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. 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. My chest was tight as I whispered, ‘Hey,’ and held out the note to Christopher. He looked at Mrs McCabe, reached out, and our fingertips touched like that famous painting. The touch made me feel even funnier. I looked at the ceiling, puffed my cheeks.
I sensed Christopher reading the note while the strip-lights started to blind me. ‘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 I turned to Christopher, scratching the desk with his nail. 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, big smile, her blue eyes almost turquoise. ‘We’re free!’ she said, putting her schoolbag on. ‘Come on, let’s go outside.’ The tightness in my chest was rising upwards, clasping at my throat. ‘I need the toilet first,’ I said. ‘I’ll find you on the grass.’
The rest of the class grabbed their schoolbags, ran, ran, ran towards the sun.
‘OK, Emma?’ said Mrs McCabe.
I nodded, ‘Yeah,’ as she lifted my exam paper.
Mrs McCabe’s light-brown hair was laced with grey strands. She smiled gently, ‘Good girl. Now, go outside and have fun.’
When Mrs McCabe moved away, I took the note from Christopher’s desk. On the steps of the mobile classroom, the summer breeze smelled of grass. I ripped the note into pieces and threw it up, into the air.
In the main building, my footsteps echoed, walking down the long corridor. Either side were closed classrooms, doors locked for the summer. At the end of the corridor, I stopped in front of the big mirror. My freckled nose was slightly sunburnt; eyes almost turquoise. ‘But we look the same,’ I whispered, picking shredded paper from my school shirt.
In the mirror I tied my hair back, tried hard to smile. Behind me, the corridor looked endless, doubled back, like a tunnel.
I shook my head at the big mirror, walked towards the cloakroom. The warm space had wooden benches, coats hanging from hooks. When I sat down, tears fell. I shuddered quietly, gasped. Rubbing my eyes, Beth and Christopher lay on hazy grass. I felt my body lean sideways, curl up on the bench. The coats muffled the sounds from the playground. All I could hear was my own breathing. Gradually, my chest relaxed, my whole body softened. ‘Just for a wee minute,’ I said, as I closed my eyes, drifting, in the warm room.