Awkward, alienated, angry teenager Plum looks in the mirror, and hates what she sees. No one appreciates her - least of all herself. But when a beautiful, sophisticated neighbour invites Plum over, things change. Plum learns how to be different.
But the new Plum confuses people. Her friends treat her differently. Her brothers and parents don't know what to make of her. And for Plum and her new mentor, the transformation has unforeseen consequences that neither will ever forget . . .
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Plum is soon to turn fourteen, and one evening she stands in front of a mirror with her school dress around her ankles, her body reflected naked and distressing in the glass. If her reflection is true then she has gone about in public like this – this thick black hair hugging her face like a sheenless scarf; these greasy cheeks with their evolving crop of scarlet lumps; this scurfy, hotly sunburned skin; these twin fl eshy nubbins on her chest that are the worst things of all, worse than the downy hair that’s feathered between her legs, worse than the specks of blackness blocking her pores, worse even than the womanly hurdle that still awaits her, the prospect of which occurrence makes her seize into silence – and nobody has informed her of the fact that she is hideous. Her reflection is so troubling that her gaze veers, seeking comfort in the posters tacked to the walls. One shows glossy kittens, another is David Bowie. She breathes deeply and lets a moment pass before sliding her sights back to the mirror. This is she, Ariella Coyle, aged thirteen. Carefully she scans her face, her shoulders, her waist, grimaces at the sight of a meaty bottom and thighs. Her hands
gather her hair in a dense ponytail, and her face, unshielded, looks round and inflamed, her eyes the tarred tips of poison darts. Her arms are strong, her neck utilitarian, not vulnerable at all: indeed, Plum’s entire body is somehow too much – too tall, too thriving, too there. Her stomach is the colour of uncooked dough, and feels, when poked, like dough. Ariella Coyle, aged nearly fourteen, waylaid monstrously on the path to being grown. ‘There is no God,’ she tells her reflection: as quickly as that, she knows it is true. ‘And even if there was a God,’ she adds vindictively, ‘He wouldn’t love you. Look at you. Nobody could love you.’
The words should be like pools of blood, but the idea of such forsakenness actually makes Plum smile. Of late she’s been attracted to all things ruthless and peculiar. She sometimes feels edgy and dangerous, like an animal with unblinking eyes. She’s starting to think there might be something supernatural about her. She can guess what people are about to say, and when the telephone will ring; once, she heard her name spoken loudly behind her, though nobody was standing there. And yet, despite her superiority, Plum can never quite make herself immune to human needs. She can’t quite make herself not care.
Her mother calls dinner from downstairs, and Plum hears the word like a dog hears walk. She catches herself – her greed is infuriating – and points a finger at the mirror. ‘You eat too much. Don’t eat so much. Try.’ Her thoughts, these days, waltz obsessively around the subject of food – how much she might get, how long until she’ll get more – and it’s an obsession that is exhausting. So much about being almost fourteen is, in fact, so wearying that for an instant Plum feels light-headed with all she must endure. She has older brothers whose duty it is to tease her – if the situation requires, they’ll fi nd her taste in clothes and music and heart-throbs a source of crushing mirth. But lately Justin and Cydar have been keeping their opinions to themselves: and their silence rolls up Plum’s spine like a hearse.
Mums calls, ‘Dinner!’
Plum kicks her uniform aside and takes from beneath her pillow a pair of baby-blue, lace-trimmed pyjamas. Dressed, she checks the mirror, ensuring the worst is disguised. She hunches her shoulders, shakes out her hair, stoops her overgrown height. Her cheeks, in the summery dusk, in the anguished infancy of teenagerhood, are the pasty yellow of cereal left to float all day in milk.
The Coyle house is big, and humiliating. The staircase down which Plum runs is gloomy with pastoral paintings, hazardous with piled books. Nothing in the house is new: indeed, the more elderly an object, the more Mums and Fa must possess it. On weekends they trawl antique shops, returning with chairs and statues and complicated wooden boxes. Before she’d known better, Plum had trawled with them; now she stays at home on weekends, curled on the couch watching science-fiction movies, and wishes she lived somewhere less mortifying. It’s unfair that she must endure timber and stone, when all her friends know the joy of plastic and smoked glass. The dinner table to which she’s been called is a lengthy slab of wood over which drunken friars might have drooled inside murky taverns. The seats are two ungiving pews salvaged from a church. It is embarrassing to ask a friend to dinner when they won’t have their own separate chair, rude to expect anyone to use ivory-handled cutlery to eat from crazed china plates at a table that should have been torched. Plum’s wildest dream is to have her bedroom carpeted in white shag – walls, ceiling, door, floor, all pristinely white and furry. The possession she craves more than anything is a miniature television – not one cased in wood, like the one in the den, but set inside a sphere of chrome, with three stumpy legs and a rapier-like aerial. She has seen such a thing in a shop, and it made her feel strangely like weeping.
Plum slides into place on a pew, skidding sideways to let Justin sit beside her. He pinches her arm as he sits down, and she pinches him back harder, her heart fattening with love. Rangy as a tall ship, handsome as a prince’s portrait, a power of aliveness radiates from Justin the way light beams away from the stars. To Plum he is without flaw, a kind of sun-king. He works behind the counter of a bottle shop, and has earned enough to buy a Holden as big as a barge. Occasionally he drives Plum to school in it, dropping her off by the side gate where the tough girls smoke before assembly. It is often the only moment of her day when Plum feels all is not lost. ‘Planet of the Apes tonight,’ she reminds him, but he shakes his head, says, ‘Can’t.’ She whines and screws her face up, but he just reaches for the water jug. ‘You’ve seen it before. You’ve seen it a hundred times. If you watch it again you’ll turn into an ape.’