I knocked on Arabella’s sticker-encrusted door. “Come on. It’s 7 o’clock,” I twittered, feeling inexplicably nervous. “Thompson will be calling us in a minute and you said you wanted to get in the shower early so that you could head over to the art room and finish that drawing before breakfast.”
Heaving myself out of bed to wake her was an unusual effort that morning. We’d sat up until very late chatting about her dysfunctional family as we’d done every night for years. Now I was feeling light headed and slightly sick. Most of the conversation had turned on whether or not they would still be able to pay the school fees if her dad had to sell any more restaurants. Then I’d crept into her bed, as usual, for a cuddle. Finally, leaving her asleep, I’d slipped silently back to my own room. For some reason, I didn’t drop off for a long time, though.
I fell in love with Arabella Verdi when I was four and saw her across the kindergarten classroom standing between the quiet corner and the craft table on our first day. Her shiny dark hair was neatly cut into the nape of her tiny neck – an unusual style for a child so young and I was transfixed by her pretty brown freckles on olive skin. Even then something stirred in my tummy and infant heart when I looked at her although it would be many years before I understood the meaning of that feeling.
Arabella and Lauren. Lauren and Arabella. We’d been inseparable for thirteen years right through prep and senior school and nothing, but nothing, was going to change that. Our UCAS forms were done and we were both hoping to do English at Warwick.
Her parents would have preferred her to go to Exeter and “strike out on her own” for a bit and made no secret of it. The word “unhealthy” was beginning to crop up, so Arabella told me. Our careers teacher had hinted that we ought to think about going our separate ways at least during term time too. But I got my way – as I usually do. All we needed now was a few A levels and we could settle at uni together away from homophobic teachers, worried parents and restrictive institutions – a long, bright, free future ahead of us.
She felt the same way. Of course she did. I know she chats to the village boys back home but that only reminds her how uninterested she is in anything male. That sexy flick of the thick wavy long hair and flash of her coal-black eyes – like a TV upmarket shampoo advert – were reserved for me and only me.
Mimi Wu’s rather gross twin brother, Kenny, a student at a boys’ school near ours who texted her occasionally wasn’t going to get anywhere either. He tried to twinkle at her when he popped over at weekends but Arabella didn’t want to know. She often mentioned it and I laughed. He didn’t stand a chance with my gorgeous girl.
I knocked again. As loudly as I could. Silence. Could she already be in the shower? Pretty unlikely, knowing Arabella who sleeps as if there were prizes for who can sleep the longest – like the dead, in fact. Should I walk in and shake her? No. Something held me back from that. We’d been trained from infancy to respect each other’s privacy. There isn’t a lot of it around in a boarding school so you have to hang on pretty tightly to what there is. I’ve walked into her room uninvited before which she doesn’t care for especially if she’s on her phone or laptop. She is, I suppose, more reserved than I, despite our intimacy. Best not to enter the room.
Sounds of yawns and creaking beds were beginning to stir around me as I padded along to the showers. “Are you in there, Bella you old slag?” I called affectionately, a bit louder this time so that, if she were there, she’d hear me over the running water. I could hear someone splashing around but it must have been Mimi. She’s always up early, a life time habit born of growing up in tropical Hong Kong. I sang out Arabella’s name once more although, really, I already knew that she wasn’t there.
“What on earth are you shouting about, Lauren” said a soft Edinburgh voice behind me. “It’s still quite early and we don’t all want rudely rousing just yet. Is something wrong?” It was Miss Thompson begirdled in plaid, her bunions more or less concealed in her bulging slippers. She had been sixth form house mistress at Frampton Park School for as long as anyone could remember. She’d been Arabella’s mother’s house mistress and, if you listen to rumours, several girls’ grannies remembered her too.
“Oh good morning, Miss Thompson” I stalled with crisp, automatic, characteristic Frampton Park politeness. “It’s just that I can’t find Arabella and I promised to wake her.
“Hmm. I expect she’s fast asleep. Were you two chatting late last night?”. Miss Thompson had a slightly quizzical, eye-brow raising way of asking questions like that. She was a sharp old bird who missed very little and I’m pretty sure she knew how things were between Arabella and me – so much so that I suspected that a few lifetimes ago she might have had a girlfriend she loved too. There was always a hint of understanding and empathy beneath her Scots brusqueness.
Now she dressing-gowned her way briskly along to Arabella’s door and beat a peremptory tattoo on it. No response. “Arabella” she said authoritatively. “Are you OK?”
“She’s clearly very deeply asleep, Lauren” said Miss Thompson when her knocking, like mine, was met by a definite silence. I could hear a slight quiver of anxiety creeping into her voice. She was beginning to take this a bit more seriously. “Now, tell me the truth. When you were up late last night what else were you doing? Did you drink or take anything?”
Well, I’d seen this one coming. Bella and I weren’t averse to a drop of vodka. And during holidays and exeats we’d dabble with weed and a bit of coke occasionally. But we really wanted to stay in school long enough to pass our A levels so we resisted the quickest route to expulsion by bringing drink and drugs into school. “We made a pot of tea in the house kitchen and took it down to Arabella’s room with some toast and Marmite” I said. And I was telling the truth. Later when they saw inside of her room the corroborative remnants of our little supper were there.
“Right, you go and get dressed, Lauren, and leave this with me” said Miss Thompson. Half an hour later I was over at the main building in the dining room helping myself to fruit, yoghurt and coffee, trying to pretend that everything was normal. “Where’s Arabella?” said Mimi, bringing her bowl of cereal over to join me at one of the room’s many bench tables. Like most of the girls we’d grown up with Mimi regarded the two of us as a unit and it was unusual for me to be breakfasting without my other half. I never quite knew whether our mates really knew the truth about our love.
I didn’t have a lesson that day until after break so when I’d finished distractedly pushing my breakfast round my plate it was time to back to the boarding house – a sixth form privilege. Younger girls had to take their lesson things to breakfast with them and go straight on to class, not returning to their boarding houses until after lunch.
I was in no hurry. So I went from the dining room up the stark, steep external stone steps to the library which was part of Frampton Park’s original coaching block.
As usual it felt chilly but intimate once you were inside and there were lots of alcoves and niches where you could be unseen and unknown to anyone else. I sat in silence for a while. Then I went to the English Literature session and found the critical work on Tennyson’s In Memoriam which Arabella and I had agreed we needed for our current English assignment. The book had the text printed on the left page and critical commentary on the right. It fell open at “The path by which we twain did go, Which led by tracts that pleased us well”. It could have been written for us. We both loved In Memoriam. “Ring out, wild bells”. Yes, one day we thought – for us.
Eventually, I couldn’t put it off any longer, heavy hearted and apprehensive as I was feeling. The cindered path back towards the boarding house was lined with huge horse chestnut trees whose branches and browning leaves met over my head to form a dark archway punctured with fingers of autumn sunlight. I scuffed through the dead fallen leaves and shiny conkers. And I wished desperately that Arabella were sauntering along beside me in her bright green Chloe blazer over her navy uniform trouser suit in defiance of school rules.
Today felt strangely like some sort of major turning point and I wasn’t in a rush to face what was coming. My mind still felt foggy with foreboding. Tennyson’s lines “And if my heart, if calm at all. If any calm, a calm despair” rang in my head.
Then I turned the corner and saw her father’s white Jag with its DV100 number plate, parked in the courtyard in front of the sixth form boarding house. He’d bought the personal plate some years earlier to celebrate the opening of the hundredth restaurant so the vehicle was very distinctive.
David Verdi, Arabella’s dad, owned Verdi Pizzas which had a branch in most British towns and I’d known him almost as long as I’d known her. David, and Arabella’s mother, Claudia – all diamond earrings and charity events with horses – lived in a massive mansion in rural Berkshire that once belonged to a prosperous Victorian entrepreneur. When I stayed there I had a bedroom bigger than my Gran’s council house and a bathroom of my own. For years they put me in the room next to Arabella with a communicating door. The last twice I’d been I’d been assigned a room on the other side of the house.
“We thought you’d prefer it because it gets more sun,” Claudia, explained smoothly but I was pretty sure they were gently trying to stop us being together. David and Claudia were both the descendants of poor Italian immigrants. They liked to joke fondly that Arabella’s great grandfather played the barrel organ on the streets of London but that might have been just a romantic tale. Either way they remained Catholic at heart and they really didn’t want their only daughter to devote her life to a relationship with another woman. That’s why, having spotted the “danger”, they had taken to inviting lots of “eligible” young men to visit as often as possible, when Arabella’s home, as if they were characters in a Jane Austen novel.
My background was very different. My dad was a GP and we had to live on what he earned. He grew up in a poor area of Liverpool, where my Nan still lived. A grammar school place eventually spring-boarded him into medical school. My mum worked nights as a theatre sister simply to pay my school fees. When Arabella stayed with us she had to share my room which was great and, if my parents suspected the truth they seemed to be pretty relaxed about it. Neither Arabella or I had ever discussed our relationship openly at home or anywhere else for that matter.
“Come into my office”. Miss Thompson, now in her daytime uniform of black trousers and chiffon blouse, her face chalk white, was waiting for me by the door. “I’ve got something very serious to tell you”.
“Is it Arabella? Is she ill?”
“Sit down, Lauren” She closed the door with a definite click. I dropped into the wicker chair beside her coffee table. The room smelled of coffee and Wright’s Coal Tar Soap.
“Lauren, Arabella is dead”
The soles of my feet went clammy. Suddenly my tongue wouldn’t move in my mouth. I wanted to snatch open the door and run away as far as I could. Then I noticed that Miss Thompson seemed to know that because she had stood up and was standing between the door and me.
“She can’t be dead” I stammered. “I was with her last night. She was fine when I left her.” I tried to think back to how Arabella usually looked when I left her at night, her dark hair against the pale pillow but could find only a big blank white space where my happy memories and hopes usually lived.
“Lauren, the terrible truth is that Arabella has been strangled with a pair of tights as she lay on her bed. Paramedics have been but there was nothing they could do so she’s still here in her room. You were probably the last person to see her alive”
Strangled? Vivid images started to bubble up. I’d read novels and seen films. People turn purple. Their eyes bulge. Their tongues protrude. Not my beautiful Arabella. No, no , no …
“Who could have …?” I gasped, feeling suddenly cold and dizzy.
“We don’t know” said Miss Thompson “But you’re a key witness and the police will be here any minute. Your parents are on their way too. Arabella’s father has already arrived.”
“Can I talk to David?”
“No not for the moment. I have to ask you to stay here in my office. I’ve blocked the staircases as no one is allowed upstairs at present. Use my loo if you need to. I’ll get Miss Lewis to come and sit with you.”
With that she left, looking more strained than I’d ever seen her. She dropped the latch so that I couldn’t have gone anywhere even if I’d wanted to.
Then I heard it. The broken sobbing of utter distress. It was David Verdi in the tutorial room next door. As I listened, Miss Thompson joined him, murmuring something. The desolate, distraught weeping continued without pause.
I shivered. But I didn’t – couldn’t – cry. I sat gazing past Miss Thompson’s computer at her neat pin board with its lists of exeat dates, parents’ phone numbers and student birthdays – the everyday details of real life. I don’t know how long it was before Pam Lewis, the much younger assistant house mistress, slipped into the room and sat down beside me. Normally very chatty, this time she said nothing. Instead she touched my hand and gave me a strange, distracted, non committal half smile as if I was someone she didn’t really know. David, meanwhile, still wept.
The police were in the building. They’d arrived quietly but I could hear several unfamiliar voices. I suppose they saw no reason to sweep in with flashing lights and sirens. It wouldn’t bring Arabella back to life. And it would upset the younger children in the other houses. The school would probably have to be closed for a while, I realised. Everyone would be sent home and this story would be all over the papers – who love to get their teeth into schools like Frampton Park anyway.
More vehicles drew up outside and a dog barked. I’d recognise Barney, our cream Labrador, anywhere from a single bark. My parents must be here. I heard someone let them in. But no one came in to Miss Lewis and me. We just sat there in cloistered silence.
Doors banged. People scuttled about. It no longer sounded like the sixth form boarding house. It was as if it had been taken over by forces much more powerful than the ones who normally managed it. I suppose the students had been sent to another boarding house or over to the main building because there wasn’t a single teenage voice. But I could hear male footsteps tramping up and downstairs and that was unprecedented. Normally during term time no male – not even a father or a brother – was allowed up those stairs.
Why had I been isolated? Weren’t they going to let my mum and dad come in to commiserate with me? I’d lost the person I loved most in the world and I was feeling as if I’d been sliced in half.
At last, Miss Thompson unlatched the door. She was with my mother and another woman who introduced herself as Detective Inspector Clare Wise. Miss Thompson nodded at Miss Lewis who slipped out and I don’t think I imagined the relief on her face.
The door banged nearby. My dad was talking to David Verdi. Their voices were muffled and punctuated with coughs. David was trying to stem his tears for long enough to talk to my dad. And Dad, no doubt, ever the tactful doctor even when off duty, was probably being warm, supportive and understanding. It didn’t seem to occur to anyone to wonder where Claudia was. Later I learned that she and David were in the throes of separating. That morning she happened to be away on a cruise in the South China Sea with the man who eventually became her second husband. Internet and phone connections were proving difficult and they were still trying to contact her.
My mum always looked strained when she got home from her night shift. Assisting at high level emergency surgery requires a special calm and she’d got it in spades but when she came off duty she collapsed like a pricked balloon – that’s the side of her work her colleagues didn’t see. That morning she must have come in from the hospital, got the call from Miss T and driven straight down here from London with Dad. She probably hadn’t even had a cup of tea, never mind breakfast or a sleep. She looked lined, pinched, worried and much older than her 46 years.
“Lauren” she sped across the room to enfold me in her arms as she usually does when she sees me after an absence even if we’ve only been apart for an afternoon. I felt the tension in her body as she hugged me. “It’s going to be OK, darling. Just tell the truth and then we’ll take you home for a bit” she said.
What? Of course, I was going to tell the truth. Why on earth did she – my mother of all people – think I wouldn’t?
“I need to ask you some questions, Lauren” said the policewoman.
“You’re still only 17 which means you’re underage. So your mother will be present.” I sensed my mother relax very slightly with relief.
“I’ll be in the room across the corridor if you need me” said Miss Thompson and left the room as the three of us sat down round her coffee table. There was silence for a few minutes while the woman shuffled a note pad and produced a digital recorder from her bag which she placed on the table between us and switched on. Then she took a long deep breath.
“This is D.I. Clare Wise interviewing Lauren Baker” she announced for the recorder. “Lauren, can you tell your mother and me what happened in Arabella’ room last night?
For a moment or two, I said nothing. Then remembering the many evenings Arabella and I had spent together in her room. I explained how I’d made the toast and we’d eaten it, chatting and then I’d gone off to bed.
“What else happened?” she pressed.
I didn’t reply.
“You and Arabella were very close weren’t you?”
“Yes, we’d been friends since we were four years old”
“Lauren, are you gay?” she shot out the question with piercing suddenness. I didn’t look at my mother but I felt her brace herself.
I swallowed. “Well I’m not interested in boys. So I suppose I am – what you just said.”
“Lauren, we have every reason to suppose that you and Arabella were in a sexual relationship. Our scene of crime officers have found several blonde hairs, including some pubic ones, in her bed. A DNA test, which we shall need to do later will prove whose they are but I don’t think there will be any surprises when we get the results will there?”
She continued: “You must have been the last person to see her alive so is there anything else you want to tell me?”
I thought. And all I could think of was Arabella’s face when, many times over the years, she’d told me that she loved me : me, gawky Lauren, with a physique like a Russian shot putter. My lovely, dainty, pretty girl.
“Arabella wasn’t gay was she?” the policewoman demanded, cutting across my thoughts.
“Of course she was” I snapped to attention. “The two of us have been an item since we were children. And that’s the truth.”
She paused. Then she took an audible deep breath. “Lauren, Mr Verdi – David – has been talking to your father and me. He says that Kenny Wu has spent a lot of time at their house recently. He has stayed for several weekends and Mr and Mrs Verdi now allow him to sleep in Arabella’s room.”
“No! That’s not true. Why do I have to sit here and listen to these ridiculous lies? Mum! Tell her about Arabella and me. Please …” My voice was sounding shrill and I was beginning to feel sweaty and stressed.”
My mother didn’t answer immediately. Instead she reached over and took my hand. The policewoman shuffled her papers. The recording device bleeped. Then, after what seemed a very long silence my mother cleared her throat and said gently: “It’s true, Lauren. Claudia has phoned me several times about this. Kenny is now a regular visitor at the Verdis’ house. And he’s not going home to Hong Kong for the Christmas holidays. He has a front of house job at the theatre in Frampton Wells during their busy pantomime season and he’s going to stay with the Verdis while he does it. He is definitely now Arabella’s boyfriend.”
Then she added, her voice cracking. “Or was. I just didn’t know how to tell you.”
“That’s rubbish! I don’t believe a word of it.” I shouted desperately, my mouth beginning to quiver and my eyes hot and prickling. Why are you all saying such horrible things?”
There was another pause. Then the policewoman spoke. “Lauren, I want to show you something”. She went to the door and spoke to someone outside before returning with a sealed plastic bag.
She handed it to me. Inside was the Pandora silver ring I bought Arabella for her seventeenth birthday last year. It was crushed, almost flat as if someone had stamped on it. It occurred to me that I hadn’t seen it for a while.
I rubbed it between my fingers through the polythene.
And instantly there it was: the ghastly, desolating truth. In my hands.
It was as if someone or something had hit the white arrow on a video on a phone in my head. At last I could see and hear the events of the previous night, unrolling with hideous clarity before my eyes.
I was arriving in her room with the late night snack and Arabella was sitting at her desk chair and saying “Lauren, we have to talk” There was something about the serious way she was speaking which felt like a huge boulder dropping to the bottom of my stomach. I no longer wanted toast and Marmite. I sat down on her bed and looked at her.
“The thing is” she said abruptly “that I don’t think I want to carry on like this any more.” I could tell she was struggling for words. “We can be friends – obviously – because we go back a long way!” She smiled hollowly. “But can we please stop all this – you know – this other stuff about being lovers and touching each other? It doesn’t feel right any longer.”
“You don’t mean that” I said quickly. “You and I love each other. Lauren and Arabella. We’re a unit, remember? Nothing has changed”
She went very still. Then she looked at me. “Actually something has” she said “And I’ve been trying to tell you for weeks.”
In a flash I remembered all the times she’d put her phone away the instant I appeared and the many occasions when she’d drawn breath to speak and then stopped. I’d chosen to ignore it. We were in love and we were going to spend our lives together. Nothing else mattered.
Whatever it was, it was coming now and I didn’t think I could bear it. I jumped up to put my arms around her to stop her speaking but she pushed me away. “No listen to me, Lauren. Please.”
Then she told me, haltingly, that she’d got something going with Kenny Wu. “I like him a lot. And we’ve slept together. Sex is completely different with a boy.”
She gulped again before saying with devastating quietness: “Perhaps you should try it sometime”.
A massive mental red light flashed. Those six inflammatory, insulting words of betrayal were enough. I was in love, jealous – and angry. Surging, wild, furious, frenzied anger. I stood and pulled her forcibly towards me on the bed. I grabbed a pair of tights which were drying on the radiator. There was very little struggle. I was almost twice her size and weight.
Now, in Miss Thompson’s office in the hideously cold, truthful daylight my mother and the policewoman were watching me closely “Lauren, is there something you want to tell us?” asked the woman softly. My mother squeezed my hand and I could feel her shaking.
“Yes” I said.
Copyright Susan Elkin 2018