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Alice Woodward 

Blacked Out

When I was a child my grandmother had a white carpet. Every time my sister Emily and I went to stay with her something was dropped on it, never leaving a stain. We joked about it; as soon as there was a permanent stain Grandma would get a new carpet. The winter I was thirteen I spilt coffee onto that immaculate white carpet. I watched the coffee seeping in, dark against white, and I knew that nothing would get that stain out. My grandmother just laughed and said that it was time for that new carpet. True to her word, Grandma found one and arranged for it to be fitted when Emily and I were next there, in order to help her move furniture. That was all there was to it.

September three years later I was sixteen and we moved into the city. Looking back I wouldn’t have said it was a rough school; certainly no rougher than most. Not terribly big either, although once we were out on the street and mixed with the public school across the road we seemed a large number; shouting insults across the street, fighting on the buses, the usual. It was never anything special; you won’t hear about it, the name won’t mean anything to you. I expect that what happened was recorded somewhere, but that’s lost now, unimportant. But to me, to me it is more than just a school, more than just a memory. The very thought of those classrooms and that football pitch sends a shiver down my spine, even now, years later.  I haven’t been back since leaving the following summer. I suppose it exists as it did then only in my memory.

About a month after Emily and I started school there was another new student, a girl. We didn’t speak much, never really. Why would we? It wasn’t that kind of school. We had Science, Maths and English together but I had my friends and she had hers. It wasn’t that I disliked her; I just never thought anything of her. We might have just about acknowledged each other in the corridor but I didn’t go out of my way to be friendly.

That winter it snowed. I had never seen snow like that before and never have since. We had snowball fights before school, at break, at lunch, after school. We watched it distractedly during our lessons as it drifted past the windows. There were snowmen guarding every corner. We laughed at the year sevens, feigning disinterest but in reality just as entranced. We weren’t as grown up as we liked to think we were. The novelty didn’t wear off quickly. But where it lay untouched, at the end of the field, in drifts at the edges of buildings, behind the temporary buildings, it was like a white carpet covering everything so that it all became shapes and shadows. And the evenings got dark early and we were warned not to stay out late because of slipping on the ice and the school across the road. The extra rules just seemed to keep on coming, calling for more rule-breaking, somehow making the snow even more momentous. We thought they were meant for the year sevens, not for us year elevens.

But it was meant for everyone, not just the year sevens. In fact, maybe the year sevens least of all. That evening I should have hurried home after football practice. She shouldn’t have stayed for band rehearsals. I shouldn’t have hung around talking to Jake. She should have walked home with her friends or got a lift. But if I hadn’t been there…

The scream was nothing earth-shattering. It wasn’t theatrical, it wasn’t some movie. It was quiet and muffled. But it went straight through me and had me stopping and standing so still that I could almost hear the snow settle. I walked on until I could make out three figures ahead of me. You don’t really expect it, but even in the shadowy twilight you know what’s happening. Not really a fight. We’ve all seen that in the playground, the jeers, the hard words. I had even been involved on more than one occasion. No, this was different; this was someone getting beaten up. No time for resistance or pleas or cries. No time to run, to shout for help. One heart-stopping scream before you’re knocked out cold.

I won’t pretend that I didn’t rethink my course; I could head round the temporary buildings rather than cutting across the pitch. It would be me next, I reasoned, although I wasn’t involved, had nothing to do with it. Didn’t want to have anything to do with it. I could have been home by 5 o’clock, slightly late but home. I could have forgotten about it and just listened in assembly the next day as they warned us more forcibly to go straight home, not to stay out alone.

My feet headed their own way, away from the empty classrooms and towards the shadowy edges of the football pitch. I was near enough to hear their words. I started running, but I didn’t want to get there. Shouting, but I didn’t want to be heard. They scattered at the sight of me, unwilling to pick a real fight. Without testing my anger, they fled. All but one.
She collapsed at my feet. And I knew her. Black against the snow.

And all I could think about was that coffee stain on my grandmother’s carpet when I was thirteen. When the colour of a person’s skin didn’t matter. When I couldn’t see these differences between people. When I wouldn’t have even understood the words they had shouted at the girl at my feet. And how I felt then…it could have been Emily lying in the snow, could have been Emily bleeding there. Black against white. I must have taken my phone out, must have called for help. But now all I can remember is that feeling of helplessness: there was nothing I could do. I watched the blood spread out over the snow, dark against white, and knew that nothing would get that stain out.

On my knees in the snow beside a girl I barely knew I vowed some kind of revenge. Naively I thought I could change the way people thought. It’s been twenty years and I can remember every detail of that night: the clarity of the light; my trousers cold and wet as I knelt; the emptiness of the school grounds; the echoes of their abuse. It’s been twenty years and I can pinpoint the exact moment I became who I am today.








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