Arabis Elsworth walked slowly down the road, placing her feet very precisely along the edges of alternate paving stones. She was in no particular hurry to get home: her father would still be busy with the after-school drama club, and her mother was hosting a pottery party in her studio in the basement. Their house would be full of screaming seven-year-olds and odd, misshapen lumps of clay.
A girl was standing in the front garden of one of the houses, twirling a long chiffon scarf above her head. Arabis couldn’t remember having seen her before. Their eyes met.
‘Hello,’ said the girl, still twirling.
‘Hello,’ said Arabis.
‘What have you got there?’ The girl looked at the tie-dye shoebag slung over Arabis’s shoulder.
‘Tap shoes,’ Arabis replied. ‘I’ve just been to a class.’
‘Can I have a look? What size are they?’
Before Arabis knew quite what was happening, the tap shoes were out of the bag, and then on the girl’s feet, and she was showing her some basic steps on the pavement: heel-toe, toe-heel, click twice, heel again. She wasn’t bad, this girl - her footwork was rather sloppy, which was only to be expected from a beginner - but there was no need for all that business waving her arms about and pulling faces.
‘Do you want to come in for a drink?’ the girl said at last, blowing her fringe out of her eyes. She had long dark hair which needed a good brush, and her eyes were very blue.
Arabis knew better than to go anywhere with a stranger, but this girl was about her own age and the house looked tidy and well-kept. The patch of front lawn was immaculately trimmed, with extremely straight edges. For once, she decided to take a chance. ‘All right, I will,’ she said.
And then came the question she always dreaded. ‘What’s your name?’
Arabis began to frame the word. Then, perhaps because it was turning into such an unusual day, she suddenly said, ‘Ann. My name is Ann.’ Very decidedly, just like that. How easy it was! Why had she never thought of this before? ‘What’s yours?’
‘Sapphire. Sapphire Wilkinson,’ said the girl, shaking back her straggly hair. She led the way up their garden path, through the front door, down the hall and into a neat and tidy kitchen. There, she made two glasses of orange squash which they drank, looking at each other. Arabis could hear the sound of a television coming from somewhere else in the house. They didn’t have one at home: her parents said it stifled creativity.
‘Do you want to come up to my room?’ Sapphire asked. ‘I’ve got loads of costumes you could wear for dancing.’
As they walked back down the hall, a voice called out from the front room, ‘Susan? Is that you?’
Sapphire pulled a face. ‘Don’t say anything. Come on upstairs.’
Sapphire’s bedroom was knee-deep in clothes. It was hard to tell which were dressing-up clothes and which were ordinary weekend ones. After twenty minutes of trying things on (this was mostly Sapphire), Arabis asked hopefully, ‘Do you want to go and watch television?’
Sapphire shook her head. ‘It’ll just be one of those stupid game shows my parents like watching,’ she said, wrapping herself in a long velvet cloak.
‘I’d better go home, then,’ Arabis said. ‘See you. And thanks for the drink.’
‘Susan?’ called the voice again as she came downstairs, and a large, comfortable-looking lady in a cream cardigan looked out of the front room into the hall. ‘Oh, hello, dear. Are you a friend of Susan’s?’
‘Sapphire’s!’ came a shout from upstairs.
On the television, two teams of people were making up words out of a series of random letters. Arabis looked longingly at it through the open living-room door. She loved board games and crossword puzzles: there was something so satisfying about filling up the squares.
‘Would you like to watch for a while?’ Mrs Wilkinson said. ‘You’d be very welcome.’
Arabis sat next to Mr Wilkinson on the beige settee. There was a holder over one arm for the remote control, and pens, and a rolled-up newspaper. It was lovely - everything you could want was to hand. A dish of boiled sweets stood on top of a nest of three tables, stacked one under the other. Arabis could imagine Susan’s mother bringing out the tables, one for each of them, and the family having their supper together in front of the TV. Something easy to eat, most probably, like sausages on little sticks and sandwiches in triangles with the crusts cut off.
She watched the whole of the word programme with Susan’s parents - who didn’t seem to mind her being there at all - and afterwards she helped Mr Wilkinson with his crossword puzzle, and then she had to go home.
‘Come again, dear,’ Mrs Wilkinson said. ‘What’s your name, by the way?’
Arabis felt she ought to tell the truth this time.
‘Oh, that’s interesting.’ A startled look had come into Mrs Wilkinson’s eyes.
‘But people sometimes call me Ann,’ Arabis added quickly.
‘Certainly easier to get your tongue around,’ said Mr Wilkinson, folding up his newspaper for the recycling box.
Arabis found herself calling round at Susan/Sapphire’s house on her way back from tap class quite often after that, and soon it did not seem to matter whether Susan was there or not. Sometimes Susan stayed up in her room, twirling and thumping about, and didn’t even bother to come downstairs and say hello.
‘Wouldn’t you like to bring your little friend back here for a change?’ Arabis’s mother, Amber Elsworth, asked her one day. They were having tea in the pottery studio because her father’s drama group, the Thetford Thespians, were rehearsing their new play upstairs in the kitchen.
‘I can’t bring Sapphire here,’ Arabis said, balancing a heavy bowl of stir-fried beansprouts on her lap. ‘It’s too much of a muddle.’
‘Sapphire! What a beautiful name!’ Mrs Elsworth was delighted. ‘I’m sure she won’t mind a bit of mess.’
Sapphire didn’t. She loved everything about Arabis’s house, from the Native American dreamcatchers and wind chimes in the front garden to the authentic Mongolian yurt at the back. She had a second helping of Quorn and brown rice risotto, and a whole bowlful of Tofu whip, and then she performed a dance which she had been improvising for the occasion.
Arabis looked at her parents’ delighted faces. She didn’t feel jealous; it was as though she had brought them a lovely present, and that made her happy. Quietly she slipped out of the house and made her way over to Susan’s. There was a programme on television that evening about testing your IQ which she and the Wilkinsons had planned to watch together. It didn’t finish till late, so Arabis rang to ask her parents if she could stay over at Susan’s that night. They said of course, that was fine, and Sapphire might stay with them (if the Wilkinsons didn’t mind), since she was reading for a part with the Thetford Thespians.
At first it felt rather strange, sleeping in Susan’s bed. The next night, Arabis tidied away all the clothes into a large cardboard box and then the room seemed more like hers. She had popped home after school that day to collect a few things she needed, letting herself in with the spare key under the mat. The house had been empty so she’d left her parents a note, saying that she might stay at the Wilkinsons a little longer as the IQ programme was on every evening that week and she wouldn’t like to miss any of the episodes. They could contact her any time, since they knew exactly where she was.
Some months later, Arabis was sitting in the Wimpy in town, eating a sizzling steakburger. Amber Elsworth walked past the window, her arm around Sapphire’s tie-dyed shoulder. Their eyes met.
‘Eat up, Ann,’ Mrs Wilkinson said. ‘Is something the matter?’
‘No, nothing.’ Arabis quickly looked away. Her mother did the same.