THESE WERE THE FOUR GIRLS WHO WERE BEST FRIENDS:
Alison . . . hates everyone.
Ruby is clever.
Caddy, the bravest of the brave.
(“Mostly because of spiders,” said Caddy.)
Alison, Ruby, Beth, and Caddy had started school together aged four and five, plonked down at the four corners of a blue-topped table in primary one.
“You four will be friends,” the teacher had told them, pronouncing the words like a charm. She was an elderly person, tall, with silver-streaked hair twirled and looped about her head, black beads, and, remembered Caddy, years afterward, a sort of purple haze about her that may or may not have been a cardigan.
She was probably a witch.
“You four will be friends,” she said again, and her glance included all of them: Alison, who was sulking; Ruby with her thumb perilously close to her mouth and her hair cut short like a boy’s; and Beth, who was not only perfect but also dressed utterly and completely in brand-new clothes, snow white underneath, school uniform on top. Last of all Caddy, who had arrived very late because her mother had forgotten the date.
The teacher smiled down from her looped and beaded heights at the table of little girls. Charmed, they smiled back up into the ancient purple haze. Alison, Ruby, Beth, and Caddy: bewitched.
They stayed that way. All through first school and into secondary school. At twelve years old they were still good friends.
“Best friends,” said Caddy.
Alison lived next door to Caddy, in an immaculate house. No visiting went on between the families. Alison’s mother used to look out the window at Caddy’s mother and shake her head and say, “I’m not getting involved.”
“Absolutely not,” Alison’s father would agree.
They were both estate agents. Sometimes Alison’s father would gaze at the state of the Cassons’ roof and murmur, “I hope we never have that property on our books. You’d have to be honest.”
Their daughter was honest naturally. Alison’s was a lovely but insulting honesty that conceded to no one. Her bedroom window faced Caddy’s, but usually she kept the curtains closed. “I like my private life,” she told Caddy. All the same she was a helpful friend. When Caddy showed signs of oversleeping on school days, she had several times flung slippers and hard-nosed teddy bears at her window and screeched, “Get up!”
“You could work out a much better system than that,” said Ruby. “You’d only need two pulleys if you could fix a pendulum to the lamppost in between. It’s out of line, but it wouldn’t matter if you hung weights or something to take up the slack . . .”
Ruby, now twelve years old and still sucking her thumb, was even brainier than ever. Ruby, small, redheaded, and quiet, owned a hammer and a Swiss Army knife and loved books and maps and numbers and patterns and words from other languages. She was good at mending things too. Ruby knew how to fix charms on bracelets, chains on bicycles, and frozen computer screens with petrified mice. She was an only child—both her parents were dead, killed in an accident when she was a very small baby. Then an amazing and unusual thing had happened. Her four grandparents (all retired, all elderly, all astonishingly intelligent) had pooled their not-very-large savings and bought a house. And into it they had moved with Ruby. All four of them. So Ruby was brought up with not much money but with lots of books, nursery rhymes in five different languages, kitchen chemistry, seaside expeditions to observe the effect of the moon on the tides, and a large, floppy cat, bought in order to stop her feeling too much of an only child. Really, though, it was her friends who did that. They shared with her and teased her, and at school they stopped her ever having to do a thing by herself. That was very useful to Ruby, because as well as being brainier than ever, she was also shyer than ever.
Perfectly happy, though, until the day of her last school report.
Just like all her friends, Ruby had ripped open the brown envelope and unfolded her report the moment she left the school gates.
The first time she read it (eyes round with disbelief), she thought, how amazing!
The second time, with Caddy reading over her shoulder, she thought, but awful!
She became aware that her heart was beating very fast.
“Ruby!” Caddy had exclaimed, when she finally understood the report’s staggering conclusion. “Do you think you’ll do it?”
Ruby did not answer at once. The pounding in her heart was now so loud it seemed strange that Caddy did not hear it too. Her astonished mind was still tottering between AMAZING and AWFUL.
“It would change things a lot if you did,” said Caddy, and then noticed the frightened look on Ruby’s face.
“Don’t worry!” she exclaimed. “We’d still be friends! Just as much . . . in a way.”
Ruby stared at her, eyes wide and shocked.
“You’d be posh!” said Caddy, and laughed a little, to encourage Ruby to laugh too.
“Posh!” repeated Ruby.
“I was only joking. Anyway, you already are, a bit. Well, you’ve got a posh cat! So, will you do it? Would you like it?”
By now Ruby’s heart was bumping less fiercely. Her mind had stopped its tottering between AMAZING and AWFUL. It came down firmly on the side of AWFUL.
“No, I wouldn’t like it!” she said. “And I won’t do it!”
“Don’t you even . . .”
“And I don’t want to talk about it, either! So there!”
“I don’t see why . . .”
“Please, Caddy,” begged Ruby.
“All right,” said Caddy.
Beth. Is perfect.
“I’m not,” protested Beth, neat-haired, brown-skinned, modest as well as perfect. “I’m not . . . If I told you some of the things I think . . .” Her voice trailed away. She never would tell. She was ungrudgingly nice, even to her little sister, Juliet (who preferred the name Jools and was far from perfect).
Beth’s parents were also perfect. Her mother was good at homework and cakes for school fairs, and her father always won the fathers’ race on sports day. To complete this perfection, and best of all, there was a pony named Treacle, a perfect birthday surprise that had appeared when Beth was eight.
“Of course, he’s to share,” Beth was told at the time.
“When Juliet’s old enough.”
Juliet was nine now, and Beth would have shared, but, “No thanks very much!” said Juliet.
Last of the friends came Caddy. Cadmium Gold Casson. Caddy had no special label. She wasn’t perfect or clever and she didn’t hate anyone. For a long time she was just Caddy, which bothered her friends.
“Just Caddy is fine,” protested Caddy. “It’s what I am.”
All the same, they found her a label, mostly because of her fearlessness with spiders. Caddy was sorry for spiders, so universally unloved, and she did not allow them to be squashed.
“Leave them to me,” she would command, and no matter how grey-legged, scrabbling, or hairy, she would gently pick the monsters up and carry them to a place of safety.
Caddy, the bravest of the brave, said Alison, Ruby, and Beth.
“I’m just Caddy really,” said Caddy, but she liked having a label all the same. She felt it gave her a proper place in the circle of friends.
“Alison, Ruby, Beth, and me,” she would say to her little sister and brother, Saffron and Indigo, and told them stories about Treacle the pony; Wizard, Ruby’s enormous cat; and the tank of miniature fish they could sometimes glimpse through Alison’s bedroom window: tiny rose and blue flickering things, like swift-trailing flames.
“I call them The Undead,” said Alison.
“Well, they do die.”
“Then what do you do?”
“Scoop ’em out and put some more in,” said Alison. “Don’t look like that! It’s life.”
Alison was a fatalist. She could live with the possibility of almost anything. For nearly four years, ever since she was eight, she had lived with a For Sale board outside her house and never shown the slightest interest in its existence. So completely did she manage to ignore it that after the first shock of its arrival, her friends ignored it too.
Years passed. The board faded, acquired a greenish tinge, and became part of the landscape. Then in its fourth year it blew down. A bright new replacement appeared in its place and Alison’s friends woke up like a startled flock of birds.
“You’re not really moving, Alison? Alison! Why?”
“You wouldn’t go far away?”
“Maybe. I don’t know.”
“Haven’t you asked?”
“Your parents, of course! They must have said something! Haven’t they told you anything, Alison?”
“They go on and on,” said Alison, yawning.
“On and on about where?”
“Where my uncle lives. It’s got a weird name.”
“Oh, Alison, please find something out,” begged Caddy, and she seemed so upset that Alison actually made an enormous effort, communicated with her parents, and listened to the answer.
“Tasmania,” she reported.
“Tasmania!” repeated Ruby, stunned, while Caddy and Beth stared at each other in astonishment. “Tasmania! Are you sure?”
“Think so,” said Alison. “Think that’s right. Tasmania’s south, isn’t it?”
The girls happened to be at Ruby’s house at the time of this conversation, draped around on sofas, watching TV with the sound turned off. Alison, having done her Tasmanian duty, picked up the remote and began flicking through channels as if there was nothing more to be said, but Caddy and Beth continued to stare at each other and Ruby ran out of the room.
She returned very quickly, carrying a small globe, and sat down beside Alison.
“Look,” she said, pointing to a reddish-colored island, chewed-looking at the edges and surprisingly close to the North Pole. “This is here, where we are now.”
“Yeah?” asked Alison politely.
“And”—Ruby turned the globe upside down and pointed again—“that’s Tasmania!”
Alison blinked a bit at that, took the globe in her own hands, found the chewed red island for herself, turned the globe over, and peered. Sure enough, there was Tasmania.
“Oh, right,” she said. “Well, that’s definitely going to be south, isn’t it? Are we watching The Simpsons or what?”
“Don’t you mind?” shouted Caddy, grabbing the remote and turning everything off. “Don’t you care? It’s the other side of the planet! What about Ruby and Beth and me?”
“Caddy?” asked Alison, shocked at last. “What on earth is the matter?”
“I thought we’d be friends forever,” snuffled Caddy. “Like we are now. You and Ruby and Beth and me. With nothing changing.”
Then at last even Alison understood. Because in Caddy’s world, things were always changing.
And Caddy did not like it.
Caddy’s home was like a world that, from time to time, a genie from a bedtime story picked up in his hand and spun upon his finger. People set off on journeys and returned unrecognizable, vanished for days, came to live in your bedroom, hid under tables for hours and hours, wandered the house fast asleep demanding to go home, counted pennies in jam jars until they had enough to buy bread and then the next day gilded halos for the school Nativity play with real gold leaf. Caddy’s home was a turmoil of piled possessions, lost belongings, and unexpected siblings.
“Well,” said Ruby, who sometimes found it to be a bit of a burden being the only one under seventy in a house of five people, “you should try being an only child like me.”
“I was,” said Caddy. “For ages and ages.”
Caddy could still remember very clearly the world before Indigo and Saffron arrived. In those days her father was home nearly all the time. Whole weeks would pass in which no tears were shed, no heads were clutched, no vases were stuffed with apologizing roses, and no hard sums were done to prove the cheapness of renting a place to work in London compared to the enormous cost of building a soundproof, childproof studio at home.
In those days nobody ever wore dark glasses and explained that they had hay fever.
And then Indigo and Saffron arrived a year apart, and if Indigo was an astonishingly swift Sunday-morning surprise, Saffron, aged three, was an unlooked-for and cataclysmic shock. And it seemed to Caddy that no sooner had they found Saffron a place to sleep (in Caddy’s bedroom) than the head clutching and hard sums that had begun with Indigo’s appearance suddenly stopped. (Although the roses and dark glasses did not.)
The matter was decided. Caddy’s father would work in London, renting a studio, and come home to his family on Friday nights. When possible.
All at once there was one parent at home, instead of two, and three children, instead of one.
Caddy got used to Indigo and Saffron, and then very fond of them, but her father stayed away for longer and longer periods, and her mother scrambled through the days and nights, juggling people and painting and children and cooking and always a bit behind with everything, and it wasn’t like other people’s houses.
“Darling Mummy is not the world’s best at multitasking,” said her father on one of his heroic trips home to unscramble the household.
“Darling Bill,” Eve would say, and collapse on the sofa to read fairy tales to the children while Bill restocked the fridge, wrote lists, threw out junk, constructed star charts for good behavior, stared at the bills, and gave everyone lots of very sensible advice.
“Darling kids,” Bill said once, pausing from filling trash bags to gaze at them, good as gold, curled up on sofa cushions, listening to stories. “Aren’t we a nice little family?”
“Little?” asked Caddy. It was June and warm but her skin prickled, cold with alarm. She did not know her father thought they were a little family.
“Little?” she asked again. “I thought you said we were a very big family. Too big to fit in a single hamster. That’s what you said.”
“Cadmium darling,” said Bill teasingly. “You’re not going to start taking life seriously, are you?”
The genie in the bedtime story frightened Caddy sometimes. She pictured his smile as he lifted their world to play. Tonight the smile was on Bill’s face, sweet and teasing and ruthless.
“When are you going back to London?” asked Caddy rudely.
That wiped away her father’s smile, but it didn’t touch the genie’s.
“One day,” said Caddy’s mother, soon afterward, “not now, not soon, not for ages, wouldn’t it be lovely and exciting if we had another . . .”
Once more Caddy’s skin ran with ice-cold fear, but this time she ignored it.