Christopher had finished his test, too, stretching his legs at the desk beside me. I didn’t turn to look – in case Mrs McCabe thought I was cheating – but I sensed him put his hands behind his head, arch himself backwards.
I stared ahead at Beth’s blonde bob, shining in the sunlight. As always, in tests, we were sitting in alphabetical order, Beth in front, me behind, like when we were born. In the hushed classroom I smoothed my hair, frayed like ragged daisy chains. Our thin hair looked better short but one of us had to have it long, so people could tell the difference.
‘Five minutes,’ said Mrs McCabe and Joanne, to my right, gasped as if she was swimming breaststroke. Big George, in front of Christopher, said, ‘Awk shite,’ and Mrs McCabe said, ‘Now, now.’ I tried not to laugh, turning to Christopher, who shook his head at Big George and tried not to laugh as well.
Through the window: the sun-soaked playground, the field hazy behind it. I couldn’t wait to get outside, to run with Beth towards the field, close our eyes on the warm grass.
It was our last test, the Eleven Plus, then we went to big school. Mostly I was excited, but also I was scared. Christopher was going to a different school, and when I thought about that my stomach felt funny.
I took a deep breath, ripped some paper from the back of my exam. Would you like to go to the cinema with me? I wrote, then folded the note four times.
‘Hey,’ I whispered to Christopher, who looked at Mrs McCabe then reached out towards me. Briefly, our fingertips touched, and I thought of that painting I’d seen on holiday, all the way up on the ceiling. Christopher started to unfold the note and I focused on the striplights.
‘Two minutes left,’ said Mrs McCabe, blurred now in front of the blackboard.
I rubbed my eyes and faced the window, pearled pink, like inside a shell. When my eyes cleared, Christopher was scratching the wooden desk. Oh god, oh god, oh god, I thought, my heart beating so fast.
Around me, people cracked their knuckles. Mrs McCabe paced. I turned again to Christopher, opened my palms, and he raised his index finger slowly, like the ET alien. Following his pointed finger, I stared, wide-eyed, at Beth’s blonde bob.
‘Time’s up everyone,’ said Mrs McCabe, ‘pencils down.’
Beth turned around, beamed at me, her blue eyes almost turquoise. ‘We’re free!’ she said, putting her schoolbag on. ‘Come on, let’s go outside.’
‘I need the toilet first,’ I said. ‘I’ll find you on the grass.’
People pushed their chairs back, grabbed their bags, and ran, ran, ran, towards the sun.
‘OK, Emma?’ said Mrs McCabe.
I nodded, ‘Yeah,’ as I tied my hair back.
Last to leave, I took the note from Christopher’s desk, ripped it into pieces. Outside, I threw the shredded paper up, up up, into the air.
In the main building my footsteps echoed. I stopped in front of the big mirror. My freckled nose was slightly sunburnt; eyes almost turquoise.
‘But we look the same,’ I whispered, then walked towards the cloakroom.
The space was dark, with wooden benches, coats hanging from hooks. When I sat down, tears fell. I shuddered quietly, gasped. Afterwards, eyelids heavy, I felt my body lying down, the bench against my cheek. ‘Just for a wee minute,’ I said, and I curled myself into a ball, in the dark, warm room.