This love story starts like this… BELLA JONES did not like Meg Hunter one little bit. She was too rough, too noisy, and too grubby.
“It’s not only the way she crashes about, knocking things over,” she said. “It’s everything about her. She always looks such a fright. That great bush of hair, I bet she never combs it. And her face is often dirty. As for her clothes! She came to school yesterday with those horrible green trousers of hers done up with safety pins, did you notice? She just doesn’t care what she looks like. She’s an utter mess.”
It was true. Edward had to admit it. Yet there was something he liked about Meg, a sort of warm glow, a friendliness. She laughed a lot. The smaller kids loved her.
Meg was young for her age, that was the trouble, a big untidy girl with shaggy brown hair, like an overgrown puppy. She still climbed the trees on the common and rolled down the steep grass bank as he had done when he was a kid. He even saw her playing football with the boys from their old primary school and had been tempted for a moment to join in. But the ground was wet and muddy, and he was wearing his new trousers. Also, his mother was with him.
His mother liked people to look nice. “It only takes a little effort to look clean and tidy,” she was fond of telling Edward, “and it makes all the difference to what people think of you. Always remember that, Edward.” He knew she didn’t approve of Meg. She never said so outright, but he could tell. Her plucked eyebrows always rose when she saw her, and she’d shake her head, as if to say, “Well, really!”
“Isn’t that Meg Hunter over there, playing football with those boys?” she’d asked. “Covered in mud, poor girl. Just look at her! It’s odd because her mother is really very nice, you know. And the two older girls are always beautifully dressed. You’d never take them for the same family. I wonder Mrs. Hunter lets Meg go around looking like that.”
“She’s Meg’s stepmother,” Edward told her.
“It’s not always easy being a stepmother,” his mother said. “I imagine Meg can be quite a handful.”
A Cinderella girl, Edward thought. Poor Meg, nobody cares what she looks like. Perhaps her stepmother grudges every penny she has to spend on her, and won’t buy her new clothes or even a hairbrush so that she has to use safety pins when her zips break and comb her hair with her fingers.
“She’s in your class, isn’t she?” his mother asked.
“Is she clever?” “I don’t know,” Edward said. “I’ve never noticed.”
His mother laughed. “I don’t suppose you have,” she said. “She’s not the sort of girl boys look at.”
His mother didn’t know everything, however. Edward did look at Meg, quite often. He wasn’t certain why. She was plump and her clothes never seemed to fit her and she had big feet. On Sundays, however, when they met by chance in the park, they’d stay together, talking or watching their local team play football. He always looked forward to seeing her.
But it was Bella he really wanted to date. Pretty, popular Bella whom a lot of boys claimed would let you kiss her in the cinema or in the bushes behind the cycle shed. He had never kissed a girl, not properly, and was beginning to feel left out. Of course, they might be only boasting.
“Have you ever kissed a girl?” he asked his best friend Michael, who was tall and skinny and clever and could be trusted not to betray him.
“Of course I have! Millions of times. Can’t get away from them,” Michael told him. “They swarm over me every Christmas. Mum’s only got to put up a bit of mistletoe and I have to hide to avoid being trampled on.”
“No, seriously, have you?”
“My lips are sealed,” Michael said grandly. “I’m not one to kiss and tell.”
“I’m not asking for names. Just a straight answer, yes or no.”
“No. What about you.”
“No,” Edward admitted, “but don’t tell anybody.”
Michael laughed. “Don’t sound so sad. We’re still young. Far too young, my mum would say. Do you want to kiss just any girl or one in particular?”
“I want to kiss Bella Jones.”
“Oh, her! I might’ve guessed. You always want to do what other people do,” Michael said. He was not one of Bella’s admirers. “Well, why don’t you?”
He made it sound easy. Full of hope, Edward had asked Bella to come to see a film with him.
“No, I don’t think so,” she said.
“Why not?” he asked, “I thought you liked me.”
“Whatever gave you that idea?” she said.
“Oh come on! There’s a good film at the Odeon. Alligator Angel. I’ll treat you. What about tomorrow?”
She shook her head. “Not tomorrow.”
“Sorry. Can’t manage Wednesday.”
“What about Thursday, then?”
“I dunno. I might. I’ll think about it,” she said.
On Thursday morning, he came to school early, in his new trousers and his best shirt. But when Bella came, she told him she was going out with Kevin Clarke.
“But you promised”
“I never promised, I just said I might,” she told him. “Ask me again sometime.”
So he asked her the next day, and the next day, and the next, and every time she said, “I dunno. I might. Ask me again.”
The last time she said this, he turned away without a word and went to look out of the window, ignoring her. She didn’t like that.
“What are you looking at?” she asked, coming to stand beside him.
“Nothing in particular.”
“Yes, you are. You’re looking at Meg Hunter. Here she comes, late as usual. Doesn’t she look stupid when she runs? Look at that smudge on her face! She can’t have washed at all this morning.”
Edward knew how Meg got smudges on her face. Sometimes, when he was late, he saw her going along the road in front of him, trailing her fingers over the ledges of the buildings, stroking the dusty plastic dog outside the pet shop, then pushing her unruly hair back from her face with sooty hands.
“It’s only dust,” he said.
“And what on earth does she think she’s wearing? That cardigan’s hideous! And it’s coming unraveled at the sleeve. Why doesn’t she make her stepmother buy her some decent clothes?”
“What she needs is a fairy godmother, a pumpkin, and a prince,” Edward said. “What she needs are a hot bath and a haircut,” Bella retorted, wrinkling her pretty little nose. “Don’t tell me you fancy her, Edward?”
Before he could answer, Mr. Dunlock, their teacher, came into the room and ordered them to their place saw Meg, trying to slip unnoticed into the room, trip over someone’s leg-whose? was it Bella’s?-and stumble heavily against one of the tables.
“Late again, Meg?” Mr. Dunlock said. He peered at her through his spectacles. “What’s that on your face? It looks like soot. Go and wash it off, there’s a good girl.”
As Meg left the room, some of the girls giggled and whispered. Edward was too far away to see who they were. He wondered if Bella was one of them. She could be spiteful, he’d already found that out, but he didn’t want to have to start again with another girl. He was used to being in love with her, used to ask her out, even used to being refused.
There was something to be said for unrequited love. It was safer. Often, in his sleep, when he tried to kiss Bella, he tripped over his own feet and missed her altogether. Once he dreamed he was sitting next to her in the dark cinema, holding her hand. But when he leaned over to kiss her, she suddenly turned into Mrs. Trenter, their headteacher, who shouted angrily, “Edward Walden, you’ve failed your tests! What will your mother say?”
Nevertheless, it hurt his pride that Bella should keep on refusing him when she went out with several other boys who were not, he considered, better looking or more amusing or in any way nicer than he was.
“I don’t mean to be conceited, but honestly!” he said to his friend Michael. “She’s been out with Kevin a lot, and he’s the dregs. Why do you think it is?”
“The girl’s daft,” Michael said kindly. “She’s got bad taste.”
The next Sunday, Edward walked moodily in the park, looking for Meg. He found her sitting in her favorite tree and climbed up beside her.
“Do you think there’s something wrong with me?” he asked.
“In what way? Have you got pain or spots or something?”
“No. I meant… Am I off-putting in any way? Have. I got halitosis or do my feet stink?”
“No,” she said.
“If you were Bella, would you rather go out with me or Kevin Clarke?”
Meg laughed. “Kevin Clarke writes her poems,” she said.
“Poems?” Edward repeated in astonishment. “Whatever for?”
“She likes them. She sticks them in an album opposite photographs of herself, and shows them to us.”
“Good grief,” Edward said, appalled by this new slant on his beloved. “What are they about?”
“They’re all about her, of course,” Meg told him. “You know the sort of thing:
“Oh, Bella’s hair is brighter than the sun, And Bella’s eyes are bluer than the sky-”
“What rot!” Edward said in disgust. “It’s not even true. Bella’s hair is pretty enough, but I bet it’s never ripened any tomatoes. I wonder she can stomach such tripe. She must be terribly vain.”
Meg didn’t say anything.
“You wouldn’t want anyone to write poems to you, would you, Meg?” he asked.
“I don’t know. Just once, perhaps. But nobody ever will,” she said. He thought she sounded a bit wistful.
“I’ll write you a poem if you like,” he offered. “Not that I’m any good at it, but I bet I can do as well as Kevin. Shall I?”
“Don’t say that my hair will ripen tomatoes because it won’t,” she said, pushing it back from her face and leaving a smudge on her nose. “It might do to plant mustard and cress in. Mum’s always trying to persuade me to have it cut.”
“I shall be strictly truthful,” he promised.
After a moment, he began:
“Your hair is rough and long and needs a cut, Your eyes are… “
“What color are your eyes, Meg? I can’t remember. Look at me, please.”
She turned her head. Her eyes were a greenish hazel and very bright. They reminded him of the sea at Cosheston, sparkling over the pebbles in the sunlight…
“Your mermaid’s eyes are flecked with gold and green. Your nose is smudged, your sleeve unraveled but Of all the girls at school you are my queen.”
He shouldn’t have said that last line. It wasn’t true, was it? What about Bella? Besides, he couldn’t date Meg. His mother would have a fit and everybody at school would tease him. He looked at her anxiously, hoping she wouldn’t take it seriously, but she only laughed and told him it was a splendid poem, far better than any of Kevin’s.
“Don’t worry,” she said. “I won’t tell Bella.”
At the end of the term, their school had a summer disco in the assembly hall. Edward didn’t think he’d go. He had given up asking Bella to come out with him, and no longer dreamed of her at night. So he was surprised when she came up to him and said, “Aren’t you going to ask if you can take me to the summer disco, Edward?”
“You don’t need anyone to go with. You can just go,” he told her.
“I know that,” she said. “I just thought you might want to call me so we could go together.”
He looked at her suspiciously. “Would you come with me if I asked you?”
“I dunno. I might,” she said and ran off, giggling.
“And I might ask some other girl,” he said and walked off. He knew whom he was going to ask. It was only when he found Meg in the library that it occurred to him that she might refuse.
“Please,” he asked, as she hesitated.
“I thought you’d ask Bella Jones,” she said.
“No, I’m asking you.”
“I can’t dance,” she said. “I’ve never been to a disco.”
“Nor have I,” he told her and they smiled at one another.
He was nervous, standing outside the school on the Saturday of the party. Sometimes he was afraid Meg would not come after all, and Bella would laugh. Sometimes he was afraid Meg would come in her old green trousers, still done up with a safety pin, with her hair unbrushed, and her face smudged, and Bella would laugh even louder. Bella had arrived with Kevin Clarke, and they were waiting in the entrance, looking at him and sniggering; Bella with her yellow hair frizzed out and her claws sharpened.
“Who are you waiting for, Edward?” she called out, but just then a big silver car drew up outside the school gates, and a girl in a sea-green dress got out. Her long brown hair was sleek and shining, earrings sparkled in her ears and there were silver buckles on her shoes. As she walked toward them, the thin material of her dress swirled out like the waves of the sea.
“Meg,” Edward said, coming forward. “Meg, you look fabulous.”
“Don’t I look posh? I hardly know myself,” she told him, laughing. “Mum and my sisters took me in hand. They’ve been longing to do it for ages, but I wouldn’t let them. Mum’s brought me a whole lot of new clothes, Josie gave me these earrings and Netta these bracelets.”
She was no Cinderella, after all. She was Meg, whose family loved her, enough to let her play football in the park and climb trees when she wanted to, and to do her proud when the time came. She’s beautiful, he thought and felt for a moment an odd pang of loss. Had she gone for good, the laughing, untidy, romping girl who’d not wanted to grow up?
“Don’t change too much,” he said. Then, as she looked up at him, he noticed a small smudge of eyeblack on her left cheek. Without thinking, he bent down and kissed her, forgetting that Bella and her friends were watching until he heard the catcalls. He didn’t care what they thought, not now. It was as if the kiss had broken a spell and set him free. Nobody was going to tell him what to think any longer, nor choose his friends for him. This was the girl he had always liked. The others could suit themselves.
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