“That would be weird. To be in the year below you. Anyway…” I pause. “They hate us at Stokeland. My parents got really angry with them. They called this whole big governors’ meeting and had a go at them and it all got…you know. Acrimonious.” I know this from Frank, not from Mum and Dad. “They reckon the staff didn’t handle things well.”
“Well, they didn’t!” Nat opens her eyes wide. “Everyone says that the whole time. Like, my parents go on about it.”
“Well. So. Exactly. It’d be weird to come back.”
I break the chocolate into more pieces and offer them to Nat. She takes a piece, then looks up, a tear trickling down her face again. “I miss you, Auds.”
“I miss you too.”
“It was really horrible when you’d gone. Really horrible.”
There’s a moment’s pause—then somehow, with no warning, we’re hugging one other. Natalie smells of Herbal Essences, just like she always does, and she has this little thing of patting you in the small of your back which brings tears to my eyes, just because it’s so familiar.
I’ve missed hugging. God, I’ve missed hugging.
As we draw away from each other, we’re both laughing but a bit teary too. Natalie’s phone rings and she grabs it impatiently.
“Yes, Mum,” she says shortly. “Everything’s fine. That’s Mum,” she explains as she throws her phone down again. “She’s waiting outside in the car. I was supposed to text her every five minutes to say everything’s OK.”
“You know.” Natalie wriggles awkwardly, looking past me.
“Auds. You know. Because you’re…”
“Mentally unstable,” says Natalie, practically in a whisper.
“What?” I stare at her, genuinely gobsmacked. “What do you mean?”
“You’re bipolar.” Natalie’s cringing all over. “Bipolar people can become violent. Mum was just worried.”
“I’m not bipolar!” I say in astonishment. “Who told you I was bipolar?”
“Aren’t you?” Natalie’s jaw drops open. “Well, Mum said you must be bipolar.”
“So I’m going to attack you? Because I should never have been let out of my institution and should in fact be in a straitjacket? Jesus!” I try to stay calm. “I’ve met bipolar people, Nat, and they were perfectly safe, believe it or not.”
“Look, I’m sorry!” Natalie looks unhappy. “But we didn’t know, did we?”
“Didn’t my mum tell you what was wrong? Didn’t she explain?”
“Well…” Natalie looks still more awkward. “My mum thought she was putting a gloss on it. I mean, there have been all these rumours—”
“Like what? What rumours?” Natalie is silent, and I put on my most menacing tone. “What rumours, Nat?”
“OK!” she says hurriedly. “Like you tried to commit suicide…like you’ve gone blind…like you can’t speak anymore…Oh! Someone said you’d gouged out your own eyes and that’s why you wear dark glasses.”
“What?” I feel winded from shock. “And you believed them?”
“No!” Natalie looks foolish. “Of course I didn’t believe them. But—”
“I gouged out my own eyes? Like Van Gogh?”
“That was ears,” Natalie points out. “Only one ear.”
“I gouged out my own eyes?” I feel a bit hysterical. A weird, painful laughter is bubbling through me. “You believed it, didn’t you, Nat? You believed it.”
“I didn’t!” Natalie is getting all pink. “Of course I didn’t. I’m just telling you!”
“But you thought I was a bipolar homicidal maniac.”
“I don’t even know what bipolar means,” admits Natalie. “I mean, it’s just one of those words.”
“A bipolar, homicidal maniac with gouged-out eyes.” I feel a fresh wave of hysteria. “No wonder your mum’s outside in the car.”
“Stop it!” wails Natalie. “I didn’t mean any of it!”
Natalie is a total, utter dope and her mum is worse. But I can’t help feeling a wave of affection as I watch her, all miserable and flustered and not knowing what to say. I’ve known Nat since we were six, and even then she was totally wide-eyed and thought my dad really was Father Christmas.