When Ella Josefsson moves to a new school with over 1600 pupils, life goes rapidly downhill. She doesn’t fit in, finds it impossible to make friends, and is soon caught up in a spiral of poor behaviour and increasing isolation. The school has a “buddy” system, where younger pupils correspond with an older mentor. Ella writes regularly to Lina, pouring out her heart, but Lina has troubles of her own and although she reads the letters, she really can’t be bothered to get involved. Until the day she finds Ella being bullied by a gang of girls...
New day. New month. Startling to feel like not so new school now. But it sucks, it really sucks.
Lisa, Karolina and Lisa E. come along the corridor with their whole crew in tow. Ullrika’s one of them, of course. Obviously. Goes without saying. Lisa sees me and lifts her top a tiny bit.
“Hey Ella, got your top on properly today, then? Did Mummy help you put it on the right way round? So you don’t get all cold?”
Bloody pissing shitting hell. I can put up with crap, but I’ve had enough now. I’ll kill her. I’ll kill her. I make to hit her, but she jumps aside and I fall over. They laugh. I struggle to my feet, I just want to get away, but Lisa E. blocks me and they all join in and hold me there. I try to wrench myself free. Lisa stays at a safe distance.
“Think you’re gonna hit me? What is your problem? Are you sick in the head or what?”
They drag me off to the toilets. Three of them with Lisa E. taking the lead; they force my head into the toilet bowl. Pull the flush. I can’t breathe, I’m swallowing water and starting to cough, throw up.
“Won’t that do? She doesn’t sound very well.”
Doesn’t sound very well? What the hell does she expect. Too right I’m not very well. Thank you so fucking much.
They let go and I can breathe.
“You’re bloody disgusting.”
I try to get some air. I struggle to my feet again and try to get out of there. They follow me. They grab hold of me again. Not again. I can’t go through that again. I can’t. Got to get away.
“Swallowed some water, have you? You’re not supposed to drink from the toilet, you know that, poor little stupid. Here, let’s help you.”
Lisa E, thumps me on the back and makes me fall over again. I bash my knee and it starts bleeding. My face is pressed down onto the cold, dirty floor. I’m crying and my nose is running. They stand round me in a circle. All keeping me down there. It hurts so much.
“I’m sorry. Please!”
They mimic me.
“I’m sorry. Please! I’m sorry. Please!”
“Come on, get up and fight back, you fucking loser!”
I try to get up. But Lisa E. puts her foot on my back and I’m forced back down. She twists back my arm and looks down at me. I scream. She twists a bit harder.
“Don’t ever try that with me again, you haven’t got a chance, I’m not all on my own like you.”
I feel dreadful. Got my period, irritable as hell. Wish I hadn’t come, decide I don’t give a damn about school today, I’m going home. Mariam’s in the cafeteria. Sees I’m on my way out, nods, gets up and gathers her things together. We go along the corridor to the lockers, to put our books in Mariam’s. We’re leaving, getting out. There’s a crowd of kids blocking the locker area, all jostling to see what’s happening. Some have climbed up onto the lockers. They’re shouting, roaring, catcalling and clapping.
“What the hell are they doing?”
“Dunno. Probably a fight, same as usual.”
We try to get to the front. Force our way through the crowd. There’s a girl lying on the floor between the rows of lockers. I recognize her straight away. It’s her. Ella. My Ella. They’ve forced her down onto the floor. She’s soaking wet and terrified. Trying to protect herself with her hands, but she can’t.
I’m not quite sure what happens next. It’s like I just explode. I kick somebody. Me and Mariam barge our way through to Ella. I grab the girl leaning over her. I’m so fucking angry.
“Let her go, or I swear I’ll smash your fucking face in, break your arm. I’m warning you!”
I look her straight in the eyes and land a punch on her nose. She holds her nose between her hands. It’s bleeding. Serves her right.
“The rest of you can piss off as well.”
Mariam shoves one of them and she falls over.
“We were only having a bit of a laugh.”
Mariam shoves again, and again. I reckon me and Mariam are both as livid as each other, how the hell can anyone be so cruel?
Shocked surprised the grip on my arm loosens. They’ve stopped laughing now. Someone comes up to where I’m lying on the floor. I sit up and huddle into a ball with my hands round my head and knees. I want to not exist.
“You okay? Can you stand? Those bastards. I’ll kill them. I’ll kill the lot of you!”
She shouts it out. It echoes.
I hear someone else say:
“She’s crazy, let’s go.”
I can’t answer. I can’t look anyone in the eye. I just want to get away.
“Hey, are you all right? Ella? It is Ella, isn’t it? I’m Lina. Thanks for your letters.”
I stare down at the floor, holding back the tears. Lina? There is no Lina. I’ve got to get out of here. I don’t want to talk to anybody. I just want to get out. Leave me alone, I think. Leave me alone. Just leave me alone. The girl calling herself Lina seems to understand.
“Okay. Don’t let them near you. See you later.”
“Mariam, can you make sure she’s okay?”
It sounds as if Mariam’s crying.
The girl calling herself Lina walks away. It goes quiet. The place empties.
Mariam picks my folder off the floor.
“Come on, let’s get you cleaned up.”
“No. I just want to go home.”
“What did they do? I should’ve been here. Are you all right, Ella? It’ll never happen again. Never. Ella, can you hear me?”
No, it’s never going to happen again. Because I won’t be here. I can’t breathe. My letters. Lina. She’s real. I don’t want to be able to think. I can’t breathe. Mariam helps me out and gets me home.
I don’t know why I’m so upset. I’m crying as I go out of school; I knock over every bike I see and kick over every rubbish bin. Shit, I don’t know... I’m so disappointed in the whole world. She’s so small. She’s only in Year 7. Where the hell were all the teachers? Why was everybody clapping? It scares the shit out of me and I’m so fucking disappointed. In everything.
I think she’s a bit like me. Me. Now I’m being self-centred again. Everything’s got to be about me. But it all feels so familiar. I recognize the feeling. I remember what it was like back then, coming up from Year 6 and everything being wrong. They were dividing us up into new groups, we could say if we wanted to be in the same class as our best friend – which best friend? I’d been on my own ever since I started at the other school. I didn’t choose anybody. I chose not to have them. Hoped I could get away from them, end up in a class with some new people, a new chance to belong. But I didn’t get away, oh no. Most of the idiots from my class ended up with me. I wasn’t with them. I was alone. Unpopular.
But sometime in year 8 I realized I’m fine the way I am. I got rid of my brace, and the lopsided fringe my Mum had always cut my hair into, ever since I was little, from force of habit. I found cheap clothes in second-hand shops, wore what I wanted to, developed a style of my own. Thought I looked nice for the first time. Realized it was fun doing my make up my own way. Got a bit of self-confidence. Protested about things. Debated them. I didn’t do what everybody else did. Because this is me. Or if I’m really honest, it’s also a way of fitting in, finding a place. There’s got to be a place at the table that’s like me, too. Somehow I was part of things, but on the sidelines.
Lots of that stuff she wrote to me is stuff I’ve thought about and still do. I was like her, too, still am, but I didn’t have to go through what she’s going through. Because I found my place. It’s never going to happen again. I’ll see to that. I’ll look after her. I’ve kept all her letters, every single one.
I know what I’ll do.
I’ll answer every single one of them. I’ll do like she did, just write it all down without correcting anything, write what I feel. So she doesn’t feel alone. Abandoned. That’s what she is now. It’s partly my fault. I’ve been reading away and feeling fine here, thinking about myself. Laughing at her. What a crap person I am. I’ll write. I’ll do it now.
I slam the front door. Dad’s working at home.
“Must you slam the door so hard? How many times have I told you just to shut it like everyone else! You’ll have to pay for a new door, Lina. I’ll take it out of your child allowance.”
“Fine, you do that then. I’m ill, I’m going to bed.”
I was ill until I’d finished writing. I put her first letter and my answer together in one envelope, then did the same with all the rest. She wrote about everything that happened to her since her first day in our crap school and now I’ve answered. I also put in my translation of that Viktor’s poem. Maybe it’ll cheer her up. Bleeding hell, what a pile, thick as a book. I’ll give her the whole lot in one go. I’ll give her my answer.
Today I had a shower after P.E. I put up with their looks, their snide comments to each other about me. It was hard going but it was worth it. Because today Lina, Mariam and Anna crept in and took their pushup underwear, gathered it all up carefully and took it over to the boys’ changing room and left it there. I could feel the heat of the shower. It felt a bit like being in a prison scene in some film. Any minute someone with a table knife sharpened to a lethal point or some hard object inside a sock would come and get me. But it wouldn’t matter, because revenge was sweet. I stayed in the shower a bit longer, let them go out ahead of me, took my time. Yak yak, body lotion, comb hair, then sudden shrieks.
“Where are mine? Mine’ve gone too! And mine!”
More shrieks. Bellowing from the boys’ changing room. Banging on the wall.
I didn’t feel sorry for them. Not one bit. I just took it all in. Kept it for myself. Left them to their fates, got dressed and went. On my way out saw Eric, the class clown, with Lisa’s knickers on his head and Karolina’s bra on over his jumper.
I’m keeping all this.
Estrella means star, and there’s the whole Viktor thing. I do like him after all. We get together now and then. We can talk. Lina says I’m one of those typical... I don’t know who I like. Until it gets to the point where I have to admit to myself, since I think about him all the time and talk about him all the time, that I may actually be interested. I like him. I took Viktor’s hand when we were walking along, talking. He didn’t protest. I don’t know what’ll happen next, but I’ve got butterflies in my stomach and I feel the way you do when something’s going to happen. Feels good. Though he’s only a small part of it. Not the most important. But one small and rather nice part is him.
Fun things we do and have done.
We go to coffee shops.
We often do that. Pretend we’re out of school doing a project. Go to parties. Watch films. The four of us. Us. We’ve started a band; we never play, mostly we just think up different names and choose songs and decide who’ll play what. I’m going to play the tambourine, sounds good, and simple enough. Just stand there shaking it a bit. Then Lina says she’ll play accordion or Pan-pipes and that does it. Anna wants to play the tuba and Mariam the triangle. We get all giggly and nothing comes of it as usual. But some day maybe, if we really wanted to. For now we’re perfectly happy just being together and talking about things. What we’d like to do. What we’re going to do. What we’ve done.
Just think. Just think. It feels almost unreal. But this is reality.
Here I am. I’ve got three friends. Got to pinch myself to convince myself it’s true. My friends.
And to think I’m the youngest. Three friends who are older. Total protection. It feels as if it’s thanks to Lina we’re friends. Her knack of seeing what was missing, what we needed. Don’t get me wrong, life still isn’t that wonderful, but it’s not entirely crap either.
We need people like Lina. I’ve changed my mind: they do exist, kind people.
There’s a difference between being kind and a stupid dumb cow, and being kind the way someone like Lina is.
Lina and me, we don’t need to say that much. We know each other’s stories and we still write to each other. But we talk all the same, about anything and everything.
Wonder if we always will, even when we’re like, eighty-one?
“Oh yes, I’m scared of dying, but after all I’m quite old and tired now, so maybe it’s time to go to sleep.”
“No! Not yet, Ella, come on, I’m older than you. We’ve got that concert to go to first! Let’s down a bottle of whisky and dance until we die!”
I found her or she found me. Lina’s brave and I’m getting braver. Lina. I know who she is now. She’s not at all like I thought. When I first realized she existed. We’ve got things in common.
Lina says she’s adopted me. She’s always wanted a little sister and I’ll do fine. “My cute little sister!”, pinching my cheek like some ancient auntie.
I hate that, and she knows it.
“All right, all right. But I like you so much. Coochy coo!”
The four of us get the train into town. Lina wants to look for a CD by some old band she says is great. I like it being just us. I’ve been so lucky. It takes such a bloody long time to get into town, and sour-faced old women say shouldn’t you be in school. We say we’re doing a project. Old hands now.
Lina nudges Mariam. Who nudges me and I nudge Anna. We laugh. Old hands now.
“Hey listen. Heard some programme on the radio. About these boys from town right, punks or something. You had to feel so fucking sorry for one of them, or at least he thought so. Felt like he was one of those types who invented his own fucking unhappy childhood.”
“You bet. He talked about how fantastic it was when he was like, little, and lived out in the islands, how nice it smelled and how he longed to be back there, and it was all so marvellous. Who the hell’s been to the islands, I ask you? Not me, at any rate.”
Mariam’s thinking it over.
“You have to go by boat to the islands, right?”
We roar with laughter.
“Kids who go to summer camp get to go there, or filthy rich people with summer cottages. We’re going to the country for the weekend! Oh how nice! The archipelago!”
“Let me get to the end then! Anyway, this boy, bet he grew up in Östermalm or some posh part of the city in some fucking intellectual upper class home, and now he’s playing at tragic childhoods. There’s way too many of that sort, sitting freezing on the steps and having a terrible time.”
“Then I bet they take a taxi home to Mummy and Daddy and watch DVDs, and Mummy and Daddy get out the crisps and feel so proud of them for daring to go out into the world and meet other people.”
“For bringing themselves to do it.”
“Yeah, how the hell do they bring themselves to? It’d be a lot nicer just staying at home with Mummy and Daddy, hanging out at the country cottage and going to their snob school and not bothering. But I suppose they think it’s kind of tough. They’re like, the worst kind. The worst kind of moron. They don’t know. Haven’t the faintest what it’s really like.”
I’m not sure, but the mood’s a bit sad, it feels as if we’ll be going our separate ways, not yet, but soon. But we’ll stick together, whatever happens.
Lina says if anyone ever messes with me once she’s finished Year 9 and isn’t there any more, she’ll be back. Straight away, Mariam and Anna say:
“So will we.”
It looks like Mariam will be leaving too, maybe not now but soon, because she’s moving back in with her family. She says part of her wants to and part of her doesn’t. She misses her little brothers and sisters. She’s going back to her old school.
“I’ll come and see you,” Lina says.
Anna and I both speak at once:
“So will we.”
“If it all gets too difficult, you can always come and live with one of us, you know.”
“I know. We’ll have to see how it goes. I may not move back home after all. I’ll see.”
For upper secondary, Anna’s got a place on the course specialising in science at Tensta College, miles away. Bloody clever. New people. Start all over again. But she’s going to keep us. Thanks very much, so grateful.
Lina’s going to get a job, save up and then go travelling. Her parents want her to do the non-specialist foundation course and catch up, but she doesn’t want to, so that’ll be that. I’d quite like to apply for the arts and drama course at South Stockholm College, when the time comes. But that means entrance tests and high marks, I think. Don’t know if I dare. Might say to hell with it. No point.
“Of course you won’t!”
Lina’s almost shouting. Of course I won’t.
Lina’s found her CD and we go to McDonald’s, everywhere else is closed.
I’ve started drinking coffee, and decided I like it. Did an experiment, drank eight cups, got totally hyper, they all laughed. I laughed. I feel so alive. It’s December and bloody freezing, but we’re always out and about. We have such a good time, it’s as if we’re all full of some sort of hope, it’s about fun, making it fun together. Me, Lina, Mariam and Anna. Us. We don’t really do all that much, just go in McDonald’s to get warm, like now. I hate McDonald’s anyway, their yucky food and their horrible clown Ronald. Ronald McDonald, who scares me to death and probably all the children too. But there aren’t that many other places to choose from. Hate films with clowns and white-faced mime artists. That’s beside the point.
I don’t think adults understand what friends do for you, they’re the most important thing. They’re there for me when I’ve maybe done something not all that smart, when it comes to it. Happens quite a lot.
We’re there for each other, and snivel together over some soppy film. I’m so soft, start crying the minute anyone’s mother’s ill and going to die, or when they’re nasty in the film to the girl who’s totally wrong.
They’re there for me so I don’t feel so alone. We’re there for each other. Things don’t always turn out for the best. Life can be fucking black sometimes. But then they’re there, my friends, and we can feel black together.
Sure, parents can ask what sort of friends you’re hanging round with, worry about it and stuff like that. But that makes me want to laugh; it’s your friends who are your security.
It’s without them everything gets hard. Really fucking hard. I know. I’ve been there. But not any more. Now I’m here and I feel as if there’s hope for me. It’s no thanks to any adult. It’s thanks to me. And Lina, Mariam and Anna. My friends.