Read an extract
Ailsa gripped the edge of her desk. Her hands were
shaking. It was ten past three in the afternoon. She
couldn’t wait any longer for Romy’s father to appear. It
wasn’t fair on the girl. Knowing what was at stake, how could he
be late? She would have to be careful not to betray her
feelings in front of the girl. One of the most important
issues, Mrs Arnold had flagged, was to present a strategy
that made Romy feel as though the adults around her
were in control of the situation. They all had to present
a united front.
She knew Romy would be feeling nervous about
being called from class. Since as far as she knew she
wasn’t in any trouble, she might be worried that something
had happened to her family. Ailsa phoned her
assistant to send Romy into the office.
‘Everything is fine at home,’ said Ailsa abruptly, as
soon as the girl breezed through the door. She had
spoken a little too quickly and Romy looked puzzled, as
though unsettled at the possibility that something might
be wrong. She left the door open. It was the best evidence
yet that she had no idea what had happened.
Ailsa got up from her desk and slowly walked over to
close the door. She wanted to delay the moment for as
long as possible. She looked at the girl’s face, knowing
that in the next minute her world would tip on its axis.
‘Is there something wrong?’
‘How is your work going?’
‘I was in a Biology exam.’
‘Were you doing a practice paper?’
‘How was it?’
‘Fine. I think. Now I’ll never know, because I was only
halfway through and it won’t be a true result.’
‘Medical school is very competitive.’ Would this affect
the girl’s application? Ailsa wondered. A new worry rippled
through her body. She had to accept that she had
no control over the situation, Mrs Arnold had advised,
barely able to disguise her excitement at this latest drama.
Matt had said something similar, then he had contradicted
himself by insisting that he would personally take
charge of checking which websites were showing the
Even if they got to the bottom of how this had all
started, there was no telling where it might end. She
thought of the draft she had written for her next assem-
bly. She wanted to warn the pupils about how in the
digital age one badly thought-out decision could end up
defining you for the rest of your life. She swallowed a
couple of times.
‘There’s something you need to see, Romy,’ said Ailsa.
‘What are you talking about?’ asked the girl.
Ailsa opened the file in the corner of her computer
‘I’ll sit on the sofa while you watch. I’ve seen it already.’
‘Is it something to help with my university application?’
Romy asked as she pressed play.
Ailsa couldn’t bear to watch again. She couldn’t decide
whether she was being cowardly or sensitive. She sat
down on the yellow sofa. When Romy replayed this
scene in her head, as surely she would, periodically, for
the rest of her life, would it be worse for her to watch it
alone or with someone else? Ailsa, usually so decisive,
didn’t know the right answer. She pressed her fingers
into her temples until she could feel the blood vessel
pulsing beneath. And then it was too late. Romy’s face
froze. Her usually pale complexion flushed until even
the tips of her ears were red. Her lips turned down until
she looked like the mask of the goddess of tragedy that
hung above the door of the school theatre. It was as if
her face was separating from her body. For a moment it
was a perfect mask. Ailsa knew she was about to cry. Her
life as she knew it had ended.
It was too late for anger, yet part of Ailsa wanted
to shake Romy and demand why she had allowed this
to happen. The other part wanted to hold her in her
arms like a small child and protect her. She knew from
experience that this was the moment when she had to
ask the question. Children would always tell the truth
when there was nothing left to lose.
‘Who is the boy?’
There was a knock at the door. Her father came in
before Romy could respond.
‘Sorry,’ Harry said without offering any explanation.
Ailsa’s anxiety spiked again at his bad timing. ‘I got a call
about giving a lecture in Cambridge.’ He went over to
his daughter and put his arms around her. Ailsa didn’t
say anything. The girl didn’t need to ask how her mother
would react. She knew already.
‘Oh, Mum,’ said Romy, getting up from the chair and
looking at Ailsa for the first time. Ailsa walked over to
her daughter, arms outstretched, like she did when her
daughter first learned to walk. For a moment all three of
them stood in a silent embrace. Ailsa looked up at Harry.
‘How has this happened to us?’