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The Girl in the Fishtank

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Every Easter, they strung up a girl for RE, tied her to the blackboard with three stripey ties for as long as she could take it.

Kelly Jones lasted longer than any St. Trinian on record.

The reputation followed her right to head girlship, but it was that sort of respect a girl needed. By the time you reached sixth form, well, you were immediately competing with the Totty and their stories of sexual conquest, not to mention Polly's system of booby-trapped alarms to keep you out of the geek den on certain afternoons. It was a struggle for mystique, for cool.

So, maybe it wasn't a mistake that everyone knew Kelly Jones could put up with pain. Liked pain, even. Though you never saw her dancing the dance of the (ooh-er) sexually active, girls still whispered about her in the corridors (and wrote graffiti with red and black spray paint), about her tattoo and the garotte wire they'd thought they'd seen round her thigh, just above the hem of her gym shorts. It was for this reputation that Katie Sewell sought her out.

'Sought her out' of course meant 'waited in the art room until Kelly came by one day', but when she was there Katie stuck her head out her fish tank, spat out some water and asked, "Kelly, can I talk to you?"

Kelly blinked, stopping still in the corridor, but otherwise didn't react. Third form girls spoke to her, Katie knew - she'd seen them do it - so she waited.

At last, the older girl swept into the room and said, "What's the problem?"

"Do you think it's strange," Katie asked, climbing out and onto the floor, "that I spend all day in a fish tank?"

Kelly smiled. "There's a lot of strange girls here."

"All my year are picking gangs," she tried to explain, wringing out her hair. "They've got pictures above our beds, from, like, magazines and stuff. There's a thing - like, everyone wears their headphones and hides under their quilts between ten-thirty and eleven."

With a quirk of her eyebrows, Kelly looked like she was beginning to understand. She sat down on one of the desks, crossing her arms. "What do you do under there?"

Katie shrugged, not really wanting to admit it. It sounded silly, saying it out loud.

"Katie." Kelly's voice cracked a little harder.

"I - I think about being back in the fish tank."

"And?"

Confused, Katie looked up, not sure what else to say. "That's it. Sometimes I read a book or whatever, but mostly I think about the tank." She was beginning to dry off now, which was necessary once a day, so Matron said, but she felt like she was desiccating. "I don't do what everyone else does."

Thankfully, Kelly wasn't laughing at her. She was thinking, one hand pulling at the choker round her neck, threading a finger under it so the leather dug in; Katie held her breath. At last Kelly said, "What you're feeling's normal," she told her, in that clipped bright accent of hers. "As normal as everyone else." Another finger slipped under her necklace, crossing beneath the first, and Katie was sure it was unconscious. "But you can't live in that tank forever. You've got to fit it in with the rest of the world - learn a skill to make some cash. Swimmming, maybe. Passport forging."

Katie opened her mouth to argue, but bit it back at the last moment. "OK," she said, nodding in deference.

"Don't worry." Kelly seemed to take pity on her, offering a last enigmatic smile as she took her hand away from her neck. "Most of your mates are going to feel it a lot worse than you. It's not always easy, being a boarder here."

Again Katie nodded, then watched the head girl walk away, hips swinging in her pencil skirt. No one fitted in at St. Trinian's, she had to remember that. Even if she fit in even less than the others.