Sophie Hampton was born and brought up in London. Her work has been broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and published in the Eastern Daily Press, Scribble magazine, The Yellow Room (forthcoming) and digitally by Ether books. Competition successes include Bridport Prize shortlisted 2012, 2nd Prize at the Wells Festival of Literature 2011 and a finalist in the Brit Writers' Awards 2010. She is studying for an MA in creative writing at Sheffield Hallam University and is working on her first collection of short stories.
White Socks and Weirdos
Winner of first prize in the 2012 Seán Ó Faoláin Competition
‘Hey, Weirdo. Why do you wear spaz clothes?’ says Lorraine Abbot at playtime, hands on hips. She stares at my woolly tights and Clarks shoes, her eyes as dark and narrow as the coin slot on our gas meter. My legs itch and burn as though she’s put a curse on them.
‘Are you deaf and dumb?’ she says.
My face goes the colour of Mum’s lipstick. I know what the colour feels like because when Lorraine makes my cheeks hot and my heart B-BOOM, B-BOOM, I go to the girls’ toilets: two plums in the mirror.
‘My mum buys them,’ I say.
‘Tights are for spastics,’ says popular Lorraine in knee-high white socks and patent shoes. On Monday, her eighth birthday, she was the first girl in my class to walk to school on her own. She showed off about it All Day Long. On Tuesday she came into the classroom at twenty to ten, with puffy frog eyes and her mum; big boys on bikes had chased her and she had run back home and cried. The Witches had crowded round and made stupid noises. By afternoon register, the big boys had turned into men wearing balaclavas.
‘I’m allowed to choose my own clothes,’ Lorraine says. She flicks back her long hair cut straight at the ends. ‘Skip with us.’ She pushes me into the middle of the Witches.
Ooh, ahh, I lost my bra. I left my knickers in my boyfriend’s car! they chant as the skipping rope twirls faster and faster under my feet. I know they’re going to trip me up so I hope they do it soon; the waistband on my tights has lost its grippiness and the tights will slither down my skinny legs, sticky-out knee bits round my ankles.
The girls jerk the rope and when I fall everybody laughs. I graze my palms: red scratches, grey dust, yellow gunk.
‘Why don’t you ever invite anyone to tea?’ asks Lorraine. ‘Is it because you live in a gippo caravan?’
I don’t invite anyone for tea because our flat is embarrassing. Nobody I know lives anywhere like me, in a block in King’s Cross where people throw rubbish into the yard from their windows at night and the corridor walls are stained yellow with wee. Lorraine and the Witches live in the new estate on the edge of the park.
Other things are embarrassing too. Last Christmas, Mum made leaflets about being vegetarian: Meat is Murder she wrote and No Blood on my Hands. Nathan, my brother, and I drew pigs and cows and splodges of red paint on the sheets of paper. Mum took the leaflets, and us, round all the local butchers and all the local butchers told her to fuck off. She was brave: butchers are scary what with their stained-brown aprons and sharp knives. Their shops smelt like the taste when I nibble my nails after I’ve been on the rusty swings in the rec.
On Saturday mornings, when everyone else in my class watches Multi-Coloured Swap Shop, Mum and I take the washing to the launderette in black plastic sacks. I worry that the bags will split and our jumble sale clothes will spill onto the pavement. I have to carry my sack with both hands so I can’t pull up my tights or scratch the eczema on the insides of my knees.
‘Weirdo, don’t ignore me. I said why don’t you invite anyone to tea?’ Lorraine gives me a dark and narrow look.
B-BOOM, B-BOOM. I want to slot two pence pieces into her eyes, push them into her brain. Who’d be the spaz then? She dangles the skipping rope from the middle and the handles knock together: click, click, click, click. She swings the rope and the handles whizz round in a blur, like a spinning top. When she flicks the skipping rope into my tummy, quick and hard, I bend over a bit. A sound pushes out. Like an animal.
‘Sit with us at dinner time,’ orders Lorraine as I walk away. ‘Or – you’re – DEAD.’
Two plums in the mirror. I press one cheek and then the other against the cold tiles. It’s four hours and forty-five minutes until the end of term, thank God. I hate Lorraine and the Witches, the way they call me Dork or Weirdo or once, when I dared to answer back, F-ing Flid. I hate my black tights and wonky Mum cut fringe and posh voice and not being able to say who I fancy on Top of the Pops or Grange Hill because we don’t have a television.
The milk I drank at playtime bubbles into my mouth and I spit it into the sink. I turn on the tap, whoooosh, and close my eyes and shoot Lorraine Abbot through the head.
At lunchtime I sit on a toilet seat for an hour and nobody tries the door. Five bits of the graffiti on the walls are about me. The worst says WEIRDIE WEIRDO. The letters are black except for the DIE which is red. I spit on a piece of toilet roll and rub at the letters but they don’t even smudge. When I stand up, white lights dance in front of my eyes. I rub the pins and needles in my legs as I hop from one foot to the other.
Mum picks me up after school. She is wearing too short shorts cut from jeans and a vest top which says Give Peas a Chance. Curly hairs grow out of her armpits. I glance round to make sure the Witches aren’t in the playground; Lorraine’s mum is wearing a blouse and skirt.
‘Come on, Mummy,’ I say, walking as fast as I can. Mum’s clogs clip-clop on the pavement. Once we turn the corner I slow down.
‘What did you have for lunch?’ asks Mum.
‘Nothing,’ I say. ‘Wasn’t hungry.’ I start to cry. Mum holds my hand and the graze stings. I tell her some of what happened in the playground and why I was too scared to eat.
She digs some rice cakes out of her bag. ‘I’m going to speak to Miss Harvey after the holidays. Lorraine Abbot is a bully.’
‘No! You can’t. Lorraine’ll kill me.’
‘You’ll kill yourself if you don’t eat.’
‘I could take packed lunches. Children who take packed lunches eat in a different room. Please, Mum.’
‘Okay. It will be easier for you to be vegetarian. Have another rice cake.’
We’re in the launderette, watching our clothes in the tumble dryer. The zips and buttons clunk and thud as they roll around the drum. I have picked the bobbles off the tights I’m wearing and made a pile of fluff on the magazine table.
I take a breath of warm air, full of the clean smell of washing. ‘Please will you buy me some white socks for school?’
‘Because all the other girls wear white socks.’
‘Because it’s not about what the other girls wear. It’s hard to keep socks white and hot washes are bad for the environment. Anyway, you’ve got plenty of tights.’
I want to curl up in a washing machine and go round and round.
‘But Mummy ... ’
My chin drops onto my chest. My blue shoes are sprinkled with soap powder. Like stars.
The week before the start of term, on Child Allowance day, Mum comes back from the shops with a pair of long white socks. I squeal and hug her. The socks have diamond shapes made from holes and the elastic is strong and grips my legs even when I jump up and down in front of the mirror.
On the last day of the holidays, I lay out my clothes on a chair. If I have packed lunches and wear socks things might not be so bad. And even though I only have one pair, I’ll wash them every night – Get your whites right it says on the powder box – and wear them every day. Lorraine will never be able to say that I wear spazza tights again.
There is no Yes, Miss when Miss Harvey calls the register. Darren who lives next door to Lorraine says her mum kept her home because she’s got a sore throat. I hope that she’ll come in after lunch and notice my socks and think that I’m not-weird. When the bell goes at quarter past three, I’m embarrassed that I’ve spent days imagining the moment when Lorraine will see my socks.
I wash them when I get home, squeeze them hard and sprain my wrist. After supper, Nathan and I help Dad paint the CND sign onto an old sheet. Nathan draws a circle with black paint and I do the headless three-legged hangman in the middle. Mum has the neatest writing so she does the letters. Dad takes the brush off the broom and uses the handle to make a flag pole.
‘What’s this for?’ I ask.
‘Wait and see,’ says Dad.
My socks are still damp in the morning and Mum won’t let me dry them with the hairdryer; she’s cross because we’re late for school. I wear my tights but the funny thing is, Lorraine doesn’t even notice.
‘Hey, Weirdo! Why are you wearing flid shoes?’
I go to the fourth year classroom to eat my lunch. My sandwich is wrapped in a paper bag which has grease stains on it. I peel apart thick slices of brown bread: Mum has mashed up boiled eggs. There is a chunk missing from each slice, where the loaf stuck to the tin.
‘Your food stinks,’ says Dwayne as he bites into his sandwich; pale ham, thin as a cat’s tongue, flops over the edge of his white bread.
‘Yuck. Go and pong somewhere else,’ says Warren. ‘Go on!’
I move to a corner of the room. One, two, three, four round pieces of gum, pink and grey, cling like snails to the edge of the table. I look down at my shoes and a tear drops on the buckle and trickles onto the floor. Mum will never buy me black patents. Never in a million years.
I take a bite of my sandwich: a crunch of eggshell in my ears, a glossy lump of margarine on my tongue. For a few seconds, the ball of half-chewed crust sticks in my throat and won’t go down or come up.
We don’t go back to our flat after school. We meet up with some of Mum and Dad’s friends and go to a beautiful white house near Coram’s Fields. I recognise the area because Nathan and I played in the park when we were little. Little enough to splash in the paddling pool, me in just my knickers and him in nothing at all.
The house has steps and pillars either side of a black front door. When the door opens I feel like Alice in Wonderland: O mouth and double O eyes. The house is full of sunshine and cream carpets and shiny metal furniture and leather sofas and rubber plants taller than Dad.
I count fourteen rooms and Nathan counts fifteen but we are too excited to argue. Mum says we will live here for a bit and I have never been so happy in All My Life. Dad opens one of the upstairs windows and hangs out the CND flag; the D has dribbled so it looks like a P. The grown-ups cook huge saucepans of lentil soup and buckwheat while the children play hide-and-seek.
I open the door to what must be a little girl’s room. Everything’s pink and floaty, except for an Evel Knievel set on the floor. There’s a photo of a girl wearing a school uniform: burgundy jumper and skirt, checked shirt, straw hat with a ribbon. Tights. It doesn’t look like she gets called Weirdo because she’s smiling.
Ready or not I’m coming to get you! yells a boy called River. I step into a wardrobe and click the door shut. It smells posh inside, of lavender; the wardrobe at home smells of cheesy feet. I stroke a velvety dress and a silky one and wonder if I dare to try them on. When River comes into the room, I hide behind the clothes. I don’t think he would have found me if I hadn’t got the giggles.
I sleep in a bed which is so soft it feels like there’s nothing underneath me, even my bony bits. I dream that Lorraine comes to tea. Your house is beautiful, she says. Please be my friend. Cross your heart and hope to die, stick a needle in my eye. And I do. Right through the black bit in the middle.
I sit up. My heart B-BOOMS fast and I can hardly breathe. I’m in a car and it’s dark except for blue flashing lights. A strange man is sitting in the front seat and someone has their arms round me.
‘Mummy!’ I scream and realise that I have been asleep on her knee. I burst into tears and she tightens her grip. Egg sick in my nose.
‘I can’t believe you slept through it,’ she says, as she wipes my face with her sleeve. She explains that we are in a police car and have been arrested for squatting a rich man’s house. She says that she and Dad and their friends don’t think it’s right that people own second homes they hardly use when others, like us, are so poor. I don’t think it’s right either. It’s weird being poor and living in the depressing flat in King’s Cross but it’s also weird to wake up in a police car.
It’s light the next time I open my eyes. I’m in my own bed with its lumps and uncomfortable springs. Mum and Dad and Nathan are talking in the kitchen. It’s good that we’re not in prison but it’s sad that we didn’t stay in the big house long enough to invite Lorraine for tea.
Mum comes into the bedroom. ‘Everything’s okay,’ she says. ‘You don’t have to go to school today, the local paper wants to interview us. We’re going to have our photo taken.’
Everything is exciting again. I wear the flowery tunic that I’ve been saving for a special occasion. Mum bought it in a jumble sale but it’s brand new, it still has the label on. I pull on my socks and peer in the mirror: my fringe is definitely wonky so I pin it back with the kirby grip I found in the street.
The photographer is waiting in the concrete recreation ground opposite our block, with the other people who squatted the house. He arranges the adults at the back and the children at the front, except for Nathan who runs off. The photographer doesn’t say smile or cheese like photographers usually do, he tells us to look angry.
After the photos and interviews, everyone heads off to their poor homes. Mum discovers that Nathan is chewing gum; he must have peeled it off the pavement. He does that. He clutches a syringe and refuses to let go. Mum goes mental: she says that she hates living in London. When we get home she puts Nathan in the bath, even though there’s no hot water, and makes him gargle with Dettol.
Dad says he’ll buy two copies of the paper the next day, so that I can take one to school. I plan to cut out the photo and leave the writing bit at home because I don’t think Lorraine will understand squatting. She would think it was even weirder than wearing tights and Clarks on hot days. But if I cut out the photo, Lorraine will see that I have been in the paper and notice my tunic and socks.
When I wake up, Dad has already been to the shop on the corner. I jump out of bed but my heart b-booms when I see the photo. It’s only little and it’s black and white of course so you can’t tell that my tunic is orange and flowery and you can hardly make out my face. When I hold the paper close-up, the picture goes dotty and hurts my eyes. The worst thing is that the photographer has cut everyone off at the waist so I may as well have been wearing tights and nobody, not even Lorraine, would have known.
So I don’t take the photo to school. I spend ages getting ready though and put on my tunic and socks and pin back my fringe. I walk behind Mum and avoid the pavement cracks which means that Lorraine will be in.
The pavement cracks are wrong. Lorraine isn’t in.
‘Quiet everybody,’ says Miss Harvey after lunch. ‘Lorraine Abbot was knocked over by a car this morning. She ran across a road because those big boys on bikes chased her again. She was taken to University College Hospital.’
Please let her be dead. Please say she was declared dead on arrival like they do on the radio.
‘Thankfully she’s had a very lucky escape. She’s got a broken leg and a couple of cracked ribs but the doctors are amazed that she wasn’t killed. She’s already sitting up eating jelly and ice cream.’
Oohs and ahhs and sniffs and Witches’ arms flung round each others’ shoulders.
Lucky Lorraine it says under the photo in the paper a few days later. It’s on the front page. You can see that she’s wearing her long white socks.
©2012 Sophie Hampton
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Read the transcript of the BBC Radio 4 production of The Cairn
Opening Lines: audio of 'The Cairn' by Sophie Hampton