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The girls are playing a game. The winner is whoever can stand on one foot for the longest; the loser will be ostracised. They are gathered by the granite and slate dry-wall of the playground, but one of the rules is that you can’t use the wall for balance. You can’t use anyone else for balance, either. If you are Mara, you should be grateful for being invited to play.
The other girls are talking: TV shows, who stole and ruined whose pen, the netball team. Their balance is wavering. Mara can see their lifted feet trembling for the ground and short bodies swaying as the conversation grows more animated. She doesn’t join in because conversation is distracting and once she is distracted she knows she will lose. She always loses and is banished to the cold shade of the picnic bench by the teachers’ lounge, where no one dares to approach her.
So she listens and tries not to shake with the chill and effort of standing so still. She watches her steamy breath roil into the air, worried that she’s breathing too much, too obviously. The key to not losing is not to be noticed, which is infuriating in itself. The minutes tick by. Talkative Catherine plants both feet on the ground in order to better illustrate, with waving hands, the story she’s telling. The other girls’ feet are hovering just shy of the gravel – here and there a toe is touching the solid earth, and eventually drifts down to leave its owner standing two-footed and straight. The game has been forgotten. Mara’s left foot is still hooked around her right knee. Her legs are aching. With relief, she lowers her foot to the ground, loosens her tense muscles.
“You lose,” says Jo.
Mara jerks her foot up. Jo tilts her head and smirks. Queen, she dismisses her subject.
Mara steps back. The injustice rages in her belly and will not be calmed, sending heat up her chest into her face. Her hands are clenched. The other girls stand, angelic and one-legged, gazing at her. Cousins, sisters, friends, all of them village children, they purse their lips slightly, wrinkle their so-similar noses, and consider her as one might consider the carcass of an unfamiliar animal squashed by a passing car.
“I thought the game was over,” says Mara, shakily. “Catherine had her foot down.”
“No, she didn’t,” says Jo, calm and friendly. “She had it up the whole time. Off you go.”
Mara unclenches her hands with some effort and walks off to the bench.
Mrs Bleakly stands on the other side of the playground, watching the girls. In their matching coats, bathed in frozen winter light with the rolling hills as a backdrop, they look like a Christmas card. They play so nicely, never a raised word. Except that one. Always hiding in a corner, she is.
Mrs Bleakly peeps her whistle warningly at two of the boys who are trying to climb the wall, then heads for the bench.
“Everything ok, Mara?” she says, cheerfully.
“Fine, thanks,” says Mara. The bit of rotten wood she’s prodding on the underside of the bench breaks free in her hand and a couple of woodlice make a run for it.
“Don’t break school equipment,” says Mrs Bleakly, automatically. “It’s a bit cold over here, isn’t it? Why don’t you go and play in the sun with the other girls? I’m sure they’d let you.”
“I’m not cold,” she says, and crumbles the bit of wood between her fingers so that it falls like dirty snow.
“As long as you’re ok,” says Mrs Bleakly, checking her watch. “Do you want to ring the bell for the end of break?”
This is an honour, Mara knows, but ringing the bell will draw unwanted attention, and a day of isolation is better than the week of freezing-out she’ll face if she does that.
So Mrs Bleakly rings the bell herself.
Mara gratefully follows her into lessons, where seats are assigned and conversation is monitored, and she can focus on pens and paper and not have to look up.
At lunchtime, Mara takes her sandwich straight to the bench, as decreed by Jo. She breaks off a little more rotten wood and names the exposed woodlice, tells them quietly that they are her only real friends. Her only real friends run for the dark and roll up into scaly little ball-bearings when she prods them.
By afternoon break it is raining, and a wet break is called. There is no bench in the classroom to go to, so she moves to the reading corner, and browses the book shelves. She grimaces at the smiling faces on the covers of the inevitable books about feelings, passes over the Ben and Sarah books. Ben and Sarah always do something slightly wrong and learn a lesson and everyone hugs at the end. She wants something good. Then she sees it, hidden at the back – men fighting on a flaming ship with a dragon prow, wild waves all round. She immerses herself in stories of gods, battles and berserkers.
Paul watches Mara reading. Her tongue is sticking out and she’s smiling. He looks down at his own miserable choice, a moral-riddled book on friendships and jealousy. One of the quieter boys, he often retreats to the reading corner on wet break, but he’s never seen that book before. Eventually, he ambles over to her.
“What are you reading?” he asks.
Mara looks up, half-closes the book. “Viking gods,” she says, cautiously.
“It looks good,” says Paul. “Can I have it after you?”
“It’s brilliant!” Mara leafs through the pages, shows him the bright pictures. “Did you know that they sent dead warriors out to sea on burning ships? Did you know that the gods fought giants and the world is going to freeze over? And that there is a giant snake around the world, biting its own tail?”
“I’m not even sure how that book got in here,” says Mrs Bleakly, who has been listening. “It might be a bit old for you.” She looks dubiously at a picture of Loki with his wicked smile, sharpening mistletoe to kill blind Baldur.
“It’s not!” Mara hugs the book to herself without realising it. Paul looks alarmed. Mrs Bleakly decides to make a tactical withdrawal, and deal with it after everyone’s gone home.
Mara goes back to reading, shuts them out. At the end of break, she hides the book in her bag.
That afternoon, she draws runes down the side of her workbook and a picture of herself as Freyja, goddess of war and beauty, with an axe in her hand.
“We’re supposed to be drawing our houses,” whispers Catherine, looking over Mara’s shoulder. Mara glares at her, Freyja in her eyes, and Catherine quails.
At home, Mara retreats to the massive garden. Her parents, city folk both, had rejoiced at having so much green space, all for themselves. “We’ll grow vegetables!” Mum had said, “And have barbecues and picnics on the lawn.” Her father had looked at the greenhouse and the potting shed and filled them with new tools and gardening equipment. And then work started and life went back to normal, but with less people and more frighteningly open space.
Since then the garden, so perfectly manicured when they first moved in, has grown wild. There are no vegetables and the potting shed is falling down. Nettles are stealthily conquering the lawn. The long grass and reaching, dishevelled hedges have yielded any number of hiding places and dens. Mara can’t be found if she doesn’t want to be found. She’s a traveller, a ghost, a gypsy princess. She wears leaves in her hair and mixes mysterious potions of mud and roots.
Today, Mara takes branches and leaves and builds herself a ship. It bursts forth from the trees, from sea-spray leaves. Its dragon-head is alive and shouting. She waves her axe and hails the gods. She bites her lip for the taste of blood and sets about the nettles, slaying every one. Her skin is immune to their stings. Only her mother’s voice calling her for dinner can dissipate the rage, and she is astonished at the carnage she has left.
Over burnt fish fingers, her parents ask her about the day. They are genuinely interested.
“It was fine,” says Mara. “We read out loud. We learnt about Vikings.” She stabs her mashed potatoes over and over again with her fork, gratified when the prongs hit a lump.
That night, she falls asleep with the book in her hand. She dreams of Viking ships, icy lands and fiery seas. She is at the prow of her own longboat, a raging goddess with a horned helmet. She stands one-legged with perfect balance, and her hordes sweep the beach and go on to the school. She can feel the heat of burning wood and bricks, shrivelling her arm hair. The girls see her coming and they are in awe. They welcome her, with real smiles and open arms. Jo Stanley comes aboard to eat ice cream and learn sea shanties. She says they are best friends and lets her win a game, but the game is boring.
The next day is Friday. As the children arrive at school, parents at their heels, the other girls wave and greet Mara. Mara waves back. Everyone is chummy while the parents watch. The mums and dads chat, arranging tea dates, play dates.
“I’m so glad Mara has made friends,” says Mara’s mother to Mrs Stanley. “We were worried that the move to such a small school might be difficult for her.”
“They adjust better than we think,” says Mrs Stanley. The women smile at each other, arrange to meet for a cup of tea. Mara watches them, darkly, her mother consorting with the enemy. Jo smiles brightly at her mother’s suggestion that the two girls play together at the weekend, but in the cloakroom, she turns to Mara and looks at her with eyes cold like hailstones.
“Was that your idea?”
“No,” says Mara. If Jo’s stare is ice, Mara’s is the threat of burning ships. Jo steps back. The other girls fall silent.
“Would you like to play with us at break time?” says Jo, polite, firm. “We are going to play a game.”
“No, thank you,” says Mara, equally polite, firmer.
Catherine, always more hysterical than the others, audibly gasps. Jo nods, as if she expected this, as if Mara has somehow lost a battle.
“Fine,” she says. “Do what you want.”
Mara, who knows she has won everything, turns her back on them.
At morning break she seeks out Paul to give him the book, asks him if he wants to play.
“I’ll be Freyja, you be Odin,” she says.
“Who wins?” says Paul.
“We’re on the same side,” says Mara.
The playground echoes to their shouts as they lay waste to the school. The bench is their ship, their coats are bear-skin cloaks. They taste blood and wage war and send bodies lit up into the night and sing songs and draw runes down their arms. They chase Loki and catch wolves, slay serpents. Odin sends his ravens to spy on Jo and her giants, who are standing out in the frozen wastes, not having half as much fun as they are. Mrs Bleakly asks them to ring the bell for the end of break, and they ring it loud, for Valhalla, Asgard and victory.