for years, dusted and replaced weekly. It doesn’t work; I can’t see her like that knowing her fate as I do. Maria Weston wants to be friends with me. Maybe that was the problem all along; Maria Weston wanted to be friends with me, but I let her down. She’s been hovering at the edge of my consciousness for all of my adult life, although I’ve been good at keeping her out, just a blurred shadow in the corner of my eye, almost but not quite out of sight. Maria Weston wants to be friends. But Maria Weston has been dead for more than twenty-five years.

Chapter 2 1989 I’ve been awake all night in an attempt to maintain some kind of hold on what has happened, on what I have done. My eyes are red and prickling with tiredness, but I daren’t go to sleep. If I sleep, when I wake up I’ll have one blissful, terrible second when I’m unaware – and then it will all come crashing in on me, its power multiplied indefinitely by that one un-knowing second. I think of the last time I saw the dawn in, lying in Sophie’s bed. This time it’s a more tempestuous and bleaker affair. A ceaseless summer rain has been falling all night, and the branch of a nearby tree is thwacking intermittently against my windowpane. It’s not just the chemicals keeping me awake, although I can still feel them coursing, unwanted, around my veins. I’ve been sitting here on the floor for four hours, as my bedroom turns gradually from darkness to a dull grey half-light. I’m surrounded by the debris of my elaborate preparations for the evening that, twelve hours ago, stretched out invitingly, bright with the promise of acceptance and approval. There are three dresses strewn on the bed, with the accompanying pair of shoes for each lying discarded in front of the full-length mirror.

My eyes rest dully on the stain on the carpet where Sophie dropped my new bronzing powder and I made a clumsy attempt to wipe it up with a bit of tissue dipped in a glass of stale water. The dress I wore lies in a crumpled heap next to me – I’ve pulled on an old sweatshirt and leggings. There are dark smudges under my eyes and my lips are dry, the remains of my lipstick clinging to the cracks and bleeding into the skin around my mouth. I’ve been sitting here on the floor for so long only because I can’t move. I would have expected my heart to be racing, but in fact an iron fist grips it so tightly that I am surprised it is beating at all. Everything has slowed to a funereal pace. If I move my hand to brush my hair behind my ears or pick something up off the floor, however quickly I do it, it’s as though I am moving in slow motion. My brain struggles to make sense of it all, my thoughts moving sluggishly through the past couple of months, trying to figure out how it has come to this. I suppose it all began a couple of months ago, the day the new girl started. I’d spent break listening to Sophie talking to Claire Barnes and Joanne Kirby, not saying much myself.

We were all sitting on that bench at the far edge of the playground, the three of them with their skirts rolled over at the waist so many times there was hardly any point in wearing them. Matt Lewis was watching Sophie from the other side of the playground and I could tell what he was thinking. It was that day, the first one of the year where you could smell spring in the air. I sat on the end of the bench, enjoying the feeling of the sun on my face, hoping they wouldn’t expect me to contribute anything. The sky was the most amazing blue, and Sophie and the other two were sort of shining, their impossibly glossy hair reflecting the sunlight, their smooth golden skin glistening. Of course they knew the effect they were having, they weren’t that stupid. Sophie was redoing her mascara and talking about a boy she’d got off with the weekend before at Claire Barnes’s sixteenth birthday party. Obviously I wasn’t invited. Claire and Joanne only tolerate me tagging along because I’m friends with Sophie, and sometimes I feel like I’m hanging on to even that friendship by the tips of my fingers. ‘Basically, we were kissing and all that, and then – well, you know the most embarrassing thing that can happen to a boy? That happened.

’ Claire and Joanne shrieked. ‘Oh my God!’ Claire said. ‘That is so embarrassing! You know I got off with Mark that time, at Johnny’s party? We went down the fields and I was down there, you know, giving him head, and nothing much was happening and I looked up and guess what? He was asleep!’ Sophie and Joanne fell about laughing and I smiled, to show that I understood the joke. At least I know what giving head is, even if I am hazy on the details. I’ve tried to imagine doing it to someone, even someone I really like, but I can’t. I have no idea how it works, for a start; what you would do with your mouth, your tongue. I shuddered. Claire leaned in to the other two as if about to impart some great piece of wisdom. ‘It’s all right for you two, it’s still all quite new to you, but I’m actually getting a bit bored with sex, you know. It’s all Dan wants to do.

You know sometimes I’d like to go into town or go to the cinema or something?’ Sophie and Joanne fell over themselves to agree. It’s funny, Sophie’s always so cool, so together, but sometimes when she’s with Claire I can see her soft underbelly, the cracks in her facade. They’d recently started letting me go into town with them after school. We would all walk down in a group, but when you get to the path by the river it’s too narrow to walk anything but two-by-two, and I could always feel Sophie and Joanne silently jostling to be the one that got to walk with Claire rather than with me. Until tonight, I’d never even kissed a boy, and I remember praying that day that the others wouldn’t find out. Sophie knows, but I don’t think she’d tell. At least they never try to involve me in those conversations. I’m always so frightened of saying something stupid, something that will betray my lack of experience. Most of what I know about sex I’ve learned from the pages of Just Seventeen magazine, although God knows it could be more helpful. The problem-page woman seems to assume you have a basic knowledge, so there are always phrases and words I’m not sure about.

You’d think maybe sex education at school would have covered this, but no, so far it’s been an ancient 1970s video of a woman giving birth, and some embarrassed talk about penises going into vaginas. Well, even I knew that. The only lesson that had promised to be interesting was the one where Mrs Cook was going to teach us how to put a condom on a banana but guess what: Mrs Cook was ill that day so we had to make do with hearing from one of the other classes in our year who’d done it the week before. The new girl’s name was Maria Weston. She looked OK, sort of normal uniform, not trendy but not square either. Miss Allan made Sophie look after her, but Sophie basically showed her where the toilets were, and the lunch hall, and then ignored her for the rest of the day. Esther Harcourt tried to make friends with Maria, but even a new girl could see that Esther, in her hand-me-downs and thickrimmed glasses was not the route to social success at our school. Funny to think that I used to hang out with Esther all the time at primary school. I loved going to her house because her mum let us go off into the woods for hours, although they were vegetarian hippies so we got some odd stuff for tea. I sort of miss her in some ways; we did used to have a laugh.

Couldn’t be friends with her any more though – nightmare. Anyway, at lunch Sophie hadn’t even sat with the new girl, and Esther was already staying away by then because Maria had been so cold to her at morning break. As I got closer to the tills, I started on the daily task of scanning the cafeteria trying to work out where I was going to sit. Maria was sitting on her own at one end of a table with a group of real swots at the other end, including Natasha Griffiths (or, as Sophie calls her, ‘Face and Neck’ due to her orange foundation and white neck). Face and Neck was holding forth on the subject of her English homework and how brilliant Mr Jenkins said it was, and how he’d asked her to stay back specially after class at the end (I bet he did; everyone reckons he’s a right old perv). I was about to pass Maria, wondering whether it was going to be OK to sit with Sophie (she was with Claire and Joanne on the far left corner table which for some reason is the cool table – basically unless you are only having a yoghurt for lunch it’s fairly embarrassing to sit there), when I caught Maria’s eye. She was eating her jacket potato and listening to Natasha banging on about her Shakespeare essay, smiling like she could already tell how full of crap Natasha is, and something made me slow my pace. ‘Is anyone sitting here?’ ‘ N o , no o ne!’ s he s a i d , mo v i ng he r tr a y t o ma ke r o o m fo r me. ‘ S i t d o w n.’ I unloaded the shameful fat-filled lasagne from my tray and sat down, pressing the sharp end of my apple juice straw into the little silver disc until it popped, a bead of amber liquid oozing from the hole.

‘ S o , ho w ’ s yo ur fi r s t d a y g o i ng s o fa r ? ’ ‘Oh, you know, good; of course it’s difficult… you know…’ She trailed off. ‘ S o , c r a p b a s i c a l l y ? ’ I gr i nne d. ‘ Y e a h.’ S he s mi l e d i n r e l i e f. ‘ T o t a l c r a p.’ ‘Where did you go to school before? Did your mum and dad move?’ Maria concentrated very hard on cutting the skin of her potato. ‘Yes, we lived in London.’ ‘ O h r i ght , ’ I s a i d. Ap r i l s e e me d l i ke a funny ti me o f ye a r t o mo v e , s o ne a r the e nd o f G C S E ye a r. She hesitated.

‘I was having a bit of trouble with some of the other girls.’ I sensed she didn’t want me to press her, so I didn’t. ‘Well, everyone’s really nice here,’ I lied. ‘You won’t have any problems like that. In fact there’s a group of us that goes into town most days after school, you should come.

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