Meg Hopkins' handwriting had been described, with justice, as pages upon pages of inky scrawl.
When she was eight, her father had tried to improve it. Two hours at the kitchen table, every Tuesday and Friday, after her mother had cleared away supper and whisked off into the den to watch her serial. Meg could still shrinkingly remember it. The hands of the kitchen clock seemed to move through treacle, when she dared look up at the clock at all. Most of the time she didn't; she just sat there and did her worried best, glooming over a workbook with her father's eyes glowering into the top of her anxious bent head, whilst the syrupy resentful tinkle of voices seeped out with the electric light under the closed den door.
Fortunately after six weeks her father started teaching evening courses three days a week. The drab little flat seemed to exhale and brighten on the nights he was out. Her mother left her apron on and turned on the radio in the kitchen, and chatted to brightly to Meg over the steam and the plates whilst Meg washed up and her mother dried, and the workbooks were put away in a drawer and forgotten.
When her father got in, late and cross-grained, the first thing he did was always to pull down the kitchen blind. Meg couldn't see why. They lived in a basement flat, and the kitchen looked out onto a sliver of asphalt and gratings. Anyone who wanted to look in would have to bend themselves double. Maybe, she thought uneasily, he didn't like that she and her mother enjoyed watching other peoples' feet go by outside. She couldn't think why he'd even know about it, but he knew about lots of things and seemed to hate most of them.
When Meg was very young, she'd made up stories about the feet outside the window. Pinstripe-suited legs and the tap and clatter of an impatient umbrella being dragged along the cobbles when it might have rained (but didn't), feet in sandals the colour of tropical flowers hurrying between the puddles when it might not have rained (but did), chubby, downright legs in wellingtons, elderly legs in gravy-brown tights stretched tight around thick white ankles. Her mother encouraged her and sometimes joined in. Meg loved it more than orange-juice-hot-in-a-mug, more than painting, more than the days at school when it rained and she could read instead of going out into the playground, when her mother told stories too.
Her father didn't approve of telling stories. He accused everyone of telling stories, and his square face fell into those resentful, jaw-thrust-out lines that made Meg's always unsteady spirits sink altogether. The government told stories, the neighbours told stories, but, most of all, the people Meg's father worked with told stories.
He brought home a dreary litany of complaint about it. Students telling stories about why their essays weren't in on time. Maintenance telling stories about why the coffee machine hadn't been fixed. The union telling stories about fighting for a pay rise when they'd really just sold out. For years, Meg thought the Tech must be a fabulous place like a modern-day Arabian Nights, full of people breezing in and announcing that the coffee machine had been carried away by a roc. She was rather disappointed to discover that it was a dirty, unimposing hangar of a building surrounded by low pebbledashed walls that hurt her fingers.
Later on she taught herself to type, clattering away at top speed with two fingers. Her father shouted at her to keep the noise down, he hadn't bought her that typewriter so that she could bash it to death within a year, and she could choose, either he'd take it away or she could learn to touch-type. But by then he was already turning grey not only in his soul but in the shadows of his skin, no longer so much an inhabitant of his body as a tenant there. By the time Meg turned sixteen, he was a tenant sharing with aggressive squatters, squatters with long unfamiliar names who couldn't be evicted.
She couldn't take the typewriter to the hospital, so when she had to go there she wrote reams of longhand instead. The hospital wasn't the clinic in Wade Abbas where Meg's mother took her when she had cuts or bruises or suspected glandular fever; it was a newer place, outside town, on the outskirts of a business park on a hill. It was cleaner than the Tech, but much the same in spirit; perhaps that was why her father hated it so.
Meg wrote whilst her father was talking to the specialist, or the counsellor, or the assessor: whoever he spoke to, it never seemed to help much. Sometimes she wrote sitting beside him in the waiting room, when he was in a particularly dour mood and just wanted to sit there staring hatefully at nothing. Her mother sat on his other side with her lips pursed and a magazine unread in her lap; that usually led to a hissed row beginning I don't know why you can't at least take the antidepressants, a conversation Meg knew by heart.
Her father would often twitch the pages out of her hands and demand what they were, and that was where it was helpful to have unreadable handwriting. She'd say 'History' or 'Latin Composition' in the barest whisper. Sometimes that was enough and he'd give it back with nothing worse than a lecture on how, when he was at school, if he hadn't worked to get a scholarship he'd have been making bricks for a living at fourteen like his father. Sometimes he'd conduct an inquisition into her marks, which made her feel as if she was being stuck through with needles, but was much better than his knowing the truth.
Because sometimes it wasn't History or Latin Composition. Sometimes she was still telling stories.
She showed the stories to no one but Berenice. Berenice adored them and demanded more, and would have loudly championed Meg's right to write a Form Play rather than leaving it to Tim Keith and the Marlows if Meg hadn't dragged her into the cloakroom and threatened in a panicked whisper that she would be sick, physically sick, all over Berenice's feet, if she did anything of the sort.
Meg had been sick on Berenice's foot once when they were in the Second and Miss Craven suddenly ordered her to do a handstand in front of everybody, so Berenice believed it. She gave Meg's arm a fierce squeeze and told her again how much she loved her hero and heroine, and escorted her back into the classroom. No one else cared what they had been talking about, figuring that if it was anything more than a broken shoelace Berenice would be only too pleased to trumpet the news to the world at large.
Which was true – Berenice did talk about things – but she was the only friend Meg had, and the idea of having no friend at all was much worse than putting up with Berenice's occasional tendency to behave like Wade Abbas' very own branch of Reuters. Besides, Meg was proud of Berenice being form prefect sometimes and having the courage to stand up to Tim Keith, who both of them hated and were scared of, to the point that sometimes for weeks on end their friendship consisted of nothing but talking about how much they disliked her.
Berenice thought she ought to write to a publisher. She had an uncle who was in publishing, it wouldn't be like writing to a stranger, which, she handsomely admitted, no one could expect Meg of all people to do. Meg shook her head. The idea of showing her stories to anyone but Berenice crippled her with panic.
Even her mother wouldn't be safe. She'd tell Meg's father. The two of them were still in league together just as they always had been against Meg, a pair of giants playing tug-of-war across the countryside of her, and never minding what got trampled as they struggled for an advantage. Sometimes she woke in the night with heartburn because she'd had the dream again.
In the dream she was sitting back at the kitchen table, the old formica one they'd thrown out years before, not the new one. Her father sat over her. He was not his shrunken self but enormous, just as he had been when she was eight. He had her book, he'd read it, he felt a grim angry disgust at it, but it wasn't bad enough to throw in the bin where she might retrieve it later.
He was making her edit and change things and copy out long paragraphs from a workbook in the middle, and he was talking about how they'd try to get it published, how everyone knew first novels never got published unless you knew somebody in the business but if she typed out a covering letter that he'd written they would try. He could not have made her more miserable if he had opened her ribcage and was making her type out a covering letter on the squeamish, squirming inside surface of her skin.
Once, when she couldn't bear it any more, she got up, soft-footed in the night, and went into the kitchen to get the heartburn medication that she knew lived with all her father's other medications in the cupboard. She wasn't quiet enough. The kitchen door opened. Meg nearly dropped the bottle, heart thudding, eyes helplessly wide behind her glasses, caught like a rabbit in the jaws of guilt.
To her relief, it was only her mother, shuffle-footed in the perky marabou-trimmed slippers she'd bought herself as a present from Meg's father at Christmas. "What's the matter?" she whispered. "Is it about your A-levels? You know Miss Ferguson said there was no need to worry, you'd get your two A's and a B if you did yourself justice in the exam and didn't let yourself fret too much. And you mustn't worry about what your father said about the school fees, either. He didn't mean you to hear. We'll manage somehow, you know we will." She stroked the soft dark hair off Meg's brow. "You know we'll manage. You don't know how much of a help you've been to me. My brave girl."
"I – I woke up – I was dreaming about Daddy," said Meg in a guilty whisper. "How he was when I was a little girl."
"Oh, sweetheart – " Her mother sat down at the kitchen table. She took Meg's hand and held it, hard. Meg sat down beside her, unable to do otherwise. Feet sloshed by, drunkenly, through the rain, outside the window. "I didn't think you remembered. How he used to be, before – when I married him – how he used to play with you. He was so proud of you. You'd think no one else before had ever had a daughter. He said, when we brought you home from the hospital - my daughter the Prime Minister, he said, my daughter the Nobel Prize winner, my daughter the brilliant surgeon…"
Her mother leaned against her, resting her head on Meg's shoulder. "I never thought you'd remember. I thought you'd only ever known him – the way he is now. Oh, Meg, he loved you so much – "
Meg knew she couldn't explain. It would be wrong to explain. She felt a vast and formless guilt, vast as the rain and the night.
Partly it was that she was getting credit for loving a father who she mostly regarded with feelings on a depressing sliding scale from alarm to crushed resignation. Partly it was the continuous sense of being a fraud and not good enough and soon everyone would find out that Berenice said was common to everyone doing A-levels, even (though Meg didn't believe it) the likes of Nicola Marlow and Tim Keith.
But mostly she felt guilty because she was thinking of the words, the exact words, for the uncomfortable way she was sitting sideways on the kitchen chair, and the smell of her mother's furtive cigarettes, in case one day she needed it for a story. One of the stories that she would never get up the courage to let anyone but Berenice read.