The Others

Hannah Sutherland

Bonnie is on the ferry deck as France fades. She is wearing them; the tan leather shoes from the little shop in Bologna with the yellow door which make her feel grown up. They have an intricate bow on the front, a little heel at the back which raises her up slightly, fooling those who don’t know her height. She’s not herself in those shoes; she can be anyone she wants to be, someone entirely different. She lets the thought sit with her momentarily.

The sea air caresses her bare skin. She wears only a t-shirt and jeans and is unsure why she isn’t wearing more. She only knew she needed fresh air after the tedious bus journey to the ferry from Italy, longed for a break from the constant singing and laughter and jibes as she sat alone on that bus journey as the countryside changed shape.

Shivering, she wraps her arms around her underdeveloped body. Her breasts are childlike, her skin holds the plumpness of youth and the acne of puberty. Yet if you look closely, you’ll notice a new sadness in her eyes which wasn’t there ten days ago. Fine lines have imprinted on her forehead; her face, seventeen- and three-quarter years, aged before its time.

She runs her finger along the railing until the friction makes it sting. Sucking it between her front teeth to relieve the pain, she sees Kerr in her peripheral vision. He’s there, standing two metres away, looking right at her. His expression is one of distress. She knows this for her face holds the same one, like she is looking in a mirror. She looks down at her shoes, the bow greeting her like a face. She smiles at the bow as the corners of its mouth are upturned. It too wears a smile. She looks up at Kerr, believing she is somebody new, but he has already gone.

Hours pass, dinner is served. She sits alone. It isn’t that she is particularly anti-social or that she wouldn’t mind the company, rather she doesn’t know these people. She plays in a brass band with them, plays the baritone and they’ve been touring Italy. She’s not particularly good nor bad. Just average. She likes the music, likes to be part of something, likes to watch the others with fascination as they interact without her. Enjoys hearing their discussions, their dilemmas, their woes.

There’s a girl, Ella, who plays horn. She wears hoop earrings and blows blue bubble gum when she’s not blowing her horn. The boys bring her presents; gum, roll on the wrist perfume that smells of sweeties, hairclips with leopard print.

Bonnie copies Ella, in the privacy of her own bedroom. She calls night to her mum who sits downstairs sipping hot milk and watching a documentary on sharks, knitting a cardigan for Bonnie which she’ll never wear. Bonnie pulls her hair back from her face into a tight ponytail, her forehead given an instant facelift. She pulls two strands from either side and lets them hang there. She does not have Ella’s face, but she imagines she does. She laughs in the mirror, mimicking Ella, throws her head back in the air, her mouth open wide, her palm splayed over her chest. Whoever is making Ella laugh makes Bonnie laugh too. She laughs and laughs and laughs so much that when she catches her reflection in the mirror, it’s Ella who looks back at her.

Ella’s boyfriend Tommy makes sure he has a gift for Ella for every day of the band tour in Italy. He turns up at the girls’ dormitory with it before breakfast and Ella kisses him on the lips and takes the gift, shooing him away: her little puppet with a feather in the place of his brain. Ella walks around the room, her breasts exposed, stomach flat, borrowing the most stylish clothes from the others. They give them to her willingly.

Can I wear this today? she asks Bonnie, holding up her straw hat.

Bonnie bought it for the tour especially, so the sun didn’t burn her scalp. She is so pale, so very pale and even the slightest exposure to the sun burns her skin. Bonnie nods, unable to speak, as though Ella’s proximity has muted her. She is afraid to look up at Ella’s body, so different from hers although they share the same age. So womanly and developed whilst Bonnie’s remains childlike.

Thanks babes. I love it, Ella says, twirling in circles, wearing nothing but the hat.

Bonnie’s bunk bed is next to Ella’s. She wakes early and looks at Bonnie as she sleeps, her long eyelashes skimming the tip of her high cheekbones. Freckles scattered across her cheeks. Bonnie thinks there has never been a prettier face carved before and there will never be a prettier one again. Ella looks so innocent as she sleeps, her features soft are blurred at the edges with the tip of a chubby finger. Bonnie understands then, why the boys want her, why the girls admire her. The beds are close, just an arm’s length away. One morning, Bonnie isn’t sure why, but she stretches out her arm and almost touches Ella’s button nose.

Almost.

Kerr sits next to Bonnie as she pushes her pasta around the plate. The plate is plastic and the cutlery is plastic, and the motion of the ferry makes her whole body sway forward. She looks at Kerr and gives a shy, sad smile as he mimics her gesture.

Why are you sitting here? she says quietly as he gives an embarrassed shrug, looks down.

You’re wearing your shoes. They suit you.

A few days earlier, the group go shopping in between gigs. The morning concert is disastrous, soloists spoiling pieces with silly errors, too cocky, careless. The conductor sinks three tequila shots underneath the umbrella with yellow stripes and wipes the beads of sweat from his shiny forehead, says they can have the next few hours off before the evening gig. Bonnie watches him with interest as he orders another shot, wonders why he thinks alcohol will salvage the evening performance.

He’ll not be able to stand let alone conduct later on, Kerr says quietly, appearing beside her, as though telepathically reading her thoughts.

Bonnie laughs. She doesn’t find it hilarious, but it feels like the polite thing to do. He asks if she would like to have a look around the shops with him. She nods. She realises she hasn’t spoken a word since they arrived in Italy, not to anyone. She wonders if her voice still works; has forgotten what it sounds like and wonders if she now speaks fluent Italian. She doesn’t. Of course she doesn’t.

Kerr’s the year younger than her and plays trombone. He is shorter by an inch and wears thick rimmed glasses that fall down his nose when he plays which cause him to erratically push them up when there’s a break in the music. His chin homes a spot he repeatedly picks which refuses to heal and disappear. He is fundamentally shy and carries an air of fear around with him, a vulnerability.

They say little as they meander through various bijou stalls selling trinkets, sharing a cigarette, feeling desperately cool and removed from who they are. It is as though the foreign air has erased their past selves and, in their place, has created the two almost adults they long to be.

Bonnie frequently feels like this, as though she is on the cusp of adulthood but has no idea how to cross that line successfully. She catches a glimpse of herself in the reflection of a darkened window and looks down, disappointed to learn she is still Bonnie. Unchanged.

They turn the corner as Kerr stubs out the cigarette, when they see them, Ella and her friends, in the little shop with the yellow door, looking at shoes.

Let’s stay over here, Kerr says, wrapping his bony arms around his body which is underdeveloped too, Please Bonnie.

Bonnie nods and observes from a distance. Ella is wearing Bonnie’s hat and Bonnie realises her scalp is peeling. She knows this because flecks of skin which look like dandruff occasionally fall like unsolicited confetti from her head when she moves it too quickly.

Ella is holding one of the shoes, with little bows on the front, admiring it, blowing large blue bubbles with her gum. She puts them on and twirls as the others clap and swoon. She is the centre of attention and she is glorious with it; performs and puts on a show. The shop assistant wears a smile. She says nobody as pretty as Ella has ever worn the shoes. She must buy them. Immediately! Tommy buys them for her, of course.

Moments later, they leave, and Bonnie and Kerr enter the shop and walk over to the shoes. The two of them are of no interest to the shop assistant.

Do you like them too? Kerr asks her, pointing at the shelf where an identical pair sit as she nods, I’ll buy them for you, if you like. I’ve plenty euros.

They stop on the corner of the street and she puts the shoes on, tossing her old ones in the nearby bin. They are of no interest to her anymore. She is walking on air. The shoes smile up at her, pleased with their new owner. She looks over at Kerr and feels something below her belly button tingle. A gratitude of sorts. She reaches out and wraps her fingers around his. He flinches but doesn’t let go. It is as though nobody has ever been kind to him; his hand has never been held before, has never felt such soft skin on his and he will hold on and never let go.

They walk until they are in an empty park and settle on the grass. The strands tickle the backs of her legs and she tilts her face up to the sky, feeling the sun kiss her skin. She leans over and kisses him, gently, on his lips. He tastes of cigarettes and sweeties.

What was that for? Kerr whispers. His face flushes, and he bites his lip, unsure. As though it is part of an elaborate joke. He scratches his neck and frowns.

To say thank you. And because I like you like that.

They’re on the ferry as Kerr plays with his pasta. He’s not a big eater; it shows on his body. Bonnie sighs and feels herself grow tired. She looks over at Ella and the table of others, and they are pointing at her and Kerr, no longer invisible.

I wish you hadn’t told them, she says sadly.

I didn’t, I swear! One of the lads saw us. They followed me and they saw us.

Okay Kerr.

She closes her eyes and feels their laughter and jeering fill her head. It is all she can hear. All her other thoughts are crushed and pushed to one side by their cruel taunts and cackles.

BlowjobBonnie. BlowjobBonnie. BlowjobBonnie

I’m so sorry Bonnie.

His voice becomes lost in their hilarity. She wants to peel her skin from her bones. She feels so very uncomfortable in it. She will remove the layers until there is only bone. She will grind them down until they turn to dust and disintegrate. She will become invisible again, leaving only the shoes will their bow and smiling mouth behind.

Bonnie looks at Kerr and feels sadness. How she wishes the others didn’t know. How difficult his life will be from now on. His slight body sways with the motion of the waves and she sees the nerves in his eyes. He wears the same expression now as when they snuck out of the dormitory the evening after he bought the shoes.

It was completely uncharacteristic of her, as though the shoes gave her a new lease of life. Wearing them made her bold and daring, no longer Bonnie who was seventeen and three quarters but Bonnie, the woman who was unafraid and in control, exuding confidence and radiance.

Kerr’s behind the bushes, trembling, his chinos around his narrow ankles as she gives him head, says he really likes her, very softly, throws his head back, mouth contorted in pleasure, Adam’s apple bobbing down and up, eyes open with a mixture of alarm and thrill, terrified of being caught yet exhilarated with doing something completely daring and removed from reality.

She sneaks into her bed that night, tasting only Kerr. She lies across from Ella, wondering if she has ever done anything so reckless before. She closes her eyes but instead of seeing Ella’s face, she sees Kerr.

Bonnie looks at Kerr on the ferry. He closes his eyes and becomes very still. She touches his thigh, in solidarity, but he flinches and moves away. The taunts become overwhelming and so she runs, leaves him silently meditating in the centre of the dining room with the limp navy curtains and circular tables. She locks herself in the communal bathroom and feels salty blobs fall down her face. She is the silliest to believe she could have been anybody else than herself. She’ll return home to find three new knitted cardigans waiting on her bed for her. She will never return to band. She cannot return. She will not.

The bathroom door opens, and she hears heels clipping the tiles. The cubicle next to hers locks and the sound of urination echoes. Bonnie wipes her cheeks and unlocks her door. She splashes cool water on her face and is startled to see how blotchy it is. Her mind drifts to Kerr sitting by himself at the table, his spine curled over in a cocoon, protecting himself.

Ach shit, she hears a pained say from the locked cubicle, Shit. Shit. Shit.

Bonnie pauses, freezes, waits.

Is someone there? the voice says again. It is unmistakeably Ella.

Yes. It’s Bonnie. From band. Are you okay?

No. My period has started. I don’t have anything away with me, like, at all. It’s fucking three days early. Do you have anything?

I’ve some tampons in my room.

Cool. I’ll use toilet paper just now. Let’s go.

They walk towards Bonnie’s cabin, away from the others in the dining room. Bonnie relaxes when she can’t hear any laughter; Kerr is fine.

Ella is taller, slimmer, bustier and Bonnie feels less, somehow.

I like your shoes. Good taste, Ella says, pointing to Bonnie’s feet and back to her own, Twins.

Bonnie smiles inwardly, secretly bonded, as their footsteps fall in time with one another, both their feet blessed with the same tan leather cushioning their strides.

Is it true you gave Kerr a blowie?

Bonnie gulps and nods, her face flushing.

Why did you do that then?

Because he bought me these shoes.

She wants to tell Ella she likes Kerr, how she wants to be with him, to protect him, to stop the others and their nasty treatment. But she wants Ella to like her. She wants to be Ella. She might even want Ella. She isn’t sure. She says nothing else and feels instantly guilty.

Ella stifles a laugh, says, Fair enough. Sure, I’ve done worse. Christ, this bloody ferry is making me feel so ill. I can’t wait to get off it.

I know.

Do you often go around giving boys blowies behind the bushes then?

Not really. Just Kerr.

Bonnie unlocks the door and they step into her cabin, says, They’re in the bathroom. Take as many as you like.

Ella retrieves a tampon from Bonnie’s toiletry bag, turns to her and grins, says, You know, you should come and sit with us, if you want.

Just then, the colour fades from Ella’s cheeks as she peers up at Bonnie. She hears it first, the splatter of bile hitting the sides. Then she smells it, the stench rising from beneath her. She sees it lastly, yellow chunks of soggy pasta beneath Ella. She wonders how one so beautiful can produce such a scene of devastation. She leans down and holds Ella’s hair back as Ella’s whole body contorts and heaves. A monster possessing her.

Ssh, Bonnie whispers, holding onto her golden locks, stroking them, feeling the rope of Ella’s spine beneath her palm. Ssh, it’s okay.

Bonnie knows then she will always do this. She’ll always look after Ella. She’ll be there for her. She’ll celebrate her exam successes. She’ll cheer the loudest when she graduates. She’ll wipe away her tears in heartbreak and give her own heart to Ella as a gift instead, beating erratically and covered in blood, to aid her recovery. She’ll walk her down the aisle, deliver her unmade child, help her raise it and love it as her own.

Ella will be hers.

The person she was before vanishes for the second time of the trip. She will return to Scotland as an entirely different person and she will openly welcome the change.

Bonnie looks down at her shoes, the ones with the bow, her feet swollen in the heat. Bile has splattered onto them, into the mouth of the bow. They beg her to clean them, pleading with her to remove the vomit, to make them pristine and new again, to love them as she once did.

But all her love is for Ella now. She loves Ella so singularly, there is no love left for anybody else. Not the shoes nor Kerr nor even herself.

She cannot remove her hand from Ella’s back and hair. It is now attached to Ella; she is part of her. Bonnie continues, stroking, and soothing, and loving, as her bow wilts.

They sit together like this for a long while.

Then they join the others.

Hannah is a Scottish writer. She won Cranked Anvil's Flash Fiction prize, placed 2nd in Writing East Midland's Aurora Prize and was longlisted for Retreat West's Short Story and Flash Fiction Competitions. She's longlisted for Strands International Flash Fiction prize and her prose is published in a few online magazines.