She was in the bath when the phone went. The bathroom was an ensuite, part of their parents’ room and she was using it because it was the one nearest to her bedroom. She had been off school since Tuesday feeling shaky and tired and her mum had let her stay at home. She had not wanted to use the other bathroom, which they called the yellow bathroom. It was by the guest bedroom and in a colder part of the house.
It might seem extravagant to have two bathrooms in one house, but her father had helped with the design and the idea had been that his aging father – her grandfather – would move in with the family when the house was completed. He had died, though, before the house was finished and so his bedroom, bathroom and the second small staircase that was hidden at its ground floor destination with a curtain, was left largely unused. The room at the base of the stairs, though was smaller and warmer than the other ‘proper’ lounge and so that is where the family tended to watch TV. When she was younger, she would sneak down the small staircase and sit behind the curtain to listen to the TV after she was supposed to be in bed.
But she was older now and sat in the tepid bath water listening to the hum of her mother’s voice on the phone. She thought she caught a name – Madelaine – but that was all.
Her mother was waiting for her as she emerged in her pajamas.
‘Something has happened,’ she said.
Her mind flew to an image of Madelaine, a girl she hardly knew well. She was riding pillion on the back of a motorbike. Her arms clung tightly the rider on the seat before her. Her blonde hair, trapped under a helmet and pinned at the nape of her neck, flew out behind her in a golden fan as the bike travelled up a narrow road.
‘It’s Madelaine,’ her mother said, gently.
‘Was she on a bike?’ she asked, stupidly.
Her mother frowned slightly.
‘No. Whatever made you think that? No.’
She waited for her mother to continue. Madelaine was one of the girls who boarded at the school. She had arrived earlier that term with another girl, Rebecca. They were both from American families living in British Hong Kong. At the time they arrived, they had both seemed impossibly glamourous. Not for their looks, but for the air of casual sophistication they carried which other girls could only dream of.
There were not many boarders at the school. It had been founded by Christian Scientists and although practice of the religion was not overt, school assemblies included hymns sung from a book with lyrics that had been re-written for the faithful and only Christian Scientists could be boarders.
‘I have just had a call from Rebecca’s mother,’ her mother continued, ‘she wanted to let you know before you got back to school tomorrow.’
‘What happened?’ she asked.
‘Madelaine was taken ill on Monday night. They took her up to the school sick room and she went to bed. When they went to check on her a couple of hours later, she had died. I am sorry.’
She laughed out loud at the thought. It was insane. Madelaine was fifteen, the same age as her.
‘I don’t believe it,’ she said, ‘it is a hoax. I only saw her on Monday.’
‘Mr Price, announced it at morning assembly,’ she said. ‘A lot of the girls are still in shock.’
She thought of Mr Price, with his thin ginger comb over and thick South African accent. She thought of him trying to soften his voice to deliver the news to the school. She imagined herself, sitting cross legged on the wooden floor as she heard the words with the other girls. Some of them would have started crying straight away, she was sure.
‘I am going to bed.’ she said.
She lay in bed but did not sleep. The image of Madelaine on the bike kept replaying in her head. She lay with the blankets pulled up to her neck in the dark as the heating switched off and the house began to creak softly.
Two days ago she had seen Madelaine. Two days ago she had been in the dining room at school and had poured herself a cup of water from the jug at the front. Before she could pick it up though, Madelaine and Rebecca had swung past her and Madelaine had swooped and grabbed her cup of water. She had yelled at Madelaine but she had just laughed, walking away with her prize.
She had poured herself another cup of water but could not let it go. After she had finished her lunch she had walked over to the table where Madelaine and Rebecca were chatting.
‘That was my water and you had no right to take it,’ she had said.
‘Ah C’mon,’ said Madelaine, ‘Chill out. It’s just water.’
But she was angry and had snatched the cup back off the table.
‘Go to Hell!’ She had said, and thrown the cup in the nearest rubbish bin as she stomped off.
And now Madelaine was dead. Madelaine who swished, not stomped. Madelaine with her long blonde hair and an accent like caramel. Madelaine was gone.
She had not been that sick yesterday, she had been mad. Mad at Madelaine and not wanting to go to school and now she would never see her again.
She lay in bed and thought about Madelaine.
Where was she? What was she doing? How sick does a person have to be to just die like that?
The house creaked again. The clock beside her ticked closer to midnight.
She waited in the dark for the ghost of Madelaine Head to approach.
And then she started to cry.