I was a Saturday Girl once. There was a small cafe in our small town, made popular by a long-running TV series. So many girls from school undertook their job-baptism of fire here, and the kitchen was a seething microcosm of alliances, hostilities and hormones, interspersed with coke floats and cheese and pickle sandwiches.
They pushed me to the top of the stairs and handed me a torch.
“Go on,” said the girl called Suzanna, “They’re on the top shelf.”
I peered down. It was pitch black at the bottom. The light from the cafe filtered down, reducing with every step. I flicked the torch on and gritted my teeth.
This was clearly the beginning of some kind of war.
“Come on, new girl.”
An hour into the job and I was already losing.
Oh, yes, it all started nicely because the tearoom owner, Judy, was there.
“Let’s all welcome the new Saturday girl to our big happy family,” she said, spreading her arms, Jesus-fashion.
It was all a bit too tree-huggy for me, but I smiled anyway. The other girls smiled back. To the untrained eye, they were like little puppy dogs, all cute and adoring. I went to school with them. They were not puppy dogs.
First there was Suzanna…
SUZANNA: Femme Fatale. Seven stone of smooth bronzed flesh crowned with artificially-straightened hair in three different, yet highly complementary, tones. Hobbies include superiority and disdain of lesser beings.
Her right hand man was Ella…
ELLA: Simpering servant of Suzanna. Ten stone of dimpled bronzed flesh with artificially-straightened hair in exactly the same tones as her master. Hobbies include bowing and scraping to Suzanna, and not owning even one thought which could be considered her own.
Her left hand man was Pippa…
PIPPA: No distinguishing features whatsoever. Grey in personality. The sort of girl who would make an excellent spy due to her ability to look like so many other people, but nobody of consequence. Instantly forgettable. Pippa = pip = something you spat out of an apple because it was surplus to requirements.
And then there was me….
NEW GIRL: Otherwise known as ‘Carrie’. Though no one would remember my name until Suzanna’s boyfriend likened me to the Stephen King girl. You know – the girl who bleeds in the shower and moves things with her mind, and has a crazy mother. My mother is not crazy. She is the sanest person I know.
I was the only one with a name that didn’t end in ‘a’.
The sacks of flour were kept at the back of the cellar. Of course. They wouldn’t be conveniently positioned at the bottom of the stairs. That would be far too easy. I’d already heard the jokes about the ghost. The one nobody ever saw, but everyone had heard.
“You know – heavy-breathing – like the guys who ring you up and ask what colour your knickers are,” Suzanna told me with a giggle.
Nobody like that ever rang me, but I nodded anyway. If you didn’t agree with Suzanna, she didn’t like it.
Three steps down, and I found myself listening intently. Every fibre of my existence was concentrated in my ringing ears. It was dark, but I had expected that. What I hadn’t expected was the feeling of pressure. As if the darkness was heavy. I half wanted to use my hands to part it as I kept going down the stairs.
The torchlight took on a life of its own as it moved over the objects in the cellar. A crumbling stone wall, a rack of sharp hooks hanging from the ceiling, a stone table that looked like the sacrificial altar from a satanic film scene. Everywhere, there were boxes and packages full of cafe essentials like long life fruit juice, catering tins of coffee, six pack tins of tuna. The torchlight caressed them all with varying dilations depending on their distance and shape.
“The torch is shaking,” I heard Ella giggle from the top of the stairs.
She sounded so far away that I looked back just in time to see the square of light above me suddenly disappear with a slam of the door. My breathing stopped automatically, until I talked sternly to myself.
“They’re just messing about. They’ll open it again in a second. Ignore them. Find the flour.”
But then, the key turned in the lock.
And someone breathed.