“Princess. Hey, princess!”
Megan tried to ignore the voice calling after her as she walked down the village street towards the bus stop. She wasn’t ready. She nearly was, but not quite.
Megan wanted to say that it wasn’t her fault that her parents both worked hard at well-paying jobs so they could afford to send her to the best school in the area. It didn’t make her a spoiled princess that they’d taken her on skiing holidays. It wasn’t like she went around rubbing people’s noses in the fact she was well off. She just walked between bus stops.
“Princess, are you late for the royal banquet? I’m sure the servants will keep it warm for you.”
They didn’t have servants. And Megan knew there was going to be no banquet tonight. Her mum was away on some business trip that was too important to refuse. Megan would be microwaving a container of leftovers from the freezer. Again.
Megan reached the bus stop. She didn’t need to check her watch to know she had a few minutes even assuming the bus was on time. This had been the post-school routine for so many afternoons she’d lost count. She caught the bus from outside the school gates and it brought her here, to a village a few miles from home. Then she walked from the centre of the village to the outskirts where she waited for the next bus which would take her to the nowheresville she lived.
And always, these four girls from the local comprehensive would trail behind, jeering at her as though it was her fault who her parents were. She’d kept them behind her as she walked but they came up to her now.
The leader was Lauren, who wore designer knock-offs and jeered the loudest. She was taller than Megan by several inches but not overly pretty and certainly not overly intelligent. Kay and Susie were just sheep. They followed Lauren around and tried to fit in, jeering insults because that was the thing to do. Megan hated the three of them, but the one she despised was Heather. Heather was a small girl, a petite frame and a smile that seemed quite pleasant if you didn’t know what she was smiling at. She tended to wear little flower clips in her hair which helped her to radiate an aura of innocence. Except for her eyes. When those eyes looked at Megan, the facade rolled away to reveal the cruelty beneath.
Heather reached into her jeans pocket. She pulled out a slightly battered packet of cigarettes and a box of matches. Megan knew that Heather couldn’t be any older than she was, but she also knew that it would be stupid to point out the legal age for smoking. Heather lit up and flicked the match, still lit, towards Megan. Megan stepped backwards and the match landed on the pavement, where it died on the damp tarmac. She stared at the match, remembering the time Heather had held a lit match against her hand, and tried to control the rising fear.
“How did it go at princess school?” Lauren asked. “Did you practice your waving?”
Lauren did a mocking royal wave, which got torrents of laughter from Kay and Susie. They would probably laugh if Lauren read out the phone book. Heather didn’t laugh. She just stood there, smiling her pleasant smile at Megan.
She was planning something. She only looked that happy when she had something really vicious up her sleeve.
Megan tried to control her breathing, desperately hoping she didn’t look scared. She tried to remember what Peter had said about looking in control. What sounded so sensible in the sports hall was a lot harder when she was standing next to someone who would happily hurt her without ever losing that innocent smile.
“Is princess scared?” Lauren asked. “Do you want your royal bodyguards to come protect you?”
Megan wanted to punch that smile off her face. Instead she stood quietly. The bus would come soon.
She heard the unmistakable sound of a zip. She turned, twisting her neck to see the top pocket of her schoolbag hanging open. Heather had pulled out Megan’s purse.
“Give that back,” Megan said, hating herself for the tremor in her voice.
“’Give that back,’” Lauren mocked, as Heather unzipped the purse. Megan dived forward, making a grab for it. As Megan pulled her hand back, coins scattered. They hit the pavement and road, or rolled into the bushes beside the bus stop sign.
“Oops,” said Heather. She dropped the purse in a puddle.
Megan saw the bus rounding a corner. She dropped to her knees, reclaiming her purse and gathering up the scattered coins. She had a handful of shrapnel when the bus drew alongside, the pound coin she knew had been there was nowhere in sight. It must have landed in the grass.
“Are you getting on or not?” the driver asked. Megan looked at the pile in her hands. Five pence short.
She could get on the bus and beg the driver to let her take the ride home. He might be nice. He’d driven this bus enough evenings that he might have guessed something about what Megan went through. But she imagined the humiliation if he refused. She’d have to step down from the bus again and Heather and the others would see. They would see they’d defeated her.
“No,” she said, keeping her voice steady. “I think I’ll walk.”
As though it was her choice. She heard Lauren’s laughter as she reached the point where the pavement ran out and she was forced to walk in the damp verge, the long grass soaking the thin fabric of her school trousers. At least she made it round the corner and out of sight before the first tears began to fall. She even made it half-way home before the rain began.
Over an hour later, she unlocked her front door and stepped into the dark house. The empty driveway was evidence that her dad hadn’t got back from work yet. Megan was glad. She didn’t want him to see her sneaking in, looking like a drowned rat. She hurried to her room and got changed, dumping the soggy uniform in the laundry basket. A few minutes with a hairdryer and she looked presentable again.
Then she went back down to the kitchen to get started on dinner. When her dad got home, she could smile at him as though nothing in the world was wrong.
Saturday mornings meant kung fu class. Megan had worried her parents would get suspicious when she’d asked to take martial arts lessons, but they’d accepted her explanation that she wanted to do something to keep fit and thought this looked fun. She couldn’t easily say to her parents or Peter or anyone that she wanted to take kung fu so she could learn how to beat people up.
She remembered vividly the moment she’d made the decision. It had been the cake. Megan had baked a cake in her home economics class, meaning to present it to her mum as a birthday cake that weekend. She’d iced it nicely and decorated it with little sugar flowers. It had been perfect and Megan had been looking forward to smiling at her mum and saying she made it herself.
Kay and Susie had eaten the sugar flowers. Lauren had dragged her finger through the icing to write a swearword. Megan had still been thinking she could fix it. She could get some more icing and it could still be her pretty cake, then Heather had shoved her hand into it, clawing out a fistful of sponge. She’d eaten it, then smiled and said it was delicious. It was such a mockery of the reaction that Megan had wanted from her mum that Megan had just burst into tears, there and then.
It was as her mum had politely thanked her for the shop-bought birthday cake that Megan had decided. She wasn’t going to be pushed around anymore. She wasn’t going to be the weak little princess who hid in her bedroom and cried. She was going to make them bleed.
So she went to kung fu lessons. She learned how to hit and how to avoid being hit. She learned where it would hurt. She listened carefully to Peter’s advice about her style and stance. And she waited.
It was so tempting just to punch Heather after that first class, where Peter had showed her how to make a proper fist and how to stop her elbow going all over the place. But she’d waited. She’d waited until Peter said she was ready to stay on to the sparring sessions after class. Then she was glad she’d waited. What seemed so easy when practiced in class was a lot harder when someone’s fist was heading towards her face.
So she went along, week after week. She listened to all advice anyone would give her and she improved. Mostly, Peter advised her about how to defend herself against someone bigger and stronger. He taught her techniques that would be useful if she were ever attacked by some mugger. She couldn’t tell him what she really wanted to learn. She couldn’t ask him to show her moves to use when beating up girls her own age. Still, she could see the progress she was making.
The Saturday after they grabbed her purse, Megan stayed for sparring as usual. This time, instead of making the rounds and commenting on technique, Peter went round the students and made comments about the inter-club friendly.
“I trust you’ll be joining in, Megan?” he said. When she didn’t answer at once, he went on, “It’s just a friendly competition. Light contact, like sparring here. It’ll be fun.”
“Do you really think I’m ready?” she asked.
“Yes, I do. You’ve worked really hard and come a long way very quickly.”
Megan grinned through the rest of sparring, but she wasn’t thinking about the competition. Peter thought she was ready. So she was. On Monday, everything would change.
When Monday came, Megan’s emotions were seesawing between exhilaration and terror. What if she messed up? What if she ended up bloody and bruised instead of them? Then it would all be over and she really would have lost.
She could wait a little longer. There was still so much more she had to learn. But she remembered what Peter had said in one of her first lessons. He’d said that there was never such a thing as being good enough. No matter how good a person got, there was always more to learn, always something to improve. If Megan waited until she was perfect, she’d spend her whole life picking up coins from the dirt.
She drifted through the school day barely focussing. Her friends asked her if she was alright but she couldn’t answer. They didn’t know about Lauren and the others. They wouldn’t understand what she was planning to do.
The only reason she was able to persuade her dry mouth to swallow her lunch was because she remembered Peter’s advice on the need to eat properly. So she had plenty of protein and carbohydrate, trying to calm her frayed nerves.
She packed her schoolbag carefully at the end of the day, making sure her purse wasn’t easily accessible. There was nothing in there that was going to break when she dropped her bag; she hadn’t learned how to fight with a rucksack on. She got on the first bus as normal, trying to ignore the fact that her mouth felt like the Sahara desert. The journey seemed to take forever.
Megan wanted this to be over. She wanted to be home with this afternoon done with, for better or worse. But, at the same time, she wanted the bus ride to never end. She couldn’t quiet the terrified voice in her mind, which whispered that she was about to get hurt worse than any other encounter with these four.
When at last the bus stopped, she climbed out into the gloom of coming evening. She started her regular walked towards the second bus stop.
“Hey, princess!” the voice chimed up as normal. Megan pretended to ignore it while checking the straps on her school bag were loose enough. She needed it to slip off quickly when she started.
“Is princess going to cry today?”
Megan kept walking. She was still within the village here, with houses on either side and a couple of shops just down the road. There were people who would see and judge her the guilty one. She kept walking until the houses turned into hedges and she could see the bus stop sign, just before the road ran out of pavement.
She knew from the taunting that the other four were right behind her and she shrugged slightly, feeling the straps of her bag slip to the edge of her shoulders. She slowed as she reached the bus stop. The girls were right there now.
She let the bag drop, spinning round almost before it hit the ground. Her fist impacted Lauren’s stomach, the blow going into the soft flesh below the ribs. She kept moving before they could react. She used the momentum of the turn and brought her foot up. This time, she struck Heather but against she went for the stomach. As Heather staggered backwards, Megan lowered her foot, turning the kick into a step as she charged forwards, bringing her elbow round into Heather’s face.
This was nothing like sparring. In sparring, she had to face guys who were bigger, stronger and better trained than she was. Now, these four girls just stood there, almost too bewildered to fight back. Heather did try a punch, but it was weak and with no follow through. Megan almost grinned as she dodged around the blow, stepping behind Heather and kicking downwards onto her calf so that Heather fell forwards, landing on her hands and knees on the pavement.
Megan gave each of Kay and Susie a punch to remember her by, but they were backing away, looking utterly terrified of her now. Megan gave Lauren one last kick for good measure, thinking about the cake and the purse and the taunts and all the nights she’d cried in her room. Then Megan turned to Heather, who was just picking herself up off the floor. Her hateful smile had vanished now and she flinched away when Megan stepped close.
The bus was coming round the corner. She picked up her bag, got out her money and climbed on.
The bus driver glanced at her and then at the girls on the pavement. It was the same driver as Friday.
“Everything alright?” he asked.
“It is now,” Megan said. She went to take her seat, her personal dictionary rewritten. Princess was no longer the person who went home and cried. Princess now meant someone who, when kicked, kicked back harder.