Only Ever Yours By Louise O'Neill: Book Review
Imagine a world where you’re judged entirely on your appearance.
A world where your peers give you marks out of 10, and where selfies are the currency.
So far, so not that unfamiliar.
But in the dystopian world of Only Ever Yours, girls are made, not born. They are punished, shamed and scolded for putting on weight.
And they have only one purpose: to serve men – as companions, concubines or chastities.
This YA smash hit was dubbed The Handmaid’s Tale meets Mean Girls, and lauded by writers as diverse as Jeanette Winterson and Marian Keyes, long before it started winning awards, and has now been reissued with an “adult cover”.
An unsettlingly plausible read.
Only Ever Yours By Louise O'Neill: Book Extract
Ten months until the Ceremony
The chastities keep asking me why I can’t sleep. I am at the maximum permitted dosage of SleepSound, they say, eyes narrowed in suspicious concern.
Are you taking it correctly, freida?
Are you taking it all yourself, freida?
Yes. Yes. Now, can I have some more? Please?
No more can be prescribed. Not safely anyway, they say. They warn of muscle spasms. Internal bleeding. The corrosion of vital organs.
But I cannot see these ‘vital organs’ in the mirrors. All I can see are dark circles under my eyes, a grey pallor like a dusting of ashes over my face. The hallmarks of too many nights spent burrowing a hole in my mattress, tossing and turning, yearning to join the perfectly synchronized breathing of my sisters. I can hear them now, sucking artificial heat into their lungs greedily, oblivious to me lying in my cot buzzing like an exposed wire.
I am a good girl. I am pretty. I am always happy-go-lucky.
The robotic voice spills down the walls and crawls along the floor, searching for a receptive ear. And we eves are more receptive when sleeping. We are like sponges, absorbing beauty, becoming more and more lovely as we dream. More and more valuable.
Except for me.
Night after night I lie awake, nothing but the Messages to distract me from my clamouring thoughts. chastity-ruth says thinking too much robs you of your beauty. No man will ever want a companion who thinks too much. I do try to be more controlled. I try to shape my mind into nothingness. But when night falls in the dorms the demons stir, their eyes flashing white in the dark, looking for something to feed on.
I am a good girl. I am appealing to others. I am always agreeable.
It’s the heat, I know it is. It’s pumped in at night to detoxify our pores, rolling in waves through the dormitory, moulding to my skin. The SleepSound can disguise the fire in my lungs only for so long before I jerk awake, gargling steam. I blink as my cubicle flickers in the subdued light. A single bed with snowwhite sheets. A locker crouching beside it, the black paint peeling off in ribbons. It is a small house made of mirrors, every surface papered in glass.
And there I am. And there. And there. I am imprisoned in these walls.
I watch in the mirrored ceiling as I spread my body out like a starfish, bending my knees away from the sticky sheets. My hands hit the clammy mirrored wall behind my head, the black silk nightdress gathering around my waist. I turn on to my right side, my forehead pressed against another mirrored wall, a heavy sigh misting the glass. I etch my fingertips over my high cheekbones, watching as I trace circles around my almond-shaped eyes. My skin feels crêpe thin, as if it’s slowly dissolving into my bones.
Before us, they counted sheep to help them fall asleep.
Before us, there were sheep to count.
I fumble under my pillow for my ePad, its square corners reassuringly solid in my hands. I update my MyFace status, whispering into the screen, ‘I can’t sleep again. Anyone out there awake?’ A shiver of satisfaction runs through me as the video status uploads, as if this somehow proves that I’m real. I exist.
Am I dreaming of her again?
She’s like an apparition, standing in the arched doorway between the corridor and my cubicle, her full-length pink dressing gown glowing in the shadows. She tilts her head, shifting her weight from one foot to the other, waiting for me to say something. I nod and her tense face softens as she creeps into my narrow bed, aligning her body with mine, our limbs interlocking like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. We are reflected in all of the mirrors, splintering into parallel images, echoed from the ceiling to the walls and back, multiplied over and over again. Her milkywhite legs entwined with mine, her white-blonde hair bleeding into my dark brown waves.
‘I was afraid you were a chastity.’
‘If she catches us breaking Isolation, we’ll get in trouble.’
‘It will be fine.’
‘Still . . .’
‘chastity-ruth isn’t on duty,’ she replies, reading my mind as always.
We breathe in unison. I rest my head on her shoulder, inhaling lavender, counting heartbeats. She shifts, pulling her arm from under me, and my head drops on to the damp sheets. She inches back, away from me, until she’s hovering on the edge of the bed, one foot planted on the ground for support.
‘Good idea. It’s too hot, isn’t it?’ I say quickly.
She came in, after all this time, I tell myself. You didn’t ask her to. She came in by herself.
‘Hmm.’ She taps her toes against the base mirror, her neonpink nail polish matching her robe. I seem to be the only person affected by the heat.
‘So,’ I blurt out. ‘Where have you been hiding?’
‘I haven’t been feeling well.’
‘I sent you chat-requests . . .’ I trail off, thinking of her room, the corrugated steel door rolled to the floor and bolted down like a portcullis. I’ve sent her countless messages in the last two months. All unanswered.
‘I can’t sleep.’
‘Nervous about tomorrow?’
She shrugs apathetically.
‘Have you asked chastity-anne for more SleepSound?’
‘It interacts badly with my other meds.’
‘What are you taking?’ I prop myself up on my elbow to look at her. ‘I’m on the maximum dosage and I haven’t had problems.’
‘gisele broke out in hives when they mixed her dosages. She looked ugly for a week,’ she says, as if I hadn’t spoken, as if I don’t exist. She’s been doing that a lot lately.
‘Can you stop kicking the mirror? It’s really annoying,’ I snap, and her foot slows to a still. I feel guilty at the flicker of hurt on her face but somehow satisfied as well, savouring the sense of being seen by her.
‘How do you know that about gisele anyway? You haven’t been at Organized Recreation or the Nutrition Centre all summer,’ I say, watching our reflection in the ceiling. I’m squashed against the wall, isabel skirting the edge of the mattress, a sliver of white flashing between us. Fat women are ugly. Old women are ugly. But gisele? Honey-hued gisele, with her honey blonde hair, honey-flecked eyes, honey-coloured skin? Ugly?
‘So that’s where she was last weekend,’ I say when she doesn’t answer. ‘She told us she was in quarantine with suspected flu.’
‘Hives,’ isabel repeats. ‘Hives the size of eggies all over her face.’
‘Pity it was off term,’ I joke weakly, tasting a bubble of nausea. ‘Her rankings won’t be affected.’
‘That’s easy for you to say, Miss #1.’
‘You’re #3. And we were all designed equally,’ she replies mechanically.
‘Yes. But some eves were lucky enough to be designed better than their ugly sisters.’ I hold my breath, waiting for her to disagree with me like she always used to.
‘You’re not ugly, freida,’ she sighs. She’s tired of me, tired of my constant need for reassurance. ‘None of us is.’
‘I am compared to you.’ I can hear the need stitched through my voice and I hate myself for it. ‘My skin is so tired-looking.’ I stroke the contours of my face in the ceiling mirror, searching for cracks. ‘What if my ranking is affected?’
‘Better tired-looking than fat.’ Her voice is flat, as if someone has let the air out of her lungs.
I turn to face her, our noses almost touching. I breathe in deeply, as if I could suck in her mesmerizing beauty and steal it from her. I looked up her chart online once, hoping to find an easy formula to copy. PO1 Metallic Silver hair, the computer chanted, #76 Folly Green eyes. Muted gold-coloured skin, frosted-pink lips, a few small freckles over a neat nose. I wish I looked like you. Everything would be easier if I looked like you. I’ve been thinking that since I was four years old. ‘What are you talking about, isabel?’
She rolls on to her back and points at the ceiling, waiting for me to copy her. I watch as she loosens the silk tie around her waist, unwrapping the dressing gown, laying her body bare. A thickening at the waist, a roundness at the thighs. In the dark, my sharp intake of breath sounds like a scream.
‘I know.’ She pulls the dressing gown closed, hiding her sins.
‘Have you tried throwing up?’
‘Of course,’ she says impatiently. ‘It doesn’t always work, you know.’
‘What about the extra meds you’re taking? Are they helping?’
‘They did at the start. They don’t seem to be working any more,’ she whispers.
‘Maybe it won’t be so bad.’ I want to sound consoling but I don’t know how. That’s always been isabel’s role in our relationship. ‘Maybe you won’t be the only one. Lots of eves gain weight over the holidays.’
We both know this isn’t true. Not this year.
‘I don’t understand how it even got this far. Surely someone must have noticed in your weekly weigh-ins? You haven’t even stepped foot in the Nutrition Centre for—’
She holds her finger to her lips to forbid me from speaking further and I swallow my thoughts. Just one more secret between us. I close my eyes but all I can see is her flesh spreading, threatening to engulf her bones.
‘I was thinking the other day about your obsession with monkeys.’
isabel’s voice is so low that for a moment I wonder if she said anything at all, if my desire for us to be close again is so desperate that I have started imagining her speaking to me.
‘Remember?’ she says, reaching her hand out to touch mine.
‘They were a fascinating species.’
‘I’m sure they were. Did you have to pretend to be one though?’
‘I was four!’
‘That’s exactly what chastity-ruth said when I fell out of a tree in the garden and broke my leg. What a witch.’
She clamps a hand over her mouth to stifle her giggles.
‘Excuse me. It was extremely painful,’ I say in indignation, but I’m smiling too.
‘I thought she was going to kill you when you had to take your Monday foto with that massive cast,’ she says, her voice rising.
‘Shh, isabel, you’ll wake the chastities.’
‘Ah yes, princess isabel never gets in trouble!’ I tease, bowing my head in mock salute. ‘It must be nice to be so special.’
I wait for her to laugh, to tease me back, but there’s nothing. Her body stiffens beside me. The silence is overwhelming, jamming into my eardrums, and I search blindly for the trail of our conversation.
‘But the thing about the monkeys was—’
‘I’m tired,’ isabel cuts across me and the words fizzle in my throat. I always take it a step too far, chastity-ruth says.
We shift apart in the bed, space yawning between us again.
I am pretty. I am a good girl. I always do as I am told.
The Messages continue, as if nothing has changed.Next chapter
Dawn slowly pours out of the light-lamps, chasing my dreams away. Unfolding my body, I stretch out, claiming the entire mattress. isabel has gone.
I get out of bed, tossing my hair back to scan my face in the mirrored wall. I do this every morning, a part of me hoping that I’ll have been magically transplanted into a different body during the night – isabel’s, or megan’s maybe. That I’ll wake up and be paler, thinner, different. Better.
On the wall opposite my bed, an outline of a handprint is etched into the glass in pink plastic. I press my hand to it, feeling heat prickling my palm until the glass coating thins to transparency and I push through, grimacing as what feels like thousands of sticky fibres dissolve against my skin. Inside, mirrors cover every surface again, even the floor. At the top of the room there is a narrow steel changing cupboard with grey rubber tubes curving from the top into the ceiling. I slump in the fuchsia armchair beside the cupboard, drumming my fingers on the onyx marble vanity table. A semicircle of coral light bulbs around the mirror casts my face in a rosy glow. I tap the glass and it turns milky, then opaque, dissolving to reveal a computer screen, a cartoon graphic of a woman laden down with shopping bags popping up.
‘Good morning, freida,’ the Personal Stylist Program says in a staccato voice. ‘How are you today?’
‘I believe that is to be expected on the first day of term,’ it says. ‘How do you want to improve yourself today?’
‘A complete re-design would be nice,’ I mutter, chewing on my lip until I catch a glimpse in the mirrored wall of how unattractive it looks.
‘How do you want to improve yourself today?’ None of the PSPs understands sarcasm.
‘Maybe something in white? Stream Fashion TV. I need some inspiration after the holidays.’
A catwalk appears on the screen, a long strip of wood suspended mid-air in a black vacuum, pounded by a torrent of fashion models. They have been designed primarily for this purpose, hundreds of them falling off the factory line with their gaunt bodies and featureless faces.
White looks good with my skin tone. I picture megan in something similar, her complexion turning like gone-off milk, and I feel a brutal thrill.
‘Wait. That one’s perfect.’ On my VoiceCommand the screen freezes on a model wearing a sheer white round-neck tee embroidered with appliqué lace flowers, a white lace skirt falling in ruffles to knee length.
‘Is that OK?’
‘Yes,’ the PSP concedes. ‘I will request the appropriate items from the fashion closet now. Step into the changing cupboard.’
The screen snaps back into a mirror. S41 Delicate Iced Chocco hair. #66 Chindia Yellow eyes. That’s me. That’s what people see when they look at me. I peel off my nightdress and throw it into a trapdoor implanted in the wall underneath the vanity table. The cupboard opens, beeping loudly until I step in, the steel trap closing like a greedy mouth around me.
‘You have gained weight.’ The voice fills the cupboard. ‘You are now 118.8 pounds. I will recommend in your weekly report that you are to take extra kcal blockers until your weight stabilizes between 115 pounds and 118 pounds.’
‘Do I have to take more?’ I hate the kcal blockers, which always leave me doubled over with stomach cramps. I guess I should be grateful they’ve improved since the early days when exploding colons were reported. ‘It’s embarrassing.’
‘You are the only person who is informed of your medication requirements.’
I snort rudely at this. In theory, yes, our prescriptions are private, but nothing stays that way for long in the School. By breakfast my sisters will know that I’m weak, that I’m greedy, that I can’t control myself. And I thought I had been a good girl last week.
The lasers crackle to life, scraping against the steel walls of the cupboard as the infrared hoop descends from the ceiling, tickling as it inches down my body. The box then inhales, a whooshing gulp of air, sucking up any dirt and pumping it Underground to be disposed of. The lasers rise again, spraying make-up on to my naked skin, and gently pulling my hair into a bun at the nape of my neck. We are only allowed to use this machine twice a day, in the morning and at bedtime. It’s too expensive, chastity-ruth says, so the maintenance of hygiene and make-up is our own responsibility during the day. Within two minutes I’m spat out, today’s outfit and matching accessories left in the open trapdoor at the base of the wall. I grab them, the portal disappearing as soon as I do so.
‘This doesn’t look like it did on the model.’ I pull at the faded T-shirt, the floral embellishment crumpling beneath my fingers.
‘It was as close a match as I could find within the School’s fashion closet.’
Back in my cubicle, I examine my body from every angle in the mirrored wall, swallowing disgust.
It’s freja at the doorway, her collarbones spiky in a beige crocheted top and canary-yellow skirt.
‘I’m ready,’ I say, pushing my feet into the faux snakeskin slingbacks and falling into line, hurrying to catch up with daria in front of me.
The dorm is bursting with the sound of thirty pairs of high heels scraping against the black and white diamond tiles. We march together in silence, the same as we do every morning.
Outside the main entrance of the dormitory, a free-standing fotobooth has been reassembled for the start of the new term. daria forces the rickety sliding door open, her toffee-coloured hair artfully dishevelled, indigo-blue eyes sparkling with pleasure. Why is she pleased? Did she take the perfect foto? A better foto than mine will be?
freja prods the small of my back with her knobbly fingers and I stumble into the empty booth, sliding the door shut behind me.
1. Turn partially to the camera, one foot in front of the other.
2. Weight on the back foot.
3. Left hand on hip.
4. Dazzling smile.
There is a flash of light, my foto uploaded instantly to the School website for the Euro-Zone Inheritants to judge, determining my opening ranking for the year. I’m left in the darkness. I should leave, but just for a moment I want to stay in here. I want to hide, fold into the shadows and become invisible so no one can look at me any more.
I hope the foto was perfect.
‘Our new classroom,’ freja announces, throwing her arms wide open. I waited in the Nutrition Centre for her to finish pretending to eat her breakfast so we could go to class together. I didn’t want to walk in alone.
‘Wow. It’s so different,’ I say drily. Like last year, and all the years previous to that, the majority of our classes will be held in a large room painted entirely in black, the obsolete windows boarded up with black wooden panes. The wall at the front of the room is sheeted in mirrored glass from floor to ceiling. In front of that is the chastity’s desk, a weathered oak with dull brass knobs, two upstanding glass boxes flanking it, one on either side. Rows of tiered seating and desks with mirrored top are squeezed into the centre of the room, a narrow set of steps covered in threadbare black carpet running up the middle. The summer holidays feel like a distant dream already.
‘freida! You look amazing!’ cara squeals, her dark blonde hair fanning around her face as she rushes to hug me. freja, waiting in vain for a similar compliment, falters for a second, then smiles at me with disproportionate enthusiasm and says, ‘Totally.’
‘No, I don’t,’ I reply automatically. We throw our handbags on to the broad window sill on the far side of the room before climbing up ourselves, the perfect position to observe everyone else coming in.
‘Don’t take all day,’ cara jokes, brushing dust off her plaid cotton shirt and acid-wash skinny jeans as freja and I struggle in our heels. Once we’re sitting, freja takes out a pocket mirror from her clutch and scans her face, as if she’s afraid it might have disappeared. Snapping it shut with a sigh, she leans back against the wooden board and tuts with disapproval as heidi walks in, her cerise halter-neck dress slashed to the navel. heidi’s head snaps in our direction. After sixteen years in School, we have all developed a sixth sense for judgement.
‘freida, you look great.’ daria has floated over to join us, her eyes skimming over my body.
‘Totally,’ freja says, far more convincing now that she has had time to prepare. ‘I love that skirt.’ I dip my head, smiling.
‘Did isabel pick it out for you?’ she continues sweetly, and my smile freezes. ‘She has such good taste.’
‘Where is she, by the way?’ cara asks, her thick eyebrows knitting together. They have asked me this every day for the past two months. ‘Her VideoChat has been off all summer.’
‘She’s not feeling well,’ I reply yet again. I don’t want to admit that I know as little as they do.
The room is filling up. gisele swaggers through the door in a draped navy vest top over snug white jeans, her hips swaying as she walks towards us and links her arm through daria’s. The twins, jessie and liz, follow her, exact replicas in matching turquoise playsuits, moving as if their limbs are attached to one body. Golden-blonde hair frames heart-shaped faces, aqua coloured eyes staring vacantly at us.
‘Where’s isabel?’ gisele asks immediately, setting my teeth on edge. Her skin looks perfect. She’s obviously fully recovered from that allergic reaction.
‘Her door was still down this morning,’ jessie says. ‘And locked. I checked.’
‘Are you sure?’ liz gasps, pretending that she doesn’t already know. If jessie checked the door was locked, then liz was there with her, checking it too. ‘Our doors are never locked.’
‘Weird,’ they say together, as if the rest of us are unaware of this fact after sixteen years in School.
‘She hasn’t been at the Nutrition Centre,’ freja says. She has complained about the injustice of this at every meal for the past two months.
‘I haven’t seen her at the gym either,’ gisele offers, placing a hand on her toned stomach. freja, watching her closely, sniffs and draws her shoulders in towards her chest to make her razor-sharp clavicle even more prominent. ‘And I’ve been at the gym a lot.’
‘megan’s here,’ daria interrupts, running her fingers underneath the frayed edges of her bleached denim cut-offs and pulling them down her tanned muscular thighs. ‘megan! Over here!’ She waves her over to us. ‘Now she really looks amazing.’
I look at her sharply. Is that supposed to mean I don’t?
‘megan, you look beautiful!’ daria says as megan air-kisses the twins, smacking loudly, her painted red lips inches away from their skin. ‘Beautiful,’ I mutter, wishing I was lying. A thin sheath of sea-green silk clings to her perfect body, a one-shouldered full-length toga. 3.0 Brown Black hair is styled in coiled plaits at the crown of her head, #214 Arsenic Green eyes seared into her luminously pale skin. She’s perfect.
‘Is there room for one more?’ She points at us perched up on the windowsill and smiles again, her eyes watchful as cara, freja and I look at each other in unspoken challenge. Finally freja, the lowest ranked of us three, jumps down, proclaiming she was ‘tired of sitting there anyway’. megan flicks her hands and cara and I move apart to make space for her. She springs up as easily as if she was wearing sweatpants and sits between us.
‘freida!’ Her shriek pierces the din of chatter, causing heads at the other side of the classroom to turn around. ‘Look how dark you are compared to me!’ She grabs my arm and presses it against hers. ‘Isn’t she so dark?’
‘Yeah, but your skin is beautiful, megan,’ the twins say on cue.
I jerk my arm back and huddle it into my chest, grinning to show how little I care.
‘And so smooth,’ cara says, rolling up the sleeve of her shirt to compare.
‘They should be. I got a full-body wax from chastity-hope in Beauty Therapy yesterday.’ A shadow passes over her face. ‘I don’t understand why we can’t have laser treatment like the eves in the Americas do.’
‘Or better yet, be designed without body hair at all, like in the Chindia-Zone,’ daria says, fiddling with a hole in her black crepe T-shirt.
‘Hmm, yes,’ megan replies, her eyes drifting towards liu, sitting with christy at the other side of the room. ‘I suppose some good things have come out of Chindia.’
‘It was worth it. You look great,’ cara says, and megan tilts her head, accepting this compliment as her due.
‘Where is isabel?’ Obviously our opinion is not enough. She needs to compare herself with the #1 eve, see how she measures up. ‘Why wasn’t she at breakfast again?’
‘I told you this morning.’ And the morning before that, and the morning before that again. ‘She’s sick.’ But megan’s not listening to me, she’s staring at the entrance to the classroom.
‘Sick?’ she repeats gleefully, and I follow her gaze, my heart sinking when I realize what is causing her such delight. An illfitting striped T-shirt tucked into high-waisted flares only emphasize isabel’s weight gain, her tangled hair pulled into a high ponytail away from her make-up-free face. She walks slowly up the central steps, as if the extra poun roughly. daria simpers with embarrassment but she doesn’t say anything, not like she might have before. I feel as if something is shifting beneath my feet, disturbing my balance.
‘Welcome to final year, girls.’ ds of flesh are weighing her down. Heads are turning to stare, watching as she takes a seat in the back row on the left-hand side, as far away from the rest of us as she can get.
‘Clearly being sick hasn’t affected her appetite,’ megan says. ‘And there we were, worrying about her missing meals.’
liz and jessie giggle again, but a bit nervously this time. I’ve never heard megan say anything overtly nasty about isabel before. I’ve never heard anyone say anything nasty about isabel.
‘Quieten down, eves.’
At the sound of that voice the three of us jump down from the windowsill. cara and I stumble, grabbing hold of one another to balance, but megan lands gracefully, smirking at our clumsiness. chastity-ruth waits behind the wide oak desk, her hands lost in the cavernous depths of her black robes. The recessed ceiling lights are bouncing off her shaved skull, her ash-grey eyes narrowed at us, traces of prettiness fading away in her fine-boned face. We didn’t hear her come in. We never do.Next chapter
‘Take your places. You may choose your own seating arrangements as a privilege of being in 16th year,’ she says, and we hesitate, fearing a trap.
‘Now,’ she says, her voice chillingly quiet.
The others scramble for position. cara calls me, patting the empty chair next to her in the front row. Before I would have refused without thinking, my natural place being with isabel, but now I don’t know what to do. I wait for a second too long and gisele claims the seat, stretching her long legs out in front of her as cara pulls an apologetic face at me. I climb the steps towards isabel, burrowed into the corner of the room.
‘Here are your new rankings for the first week of final year.’ chastity-ruth taps the board behind her and the mirror dissolves to expose a huge computer screen as she gives VoiceCommands to upload our rankings.
‘In first place, we have –’ chastity ruth clears her throat twice and takes a sip of water from the plastic cup on her desk – ‘eve #767.’
megan’s face fills the screen. megan? I stare at the foto, her green eyes triumphant, as if she knew her time had finally come. This is the first time in twelve years that isabel hasn’t been #1. I don’t dare to look up. I’m afraid that megan will see my doubt and remember it. I’m afraid that isabel will somehow see within me, see my secret regret that I wasn’t the one who finally beat her, the embers of resentment over sixteen years of living in her shadow smouldering inside me.
‘In second place . . .’
Please let it be me. Please let it be me.
‘. . . eve #701.’
jessie’s foto flashes on the screen and I smile to hide my disappointment.
‘At #3 . . .’
liz’s face where mine should be. And I forget how to breathe.
cara is at #4.
‘And, dropping two places, I see, we have eve #630 in fifth place.’
My fingers tighten over my kneecaps, boring into the bone. I stare at my reflection in the desktop, willing my face not to betray me. My eFone vibrates against the desk, a foto of megan appearing on the screen. I crouch out of view to listen to the message.
‘You look so tired in your foto. I can lend you some of my new concealer if you’d like. It’s supposed to work miracles.’
I straighten up. She’s watching me from the first row, patting imaginary bags under her eyes.
‘. . . And, finally, in last place, we have eve #700,’ chastityruth finishes, agyness coming last as always. The tabletops shimmer to form an updated grid, our faces displayed in order of rank.
‘isabel, will you please accompany me to my office?’ the chastity says, baring her teeth in a facsimile of a smile. I half stand in my seat to allow isabel to pass, whispering to her, ‘Good luck.’
She gives no sign of having heard me and fear prickles in my stomach. Is she angry with me? Did she see my momentary regret that it wasn’t me who had beaten her? The chastity waits until isabel reaches her before escorting her out of the door, barking back at us, ‘Make your way to your next class immediately.’
Everyone filters out slowly, chatting loudly about the new rankings, a jumble of words with ‘isabel, isabel, isabel’ like a drum beat underneath the chorus, until it is only our group remaining. I grab my bag and walk down the steps towards them, pushing past liu, standing at the edge of our seats.
‘Bye, liu-liu,’ megan says sweetly, wiggling her fingers in farewell. ‘Didn’t you hear chastity-ruth say to get to your next class?’
‘Did you see?’ daria bursts out once liu has slouched out, closing the door behind her with a bang. ‘There are only twentynine faces. isabel isn’t ranked.’
I scan the grid on the table before me, tracing a crack in the screen that is scratching into cara’s foto. She’s right. isabel is missing.
‘That is weird,’ liz and jessie chorus, scrunching their faces up.
‘How is that even possible?’ gisele asks.
‘It’s probably because of her weight gain,’ daria says.
‘But christy gained weight as well,’ gisele points out. ‘I’d say at least 2.4 pounds, if not 2.7.’
I wrap my arms around my stomach, trying to hide that extra pound of flesh with which my body has betrayed me.
‘Not as much as isabel,’ daria argues, ignoring freja dry heaving at the mere thought of weight gain. ‘There is no way they would want anyone in the main Zone seeing that. Standards must be upheld. What will the Inheritants think when they arrive?’
‘But who knows when their visits will start? They might not come for months!’
They start arguing among themselves, their voices getting louder and louder. Only megan and I are silent.
‘This is boring,’ megan snaps, her face pinched with annoyance.
‘Why are we wasting our time talking about her?’
‘Totally,’ the twins say, sensing danger.
‘Congratulations, megs,’ daria says smoothly, draping an arm around megan’s shoulders. ‘You deserve to be #1. You’ve always been the prettiest in our year.’
‘Yeah, the Zone has always been biased towards blondes. It’s stupid,’ freja says, delighted at this excuse for her lower ranking, ignoring the twins as they hiss simultaneously.
‘Well, I have a feeling that isn’t going to be the case for much longer,’ megan says, stretching her arms into the air in a V for victory, shrugging daria’s arm off her roughly. daria simpers with embarrassment but she doesn’t say anything, not like she might have before. I feel as if something is shifting beneath my feet, disturbing my balance.
‘Welcome to final year, girls.’
Seven months until the Ceremony
‘For the love of the Father, eggies for breakfast again?’
When megan is annoyed, her already irritating fake Americas-Zone accent takes on a nasal quality. Unfortunately megan gets annoyed a lot. Mainly at mealtimes. I have a theory that she views her need for food as her only flaw.
‘I’m sick of eggies. They’re disgusting. Why isn’t there any other lo-carb option available?’ she argues with the buffet, as if it could talk back. liz and jessie are murmuring encouragement, ignoring the line of hungry girls behind them waiting to be served.
‘I’m starving,’ a tiny girl in front of me whispers to her friend. She’s about four feet tall, waist-length butterscotch hair tied neatly at the nape of her neck with a cerise ribbon, skinny elbows poking out of a cerise-and-navy striped polo dress.
‘I’m sorry, did you say something?’ megan spins around and places her hands on her knees, bending until she is eye level with the younger girl. ‘What’s your name then?’
‘l-l-l-lena-rose,’ the girl stutters, her arms quivering in fright.
‘Do you have something you would like to say, l-l-l-lenarose?’
lena-rose’s head darts left and right. The friend has angled her body away, staring at the ground, the shuffling feet and disgruntled sighs of before falling silent. The delay has been noticed. chastity-ruth snaps to attention at the mere suggestion of trouble, her shaved head almost spinning on her shoulders. Swooping through the symmetrically laid out tables in the Nutrition Centre, she descends upon us, her rubber-soled shoes mute against the tiled floor. I am suddenly eager to find my digi-cam in my bag. That she has an ability to turn us to stone is improbable, but I wouldn’t rule it out.
‘Is there a problem, #767?’
‘No problem, chastity-ruth,’ megan says, arching her back so her strapless minidress climbs up her supple thighs. She lets her loose black curls spill fetchingly over one shoulder. ‘No problem at all. Little lena here asked me about some School rules. I was making sure she understood them.’
Running a hand over the bones of her skull, chastity-ruth nods tersely before returning to the supervision desk at the back of the Nutrition Centre. megan, instantly forgetting about the trembling lena-rose, collects her meds from chastity-anne and moves on, allowing the rest of us in the ever increasing line for the BeBetter buffet to finally be served. When it’s my turn, I look at the display. It’s been divided into three sections, all stacked with identical silver tureens. Above the lo-carb section there is a foto of a bread roll with a red X running through it, the tasty/healthy section has a foto of a froot and veggies pyramid and the 0-kcal section has a foto of a weighing scales. I grab a 0-kcal tureen, placing it on my chipboard tray without bothering to inspect the wonders that are hidden beneath the lid. The smells drifting from the Fatgirl buffet are making my mouth water and I try not to think about the toast made with brioche and drizzled with syrup, the chocolate-chip pancakes, the plump soyburgers in fluffy white baps smothered with relish. I have to be good this week.
‘Good morning.’ chastity-anne briefly peeks up from her apothecary table. She looks similar to chastity-ruth, both clad in the all-encompassing black chastity robes.
‘I have VoiceNotes of your morning weigh-in.’ She fumbles in the drawer, searching for the test tube with my foto burned on to it. ‘I’ve been instructed to up your dosage of BeautyTabs. Hopefully the extra collagen will repair some of the damage caused by your continuing resistance to SleepSound.’ She glares at me, as if I’m deliberately metabolizing my meds incorrectly. ‘The usual VitC, Zinc, Mag, Aloe, Flax, Chlorophyll, Q10, MultiOmegas, Lipoic, Carnosine, Acetyl-L-Carnitine Arginate, COX-2 and 5-LOX and DHEA.’ She lowers her voice. ‘And your antiwomenstruation meds are included, of course.’
She rattles this speech off every morning. I think it makes her feel important, although we all know she’s just a glorified drug dispenser, doing whatever the Doctors in the Euro-Zone tell her to.
‘Has isabel collected her meds yet?’ I ask. ‘She wasn’t at gym this morning so I was just wondering if . . .’
She shoves the test tube of meds at me and gestures at me to move on. If chastity-ruth thinks about us in terms of design numbers, chastity-anne differentiates us by our med prescriptions. She could tell you the exact day and time that I first received my curse, but I doubt she remembers my name most of the time.
The Nutrition Centre seems to expand as I turn around to search for isabel, beams of light shining from the hundreds of light bulbs planted in the mirrored walls and ceilings. Row after row of mirror-plated desks, occupied by faceless girls. Where is she? We agreed to sit together. Although why I agreed to do so is beyond me; yet another uncomfortable meal to endure, each unspoken word a brick in the growing wall between us.
‘freida. Over here.’
‘Hi, girls,’ I say, relieved that someone has claimed me as their friend, that I don’t look like a total loner.
The unholy trinity, all carefully tousled hair and bee-stung lips, are in their usual seats by the food distribution counter so megan can monitor our food choices, note who is being a good girl or a bad girl. She’s taking her role as #1 eve very seriously.
‘What an extraordinary outfit, freida,’ megan says, her gaze travelling from the crown of my head to my toes as I fight the urge to adjust my clothes, to cut off my hair, to ask if I can apply for a complete re-design.
‘Um, thanks. I like your outfit too! Black suits you!’
‘It’s navy.’ She arches an eyebrow at my enthusiasm and the tips of my ears start to burn.
‘Do you want to sit with us?’ liz and jessie chorus, wearing matching turquoise bustier dresses today, the chunky metal straps cutting into their shoulders, their hair set in loose waves.
‘I’d love to, but I told isabel I’d eat with her.’ The twins lose interest at once, drawing circles in blueberry-speckled porridge with their spoons. ‘But maybe we can both join you?’
‘isabel?’ megan says slowly, cocking her head to one side. She’s even more gorgeous up close, her dark looks accentuated by the bland prettiness of the twins.
‘Yes. isabel,’ I repeat myself, swallowing twice in case excess saliva is making me slur.
‘Isn’t that isabel at the Fatgirl buffet?’
And it is. Dressed in a loose black tank over grey leggings, she is the only one there, steam from the hot bar curling around her face, obscuring her features. Seemingly oblivious to the girls in the BeBetter line openly pointing at her, she loads her plate with fried chick-chick and noodles, white bread rolls, soup and pasta. She dispenses a hot chocco from the silver beverage tap and covers it with mounds of whipped kream, sprinkling chocco flakes generously over the top until she’s buckling under the weight of her laden tray. I turn away, knowing that she will return to chastity-anne’s desk to pick up a portion of ipecac syrup, and I don’t want to see it. I sit down at once, banging my tray on the mirrored desktop.
‘I can’t believe she’s eating Fatgirl food again. Who eats from the buffet? Everyone knows it’s only there to tempt the weak.’ megan doesn’t bother to lower her voice. Unlike the rest of us, she’s not afraid of being overheard.
‘She’s sitting right by the Vomitorium. It must smell so bad,’ jessie says, craning her neck for a better view.
‘It would put me off my food.’ liz shudders, pushing her bowl away.
‘It would take more than that to put isabel off,’ jessie sniggers as I lift the lid off my breakfast, finding a glass full of a lurid pink liquid underneath.
‘I don’t know why she is even bothering to use ipecac,’ megan says. ‘It’s not working. She must have gained at least twenty pounds.’ She stares at me intently. ‘What do you think, freida? How much weight has she gained?’ She reaches out to touch my hand and I want to pull away. If I pull away, will she be insulted? ‘It must be so difficult for you, freida, watching a friend degrade herself like that. I mean, she’s eating pasta.’ She grimaces. ‘Has she said anything to you? What was her weigh-in like today? She wasn’t in gym so she must be on probation, right?’
I wish she would tell me what she wants to hear. I’ll say it. I’ll say whatever she wants if she’ll just stop. I drop my gaze, pretending to fix my hair in the desk before stirring the strawberrie SlimShake with my straw.
‘Maybe you could give her some dietary advice, freida. She clearly needs help. That’s what friends are for, right?’ megan continues sweetly.
‘Yeah,’ jessie says. ‘If anyone needed to try some SlimShakes, it’s that fat bitch. Am I right, girls?’ She cackles, her voice corroding my will to live.
‘But what do you think, freida?’
There’s an ugly silence. I meet megan’s eyes and see the challenge there. She’s drawing a line in the sand and it’s my decision which side I want to be on.
‘I guess you’re right,’ I answer, the betrayal tasting like bile in my mouth, and she smiles at me.
‘I should be more understanding,’ she sighs. ‘I have such a fast metabolism I actually struggle to maintain regulation weight.’
I look at the barely touched eggies on her tray. For someone who struggles to maintain weight, she certainly has an aversion to eating full portions. She and the twins start to fotogram their food, bickering about cassie and carrie’s latest adventures on Chilling with the Carmichaels as they upload the fotos. I rack my brain for something witty to say, something that will make them think that I’m interesting and funny, that will make them want to invite me to sit with them again but my brain is frozen, as if I’ve gulped down an iced slushee too quickly. I’m itching to find isabel’s reflection in the wall beside me. I want to make sure that she’s OK, that she’s not going back for second helpings and thirds and more.
I throw the meds into my mouth and take a sip of SlimShake to force them along. They slip down my throat, falling into this black hole inside me. I know they’re making me better. Even if they taste of emptiness. Even if they taste of my weakness.Next chapter
I leave the Nutrition Centre early, hoping to find isabel so I can speak with her in private, but the classroom is empty when I arrive. I sit and wait, wondering what I’ll say to her, trying to remember when I first had to start planning our conversations in advance.
‘Where’s isabel?’ cara asks, sitting next to me.
‘She wasn’t at the gym so I’m guessing probation.’
‘Did she get the chamber?’
‘I’m not sure. I haven’t seen her since breakfast.’
‘I saw her at breakfast too. I think everyone saw her at breakfast. If she’s on probation, why was she eating from the Fatgirl buffet?’
‘Ipecac syrup.’ I give her an inane smile, putting both thumbs up like the girl in the TV ad does. ‘For easy, predictable regurgitation!’
‘After every meal?’ cara wrinkles her upturned nose while taking her eFone from her neon-yellow satchel. ‘MyFace foto?’
Without waiting for an answer, she extends the digi-cam to arm’s length, pressing her head against mine as we both smile, our foto faces always ready. She taps twice on the mirrored tabletop and scans the digi-cam barcode.
‘Upload and tag.’
The image develops on to my desk as well, cara’s dark blonde hair and thick eyebrows complimenting my tanned skin and delicate features nicely. Moving my thumb and forefinger apart on the screen, I zoom in, making the dark circles around my eyes even more obvious. Is she prettier than me? Blondes tend to rank higher, megan being the exception of course. I close down the image. It feels like fat cells are swelling like blisters on my body, growing and growing, ready to burst. I pull at the waistband of my skirt, loathing breaking out like goosebumps across my skin.
‘You look cute!’ cara says, staring at her desktop.
I don’t even want to imagine how awful I must look the rest of the time if that’s what I look like when I’m ‘cute’. The others begin to arrive, throwing their bags on the ground with a clatter.
‘I know I’ve gained about twenty pounds since breakfast.’
‘I’m not going to eat anything for the rest of the day.’
‘I’m not going to eat anything else for the rest of the week.’
‘Settle down, girls,’ chastity-theresa grumbles, the black robes swamping her skinny frame as she ushers the remaining girls into the classroom. She sighs heavily. ‘Your personal data from this morning’s weigh-in has been analysed,’ she begins, but chastity-ruth’s voice blares over the intercom, interrupting her.
‘Attention, all 16th years. Please note that two of your classmates are on probation. #727 has gained five pounds in the last two weeks. She now weighs 125 pounds.’
125 pounds. None of us has ever been that heavy before. christy, sitting in the second row on the other side of the steps, blushes furiously, embarrassment bleeding into her skin.
‘And isabel is also on probation’, chastity-ruth finishes, the intercom breaking up into a high-pitched tinny screech.
‘But what’s her weight?’ I hear megan demand as the door scrapes open, the old timber frame groaning loudly.
‘isabel,’ chastity-theresa says. ‘Please take your seat, dear.’
She doesn’t move, standing at the door looking at us looking back at her, all of us weighing her as accurately as any body scanner. She pulls her tank down to cover her thighs and hurries in, heaving herself into a free seat at the front. liz and jessie aim their eFones at her, stifling snorts of laughter, and within seconds a wave of beeps breaks out throughout the classroom.
‘If you’re quite finished behaving like 10th years,’ chastitytheresa says, her dark skin flushing with frustration. ‘Put that away, liz. You too, jessie.’ I think they’re about to ignore her until megan shakes her head at them in warning and they reluctantly put their fones into their bags.
‘Today instead of our usual Social Graces instruction,’ the chastity says, ‘I’m pleased to announce that the Father of the Euro-Zone has released a Public Address for final-year students.’
At the mention of the Father the silence is instant. We haven’t had a Public Address since His annual School visit on our design-date in July, just before the holidays. chastity-theresa taps the mirror-board behind her to reveal the computer screen.
‘Upload the digi-vid.’
I grab lipgloss from my clutch and apply it generously, inspecting myself in my desk. This is ridiculous as the Father can’t even see us. The video was probably pre-recorded days ago. But I’m not alone. The rest of the class are preening manically too, almost falling into their mirrors. The only person unmoved is isabel, colour leaching from her cheeks as she hunches over her desk. She looks as if she wants to disappear.
‘Quiet, girls.’ chastity-theresa dims the lights. I breathe in deeply, rubbing my palms against my knees. The strobe lighting explodes and then disappears, and our faces are swallowed by the darkness.
The clashing cymbals and drum roll of the Euro-Zone anthem rips through the room. The screen burns to life, showing the symbol of the thirds, the triquetra, three triangles woven together. The ivory of the companions, the scarlet of the concubines, the ebony of the chastity robes. Separate entities, but inextricably linked. The screen flashes with images.
A girl. A girl. A girl. A girl.
Fotos of the #1-ranked girls from the last ten years rush on to the screen, one girl quickly replaced by another, and another, always a newer, better version to follow. A foto of the best legs winner, long, perfectly shaped, clad in the highest of high heels. The screen on our desktops splits in two, a foto of the perfect legs to the left, a foto of our own legs appearing to the right of our respective screens. A voice roars from the ceiling, ‘ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT.’
I massage my thighs violently, wanting to tear strips off them as I feel the skin dimpling underneath my fingers. The room is inky black and I am glad. I am glad. I don’t want the others to see me, to see how wrong I am. The screen flashes again, the strobe lighting skewering my vision. kate, the legendary #1 from seven years ago, so perfect she was awarded her own TV show, What kate Did Next. Her hair is wet, slicked back from that delicate face, cheekbones popping. Her image emerges on the left of my desktop, my MyFace profile foto appearing alongside for easy comparison. The voice roars again, but this time it’s inside me, speaking in my bones. Room for Improvement. Room for Improvement. Room for Improvement.
The lighting settles, the drum beat calming and then petering out. I peek at isabel, the images on-screen flickering on her pale, sweating face. Her head sags, causing a little pocket of fat to bulge under her chin. A shameful relief slashes through me. I’m not the only one who isn’t perfect. I’m not the worst.
A trumpet sounds, drawing our attention back to the main screen, and like puppets we move in unison, crossing our feet at the ankles, hands resting gently in our laps. All that exists now is His face. His sharp blue eyes peering into my soul, His mouth opening, about to speak, about to fill my empty brain with His wisdom.
‘Good morning.’ His voice is strong and deep. He pauses, slicking His distinguished grey hair away from His pale face. ‘Once again it is time to give my Public Address to the eves of final year. I must impress upon all of you how crucial the coming months are to your future. This is the decisive moment, the moment you have spent the last sixteen years preparing for. It is time for you to make a contribution to the society that has created each of you, whether it be as a companion or a concubine.’ There is an indistinct mumble off-camera, the Father’s forehead wrinkling in annoyance at the interruption. ‘Or a chastity of course. You must all play your equal part. Remember, you may be perfectly designed, but there is always room for Improvement.’
We blink feverishly as the lamps explode with light and the main screen returns to its mirrored state.
‘Stop that!’ chastity-theresa barks at us. ‘Squinting causes wrinkles.’
jessie’s hand jerks up instinctively to the skin around her eyes. She grabs a little tube from her clutch bag, squeezing peasized droplets of white foam on to her fingertips, and massages it into her eyelids.
‘His Address was short, wasn’t it?’ liu bites her lip so hard that she leaves an impression in the flesh. ‘He didn’t even mention when the Inheritants would be coming. Why was it so short?’
‘The Father is a busy man,’ the chastity says wearily. ‘He has more important things to do than recording lengthy sermons for your enjoyment.’ liu slumps in her seat, a sheet of ebony hair covering her face. ‘Anyway, as the Father said, it is your duty to provide value for your existence, whichever third you may be assigned to. Of course I doubt there will be many eves with a vocation for the hallowed third of the chastities in this group.’ Her gaze falls upon agyness and her mouth softens. ‘Well, maybe one.’
agyness blushes with inexplicable pride and megan makes a vomiting motion. I like agy, but we all know becoming a chastity isn’t a vocation. It’s just a way of dealing with any eves whom, for whatever reason, the men find unappealing but who haven’t done anything bad enough to warrant being sent Underground. Inductions into the third of the chastities are so rare we don’t even receive instruction in School about chastity-life. The chastities have their uses, of course – the School could not run without them – but they are not wanted like the concubines are. They are not necessary like the companions.
I spend the rest of the class daydreaming, tuning out chastity-theresa’s lecture on the difference between the Social Graces required by the concubines and the companions. All I can see in my mind’s eye is the image of my face next to kate’s, a grid forming over the foto, breaking it down, showing my inadequacies in perfect detail. The bell’s ringing startles me and cara laughs and squeezes my shoulder blades, her hands cool on my perspiring skin.
‘Don’t dawdle,’ chastity-theresa says as she shepherds the other girls out, turning the lights off when she leaves.
I can barely make out her outline in the row opposite me. ‘What’s going on with you, isabel?’
‘I’m on probation.’
‘I heard. You can’t keep eating at the Fatgirl buffet. It’s making things worse.’ My voice is rising. ‘If you keep gaining weight, you’ll never become a companion. You won’t even be good enough to be a concubine.
No man likes a fat girl. We have been told this since design.
‘Why are you getting so angry?’ she asks. ‘It’s not your body.’
‘I’m not angry,’ I say, breathing to calm myself, to control these Unacceptable Emotions. ‘I’m afraid . . . I’m afraid for you.’
‘Afraid of what?’
I can’t say the real words out loud so I just say, ‘I’m afraid they’ll make you become a chastity.’
‘Would that be so terrible?’
‘Don’t be ridiculous.’
‘Why is it ridiculous? It sounds . . .’ she breaks off, searching for the right word, ‘peaceful.’
‘But . . .’
But we’ve always wanted to be companions, I want to say. This is what we have wanted since we were in 4th year, learning how to change nappies on our training dolls in Little mama classes. We were going to raise our sons as best friends. Don’t you remember?
But I do not say this. If I remember and she doesn’t, it seems like I care more than she does. And that would make me vulnerable.
‘Did you go to the chamber?’ I ask instead.
‘Yes. Just two-pound weights. But the humidity was crazy.’
‘What was your Improvement soundtrack like?’
‘I didn’t have one.’
‘You got off lightly,’ I reply, surprised.
I’ve only been in the chamber once, after I broke my leg when I fell from that tree in the garden when I was four. I gained five pounds and while I ran on the treadmill I had to listen to ‘Fat girls must be made obsolete’ on a loop for two hours every day for three weeks until I was back in control. I had assumed the chastisements became more demanding with each term. It’s for our own good, I suppose. I know.
‘How long will you have to attend for?’
‘Until my weight is acceptable. They’ve upped the kcal blockers as well.’
‘I thought they said it wasn’t safe to do that.’
‘No choice, I guess.’
Her voice cracks, as if she swallowed back a sob midsentence. Is she crying? She knows we are not allowed to cry and, unlike me, isabel has never had a problem obeying that rule, her easy smiles the touchstone of my childhood. I freeze, glad of the dark so that I can pretend I didn’t notice. I listen to her laboured breathing and I want to shake her, I’m so exasperated by her sudden inability to follow the rules like the rest of us. What does she want from me? Does she want me to comfort her? Am I supposed to care after months of silence, isabel ruthlessly unknotting any ties of friendship between us. But I do care. That’s the problem. Years of our shared memories are steeped in my blood. It would take leeches to suck them out.
I move towards her, crouching down beside her to take her limp hand in mine. She pulls it away, rejecting me again, and my stomach clenches with hurt. But there’s anger there too, anger at my stupidity at ever having allowed someone to get close enough to have the power to hurt me.
‘So, what happened at PE?’ she asks, inhaling deeply.
‘Nothing,’ I reply sullenly, my knees cracking as I stand up. ‘We had better get to class.’Next chapter
‘The Monday votes from the Euro-Zone have been counted and your updated rankings are now available online.’
There is a scurry of activity as eFones are snatched from bags and pockets to check how valuable we are this week. megan is first again, followed by liz and jessie in second and third place. I scroll down and down until I find my face. I’ve dropped from #8 to #10.
‘It’s not too bad,’ cara says kindly. ‘The top ten are still definite companions.’
Easy for her to say, steady at #4. daria and gisele commiserate with me, saying they’re ‘soooo sorry’ and that they hope I won’t be mad that my falling to tenth place has bumped their rankings up. Maybe I should bribe chastity-anne to mix gisele’s meds again. See how high she ranks with another rash of hives.
isabel’s face is still missing from the ranking tables, but for some reason I can’t explain I still don’t say anything to her about it.
‘Are you all right, isabel?’ I ask instead as we trudge back to the classroom for Organized Recreation. She nods wearily and we fall into our now familiar pit of silence. I look at where megan is sitting, the twins, cara, gisele and daria taking up the rest of the row. Some of the lower-ranked girls are sitting on the floor, congregating at her feet like she’s a deity, screaming with laughter. It used to be isabel at the centre of everything, me by her side, made safe by her affection. cara catches me staring.
‘What do you think, freida?’ She smiles, trying to include me.
‘Sorry, cara, I didn’t hear what you said.’
‘Look!’ megan cries, shoving an eFone blaring the Dome Dudes’ latest music video in cara’s face, and I’m left on the outside once more. I want to go over, to reclaim my position, but I feel shackled to isabel. I look at her, slumped in the seat beside me, seemingly unconcerned by the fact that her belly is folding into rolls of fat beneath her thin vest top. My skin itches with irritation at the sight.
‘Alphabetical order,’ chastity-anne orders, materializing out of thin air. ‘It’s time.’
We have Organized Recreation daily and it’s always the final class of the day. It was devised to combat female hysteria syndrome: any hysterical, overemotional girl behaviour is deliberately induced in a controlled environment until the urges dissipate. We need extra sessions on the weekends or during the summer holidays, whenever we have more opportunity to infect each other.
We line up and approach the desk to collect our meds from the chastity. The doors of the two glass boxes on either side of the desk swish open, allowing one girl in at a time before disappearing into the ground. I hold my breath as the doors close after me. What will happen if chastity-anne programmes the elevator incorrectly and it goes too far?
‘Are you crying, #630?’
‘Good. Because you know what we do to girls who break the rules, don’t you? We send them Underground. Do you want to go Underground, #630?’
The elevator opens into the Organized Recreation Space. It looks like an empty swimming pool lined with numerous pipes snaking their way Underground. Thirty individual glass coffins are lined up in five rows, six in each row. I climb into the box with my design number on it, picked out in baby-pink sequins. The glass door shuts and I wait anxiously for the other boxes to fill so that we can begin. chastity-anne nods and I swallow my meds.
Hush. Hush. A shiver begins at my feet, swelling, spiralling up and down the core of my body. A beat pulses through the box, a melody throbbing in my ears, in my mind, in my heart. My spine undulates until I am boneless. A wave of rapture surges and I am engulfed by it. I am free. I am free of all this. My mind tears for a second and I fall back into the room, the edges of my anxiety sharpening again. I can see the lid of the glass box, can see the road map of ducts and wires crawling over the ceiling, can see the other girls staring out with sightless eyes. The mist chokes me again, smothering me until I feel nothing, nothing at all.
The bell rings and we are switched off simultaneously, the doors springing open. I climb out, my legs wobbly. My mind is wired but lethargy is sucking at my body, the two parts of me cracking apart.
The others look similarly exhausted. We half smile at each other as we shuffle back to the dorms, but we avoid conversation of any kind. I throw myself on my bed, praying for sleep, but I know it’s useless. Turning on my side, I press my fingertips into the glass wall, watching that girl in the mirror. Her features float off her face, swimming in the air before rearranging themselves in the strangest way. Her eyes are too big, black in her pallid skin. Her lips are bloodless, gloopy bits of dried spit forming in the cracks, her jaw jutting out.
The emptiness in my body is vast, wide open spaces with nothing to hold on to.
I won’t remember any of this tomorrow.
We are wound up and wound down, like mechanical dolls. They turn the lamps on, they turn the lamps off. And another day is done.
‘I wish I could just stop time until I’m ready,’ I told isabel some night last year when neither of us could sleep. We sat on the floor in her cubicle, our backs against the mirrored wall, legs stretched out in front us, and I tried not to compare the size of my thigh gap with hers. ‘Do you ever feel like that?’
‘No,’ she said, and I felt illogically betrayed. I pulled away from her a little, loneliness burying itself deep within me. She shifted closer, refusing to allow me to sulk. ‘Don’t worry about the future,’ she said. ‘Things are only going to get better. I promise.’
She promised me.
The dorms are hazy with steam tonight. It’s crawling into my mouth, gathering in the back of my throat.
I need to breathe.
I pause by isabel’s room on my way out of the dorms, see her platinum hair spilling over the pillows. It’s been a long time since she has come into my room at night.
I follow the floor tiles, black to white, black to white, until I reach the cloisters, walking the long nave with its curved window frames on either wall, each one sealed up to block out the dead outside. The windows are covered with giant paintings, seven on each side, all depicting images from life before us. The Empire State Building, the Grand Canyon, the Great Wall of China, the pyramids, the Coliseum, the Taj Mahal. I imagine them now, baking like clay in the blistering heat. Or maybe they’re swimming underneath the Great Ocean, only fishbones left to keep them company.
The others think it’s weird that I love watching the Nature Channel to see what the world was like before us. They don’t understand why I would want to know about the life cycle of frogs or watch the sea roaring, throwing its spittle on to thousands of grains of sand. Fields of corn waving in the breeze, mountains capped in glittering ice, millions and millions of people living in the big cities, all performing their part in an intricate dance, weaving in and around each other unthinkingly.
The only nature they show us in class is in the authorized Destruction series. The ice melting, the seas reconciling their differences and drowning the doomed low-lying countries, never to be seen again. There was relief at first, the hope that they had found an organic solution to the population crisis, but that soon turned to fear. The remaining people moving inward and inward and inward, until the Zones were formed to protect the remaining few from the scalding sun and the rising waters.
The Noah Project. Two by two the humans entered, all marching forward to create a new world. They got rid of anything we would not need, like animals, and organized religion. They got rid of anything that would weigh us down.
I reach the giant wooden doors guarding the entrance, each one engraved with the white, red and black triangles of the triquetra. I twist the brass handle to release them, my sweating hands slipping, leaving a mucus-like residue behind. The gates stand sentinel next, rusty metal arches reaching into spikes, waiting for intruders that will never come.
In the garden I walk along the circular concrete path looping our living quarters, stepping off the path into the grass, the synthetic blades scratching my bare feet as I weave my way around the army of trees. Each one is positioned at an equal distance from the next, their plastic limbs extending into painted leaves embellished with crystals, stuffed birds glued on like feathered tumours. I think of the videos on the Nature Channel of the vast orchards in Old England, the gnarled branches heavy with natural food. They must be dead now, those trees, like everything else. Rotted away, decaying like female babies in the uterus. Decomposing from the inside out.
‘You are fortunate,’ chastity-ruth told us as we were formally inducted into the School in 4th year. I still remember how strange the new clothes felt, how heavy my lips were with the coating of unfamiliar lipstick. We were in the Hall, watching as she gave her speech on the stage, our bodies so little they were nearly consumed by the cushioned velvet seats.
‘Fortunate,’ she repeated sternly. I pulled down the cropped T-shirt with glittery lips embroidered on it, the gap between it and the new denim hot pants too bare for comfort. Her lip turned up in a snarl when she saw me fidgeting, her eyes fierce, and I felt afraid for the first time. And then she showed us the video. The infamous ‘girl Graves’, thousands of unwanted daughters disposed of in an ever-expanding hole, their heads crushing against each other like broken china dolls. Drugstores with shelves upon shelves stacked with gender-specific fertility drugs, as easy to buy as chewing gum. And the body learned. It learned that a female baby was an invader, come to steal her mother’s beauty. A female baby was dangerous.
‘There was concern of course,’ chastity-ruth told us, her serene voice at odds with the horror of her words, ‘when years passed in the Zones and no female babies were born. Soon there was only a handful of the original women left, all past childbearing age, and the threat of extinction seemed far too certain. Genetic Engineers were forced to create women to ensure the survival of the human race. And since they had the opportunity, it would have been foolish not to make necessary improvements in the new women, the eves.’ She coughed delicately. ‘And the Schools were formed to house them.’
‘Why didn’t they give the girl babies to the companions to raise as their own?’
She stared at me after I said this, identifying me as trouble. ‘Who would have wanted you?’ she said. ‘Who would want you until you could be of some use?’
I didn’t understand what she meant by ‘of use’, not then. isabel slipped her hand into mine, anchoring me. And I knew she could protect me.
I blink twice, my vision blurring. Pushing my way through the tinselly plants, I arrive at the outer limits of our world, my hands reaching out to meet the shell that keeps us all in here, safe from the wastelands. It has been tinted an inky black tonight, twinkling flakes precisely pencilled in, a huge white moon drawn like an unblinking eye. I get as close as I can, flattening my body against the glass, feeling its solid resistance meeting me. I can see nothing beyond this, everything swallowed up by the night.
‘What are you doing?’
I flinch, my right knee screaming as it hits the sky. She looks perplexed, her hands folded across her chest. Her black robes are strange against the colours of the garden, the light from the moon surrounding her bald head like a halo.
‘You scared me,’ I say, and I sit heavily on the lime-green lawn, squashing some poppy flowers as I do so. chastity-magdalena comes closer, arranging her robes around her as she sits next to me. Her skin is still smooth, with only the beginning of faint lines forming around her copper-coloured eyes. She’s the youngest chastity, but still old – in her mid-thirties, I think.
‘Do you want to talk about it?’ She hesitantly pats my shoulder and we both flinch. The chastities never touch us. ‘Is this to do with the Ceremony, freida? It’s OK if it is. It’s normal to feel apprehensive.’
I’m not sure if that is the reason. I don’t know what this thing is, twisting in my gut, thirsting for something I can’t name, but I nod my head. It’s easier.
‘What third do you want to be chosen for?’
‘I want to be a companion.’
‘Not a concubine?’ she asks, her cheeks colouring at the word.
‘If that is the third the Inheritants think I’m best suited to, then of course,’ I say, although I would rather die than become a concubine.
‘No interest in joining the chastities?’
As if anyone would want to become a chastity, faced with a lifetime of caring for newer, more nubile students as you grow old and decrepit, without the luxury of a Termination Date appointed to preserve your beauty. My eyes are drawn to the laughter lines scoring into her skin. I imagine her at forty, at fifty, at sixty, and I shiver.
‘I didn’t think I would be a chastity, at first,’ she says, oblivious to my thoughts. ‘But, well …’ she looks sad for a moment. ‘Anyway I liked spending time with the younger children, and I, well, I didn’t think I would be able to fulfil the duties of the other thirds so it was for the best, in the end.’
We both look away, the suggestion of sex looming between us. ‘I felt safe in the School,’ she adds hurriedly. ‘It’s peaceful here.’
‘That’s what isabel said. Maybe she’ll join agyness,’ I joke. ‘Imagine! Two chastities in one year. I bet that has never happened before.’
‘Oh, isabel will never be a chastity. There are much greater things in store for her,’ she says, her voice oddly sad.
But you thought it was an option for me? Why aren’t there ‘much greater things’ in store for me? Why does everyone always think isabel is so much better than me?
I touch the poppies at my feet, rubbing the fabric petals between my fingers. In the centre of each flower is a miniature mirror, big enough to hold your eye if you lean in close. I crush it, the cloth tears easily, the glass bud shattering, breaking my reflection.
‘Time for bed, freida.’
We walk in silence back to the dorms. The others are still sleeping deeply, my absence unnoticed.
‘May you get what you wish, freida,’ she whispers as I lie down on my bed, turning in the doorway as she leaves. ‘May you be the mother of a hundred Sons.’