The two girls waited for the coast to clear. Sarah sat on the closed toilet seat and cuddled her stockinged knees to her chest. Through the dark hair that fell about her face she could see Kay propped against the cubicle door, arms crossed and head slightly inclined. Sarah knew she was listening for signs that the corridors were empty. For the last few moments or so, nobody had walked past; all Sarah could hear was the rattling of the pipes and the rhythmic dripping of a tap. Soon it would be time to go.
Sarah's mouth felt dry. She felt the need to say something to dispel the tension. 'What if we get caught?'
'We won't,' Kay replied. She nibbled the nail on her right index finger, a sure sign that she was deep in thought. 'When the time comes just keep close. You'll be fine.'
The knot of tension in Sarah's stomach twisted again and she rubbed clammy palms together. Kay, as usual, looked unruffled. Her school uniform was impeccable, her blonde hair pulled up into a neat ponytail. Kay was always so self-possessed: she seemed to know everything, and always made even the riskiest of pranks appealing. Sarah, small, dark and slightly plump, had never been part of the popular crowd, so it was flattering when Kay asked her to be involved in her schemes. She had let Kay copy her homework, raided the store cupboard for her, even graffitied one of the school climbing frames in return for an approving smile. None of it had bothered her overmuch. If Kay was the ringleader, then everything was all right. It was Kay, after all.
Disloyal as it seemed, Sarah couldn't help having her doubts this time. Yes, assemblies were dull; and yes, it was true few teachers bothered to check that all their pupils came in and out of the great hall. The two of them would likely have up to an hour to roam the streets, fill their satchels with sherbert fountains, ice creams and Sweet Seventeen magazines, then slip back unnoticed into the school grounds. Kay had made it sound like so much fun. Faced with the reality of it, however, Sarah was starting to feel that skiving off school was going too far.
Sarah wriggled her toes in her scuffed black shoes and stared up at the cracks in the white ceiling. School bathrooms were always the same: bleak and characterless, they reeked of disinfectant and cheap toilet paper. 'Maybe this isn't such a good idea...'
'You can go back and explain to Mrs Davis if you like,' Kay said, without looking up. That effectively put the end to Sarah's protests. Rumour whispered thatthe deputy head teacher once assigned a pupil detention for six hours for putting bubblegum on the seat of her chair. Nobody crossed Mrs Davis, and no-one went to speak to her unless they absolutely had to.
The noise from outside had completely died away now. It had been a while since Sarah had heard any talking, shrieking, laughing, or shuffling of feet from the hallway. Kay tipped her head to one side and set her lips together in a satisfied smile. 'I think it's time. Are you ready?'
'Yes,' Sarah lied.
'Then follow me. Remember: keep close.'
They slipped out of the bathroom into the broad, high-ceilinged corridor. Kay moved with sinuous grace; her rubber-soled shoes hardly made a sound. Sarah felt clumsy in comparison, but followed as surreptitiously as she could manage. She felt as though every step she made echoed off the walls, and she was sure they could be heard as far away as the assembly hall. Kay clearly throve on the danger. As they neared the back door she spun round on her toes and put a long finger to her mouth, brown eyes dancing. Sarah did not need to be told to be quiet, but she wished her heart had taken heed of the warning. It seemed to thump louder and louder every second.
For a moment it looked like they were going to make it. Sarah could almost feel the doorhandle in her hand. She could taste the freedom on the breeze, and she was already starting to look forward to the ice cream she would buy at the corner shop when someone gripped her, hard, by the shoulder. 'What do you think you're doing?'
Sarah knew the voice well, and as usual the sound of it turned her knees to water. She had neither need nor inclination to turn round to face the long-boned face with the glasses and short, curly iron hair. Mrs. Davis. Kay whipped round and made a small, frustrated noise.
'What are you doing?' Mrs. Davis repeated, her fury echoing in every long vowel of her Welsh accent. 'Where do you think you're going? Why are you not with your class?'
'Please, Mrs Davis, we just came from the bathroom,' Sarah stammered. 'We were on our way to assembly, honestly we were--'
It didn't sound convincing, even to her own ears. The assembly hall was on the other side of the building. Sarah could hear Mrs Davis's breathing quicken as though in preparation for a tirade. She closed her eyes painfully, ready to let it all wash over her, when she heard Kay's soft voice interrupt.
'I'm so sorry, Mrs Davis, but this is all my fault.'
The relief flooded Sarah's body. Of course: how could she have been so stupid? She had forgotten that she and Kay were in this together. Kay had such a wonderful way with words. She could explain away anything. Surely once she had apologised to Mrs Davis everything would be all right. They would not get away without punishment, but with any luck coming clean would ensure it would be mild.
'It's all my fault,' Kay said, her hands clasped together, chewing on her bottom lip in a preoccupied manner. 'I could have stopped her but I wasn't able to persuade her. I knew it wasn't a good idea but I thought the best thing to do would be to go with her and make sure she came to no harm. It wasn't great thinking, I see that, and I'm sorry. Really, I am.'
She turned her brown eyes to Sarah and they were empty of anything save heartfelt pity. It was as though her best friend had been suddenly replaced by a stranger. Sarah had frozen in shock at Kay's words. At first she had not been able to believe what she was hearing; her second thought was that Mrs Davis would not believe it, either. To her dismay, however, she felt the deputy head's fingers tighten their grip round her shoulder. 'Is that so?'
'It's not true,' Sarah blurted, but Kay's natural ability to lie fluidly had carried the day. The anger in Mrs Davis's next words chilled her.
'I think Mrs Armstrong will be the judge of that! Kay, go back to your class. Sarah, you come with me. I had expected better of you.'
Sarah lost sight of Kay at the corner of the corridor as Mrs Davis marched her to the headmistress's office, like a tall grey-haired prison guard. Kay still stood with her hands gripped together in her skirts, the expression of terrified pity firmly soldered to her face, playing her part to the last.