“Come in here.”
Her heart sank. The attempt to sneak past his door undetected had been unsuccessful.
She slid in through the gap in the door, as if not disturbing or disrupting anything might slake his inevitable ire.
Catherine slunk towards the desk, flanked by looming sentry towers which heaved with row-upon-row of books.
“And how was your day, my child?” His light tone might deceive a stranger, and in fact it often did, but she knew better.
“I…. It was quite good, sir. We had a surprise algebra test, in which I came second-top, and the art teacher commended my depiction of a Camargue horse most highly.” She blushed slightly with pleasure, remembering how proud she herself was of the charcoal and chalk sketch.
“Very good, Catherine!!” Catherine blushed further. She’d been silly to worry so much – he had high expectations, but only because he wanted her to be the best. When she did well – when she strived to earn his praise and positive attention – he rewarded her with these kind words. Perhaps even, one day, a proud hug. Even a ruffle of the hair would do. She looked up from her shoes and gave him a shy smile. He smiled back.
“One little blunder though, wasn’t there, Catherine?” His smile faded. Her stomach lurched. “Mother told me about what happened in assembly. You’re too old for this silliness now.”
“I…. I’m sorry. I didn’t need to go before when teacher asked, and then I did, but we’re not allowed to leave the hall…. I… Next thing I knew… I… I’m so sorry, father, please believe me.” Her eyes welded themselves back to the shiny spots of leather at the toe of each shoes. Her blush of pride became the sharp flush of shame as she recalled the piquant memory of the pool spreading out around her. The other children skittered away, like crabs from the tide. Catherine became de facto queen of an island no-one wanted to be an inhabitant of, surrounded by an ammonia lagoon. In a full room, she was perfectly, painfully alone. But this was nothing new.
“I do believe you, Catherine. But I also have to help you, as your parent, in understanding that this is not a thing it is acceptable for a growing girl to do.” He held his liver-spotted hand out across the walnut desk. “Could I see your horse picture, please?”
Even at this moment, as she pulled the tight roll of stiff paper from her soft leather knapsack, she imagined that things might be ok, somehow.
Even as he made the first slow, precise tear down the middle of the paper, she believed that he was doing it out of a deep-rooted, yet perhaps ill-expressed love for her – his daughter, his only child, his flesh and blood.
Even as she lay in bed at past 2am, unable to sleep for the tears that still careened down her face into the sopping pillow, and the sobs that she had to catch – each and every one – in her throat before they emerged as any kind of rousing, wretched noise. Even then, she thought, one day, she could and would make him the proudest father ever.
“You could be doing better than this, Catherine. You came to us as an exceptionally-talented girl, and I can’t help but wonder what’s gone so terribly wrong.” Mr. Feinstein sat on the edge of the desk and looked down at the scruffy, pudgy girl slouched in front of him in a cheaply-upholstered chair.
Catherine chewed at a nail, with the air of disaffected nonchalance she had spent so long perfecting. She tried to spit a ragged strip of nail onto the carpet, but instead it fell limply to her leg, and sat stuck there on her laddered tights.
Mr. Feinstein sighed. “If you won’t speak to me, to anyone, we can’t help you. This is going to have to be a written warning. If there’s another, we’ll really have no choice but to exclude you from the 6th form.”
“Can I go now?” she said.
“I’d like to change my name by dead pool, please.” She spoke loudly, to be heard over the thick plexiglass separating her from the clerk.
“You do mean deed poll, don’t you?” The woman squinted at her through Deirdre Barlow glasses, looking for acknowledgement, or at least some form of recognition in those blank, smoke-washed eyes.
“Yeah. Deed poll, yeah. My friend said it’s fifty quid – I’ve got that.” Catherine pulled-out five rolls of ten £1 coins and pushed each one through the recess under the window. “Any name I want, yeah?”
“Twat!” she exhaled when he looked at her feet. Roller skates, yeah, as if. The costume he intended her to wear was bad enough. She knew it would be a fucking fiasco, and she couldn’t even begin to explain to herself why wearing such a ridiculously short skirt would be anything even approaching “fun” with those two dickheads around.
She went back to the refuge of her counter. She could go home soon. She reached under the counter for her bag and felt something else down there, long and flat and fibrous. Oh – yeah, of course. She pulled it out, furtively – just for a quick look. Perhaps she should take it home anyway – they might find it, laugh at her.
She was pulled-out of her thoughts by the voice of the dickhead from the other end of the shop.
“Hey!” he said, “Check this out!” He was doing some sort of flexing motion with his legs. She couldn’t even make it out, but she already knew she didn’t give a toss.
“Very good, Jamie. Ha. Ha.” She sighed and pushed the sketchpad back onto the shelf.
“Fuck you too, Paula,” he said, deflated. For a moment she felt bad but, as she left the shop and heard him say “bye!” in a stupid voice, the feeling passed.
As she stepped out of that godforsaken shop she felt lighter, as she did everyday. Tonight she’d be back there, but for now… for now she was free.