School looked like a space ship that smashed into a big mansion and some huts made of toughened cardboard. These were for studying Religion in, which you could tell because they had bars on the windows to stop children escaping. We skirted round the back edge, crunching over gravel, down the long edge of the playing fields, through bushes that tickled as they let you through.
We got into form just in time, slid into our seats and hunched down, hoping no one would notice. At the front, our form teacher, was calling out the register. Miss Pooter was spaghetti-thin with shiny eyes and a flat, weird face like a beautiful doll. When you talked to her, she would press her sharp blonde bob tighter round her head like she was protecting her ears from whatever you were about to say.
As soon as she started reading out the announcements, Toad started throwing scrunched up paper balls at the back of my head.
Miss Pooter looked up. ‘Yes, Frank?’
‘Toad keeps hitting me on the back of the head.’
‘He hasn’t moved.’
Miss Pooter rolled her shiny blue eyes. The bell went, then she curved up out of her chair and I got trampled in a crush of kids trying to get their homework books signed.
I tried again. ‘I said, Toad- Tom Hoad was throwing paper at the back of my head.’
Miss Pooter looked blank. ‘What paper?’
He must have picked up every last piece.
In Chemistry we learned safety: how not to set our hair on fire with Bunsen burners and to remember to put goggles on so we didn’t blow chemicals into our eyes, which I thought was a good tip because next time Toad got his hands on chemicals that was exactly what I’d have to watch out for. Homework was to go home and find as many toxic substances as we could and match them up to the hazard symbols.
‘Except the one at the bottom,’ Mr Bibby said, laughing like he’d just told a really hilarious joke. ‘Ha, er, you’ll need to look that one up on the internet.’
We weren’t allowed internet at home in case it distracted us from our survival training. But I didn’t tell Mr Bibby about having no internet since what happened when I mentioned it in Geography. Someone must have told Toad because then he started calling us Mormons and Eris said did he mean Amish and then it all got out of hand. When we complained to Bobs, he said the 1979 Encyclopaedia Britannica that he found in a skip had good answers to most questions.
I just had to hope all these hazards were invented before 1979.
Except then I looked down and saw the last question on the homework was ‘What is a biohazard?’ which I knew already so I wrote: ‘something that eats all the flesh off your face.’
So then it was History, and I think the stress must have got to me. One moment Mrs Hale was talking about the industrial revolution. Next thing I knew I was peeling my head off the desk. I must have fallen asleep.
A whole bunch of faces were staring at me, very still, very quiet. They looked pretty excited. So first I thought it was good. Then I realised they were excited because something horrible was about to happen. It was a few seconds before I discovered that the horrible thing that was about to happen was about to happen to me and that I must have been drooling in my sleep.
So really what happened next wasn’t even my fault at all. It was Bobs and too many jobs too early in the morning, too late at night. Mrs Hale looked angry and like she was waiting for me to do something so I wiped the drool off my face. Then I realised she must have just asked me a question. I searched out Eris, thinking, Eris will know.
This is why it was especially lucky that someone messed up and put me and Eris in the same class even though we were twins. This was annoying because Eris always knew the answer to everything. But sometimes this was lucky too because then she could whisper it to me.
‘Were you listening to the question?’ Mrs Hale snapped.
‘Pay- paper ships, and the –’ I squinted at Eris. ‘And the electric ice pulp, of course.’
Apparently the answer wasn’t any of those answers. It was paperclips and the electric light bulb. So me getting detention was really Eris’ fault as well because of her faulty whispering – but she still sulked as if it were my fault when she found me at the end of school.
‘Why can’t you stay awake?’
‘I’m tired,’ I said.
‘I’m tired too!’
‘Yeah. You look awful.’
I don’t know why she poked me then. From across the playground, a bunch of kids started yelling at us.
I got ready to blast them back with a clever reply, but before I could think one up, Eris told me to be quiet.
‘But they’re calling us weird.’
‘What do you mean – us?’ Eris stepped away.
‘Haven’t you heard what they call you behind your back?’
Her face sort of collapsed.
‘Oi! Freak!’ Toad yelled. ‘Freak! Hey!’ Behind him, Olly was laughing. Toad flipped something small, hard and shiny at me. It was a pound. ‘So you can get your dad a new coat.’
There must have been a hundred kids listening and they all went quiet. I tried to throw Toad’s pound back at him, but I couldn’t get the angle right. Eris dragged me away.
‘I can’t wait here till you learn to throw straight, Frank. I want to go home.’
Somehow, that hurt worse.
On our street, all the other houses had big, expensive flowers in the window and artistic, expensive-looking ornaments. We had jam jars at the top of the steps, full of scraggly purple plants. The cellar lurked below ground level, like an ogre in a hole waiting to jump out. We weren’t allowed in the cellar – not even to check, when there was a really big explosion, if Bobs were dead.
‘Anyway, he can’t be dead,’ Eris said. ‘I can hear him swearing.’
Bobs said his experiments were private and none of our business, which only increased my enthusiasm to figure out what was going on down there. So Eris and I had been thinking about investigating this for a while, but it was hard to know where to start because the cellar was locked and sealed and we never saw anything go in or come out: except for Bobs. The cellar was our disaster shelter, also known as the bunker, and Bobs said he didn’t want us messing with it.
So we went to sit in the sitting room. Eris got hold of book B of the Encyclopaedia, and I told her there was no need. When I showed her what I’d written already, she laughed. Apparently biohazard was anything of biology that was a danger to health, which made me wonder why we were learning this in Chemistry. Then we went into the kitchen and looked for hazardous substances, but there weren’t any except for dinner.
Today, dinner was brown. Sometimes it was green. This putrid slop was ladled out of a small copper pot by a yob scooped off the street and tangled up in an apron. This looked especially weird because Bobs was also wearing skin-tight leather trousers, a stringy top and the kind of boots you could use to tenderise a steak. Not that we ever saw steak.
The conversation about meat always went like this:
‘What’s this?’ Eris said, pointing to thing on plate – looking like she wanted to be sick.
‘Algae,’ Bobs said, ‘with a medley of fungus.’
‘Could we have meat one day?’ I said.
‘No. It takes seven kilos of grain to make one kilo of cow and ninety bathtubs of water.’
‘A cheese sandwich then?’
‘There are sixty-three bathtubs in a kilo of cheese.’
‘No there aren’t.’
‘Yes there are. And when civilisation collapses, I won’t be able to find sixty-three bathtubs of water just so you can have a cheese sandwich, so you better get used to it.’
There was no point pointing out to Bobs that civilisation hadn’t collapsed. He always looked so disappointed.
Sometimes I tormented myself by going into the school canteen. We went past kebab shops, glistening, succulent, oozing grease and then I’d realise it was my own reflection I was looking at, sweating, slavering. I dreamed of bacon. I didn’t care how many bathtubs of water were in it. Meat was everywhere. So why were we waiting for it to run out?
Bobs took our plates then stood, looking at them as if trying to work out what they were for, so while he was distracted I asked if we could buy some yoghurt.
Bobs glanced up. ‘Do you know how many bathtubs of water are in a yoghurt?’
‘No,’ I said. ‘Can we buy some?’
‘We’re supposed to bring yoghurt pots in for our project on saving the environment,’ Eris said.
‘I do not believe that yoghurt pots are capable of saving the environment,’ Bobs said.
‘Also, we’ve got a Geography trip,’ Eris said.
I couldn’t figure out why she kept on asking. If we weren’t allowed yoghurt pots, we definitely wouldn’t be allowed outside of the Limit. We’d only been near a few times, but every time we did, I started to sweat. Bobs got a marker pen once and drew a diagram of it on the kitchen wall. It was exactly a thirty-minute sprint in any direction from our house.
‘We’re supposed to go to the Peak District.’
‘Absolutely not,’ Bobs said.
‘But why would it happen suddenly?’ Eris said. ‘Even if it – you know – there would be plenty of time to get back to the bunker, wouldn’t there?’
‘Don’t ask questions you don’t want to know the answer to,’ Bobs said.
‘Don’t we have any bleach?’ I said.
‘Do you have any idea how bad bleach is for the environment?’ Bobs said.
‘How are we supposed to do our homework?’ Eris said.
‘Use the encyclopaedia.’
‘We’re supposed to look under the sink.’
I hated those conversations. School was on one planet, Bobs was on another and we got lost in the space in between. He wouldn’t even tell us how we lost mum. He said it wasn’t good for us and made us anxious. So why was he the one so pale and shivery whenever we mentioned her?
Eris said lost meant dead. It was a euphemism, like when people said ‘go to the loo’ when really they meant ‘poo’, and I figured in a way it was a bit like the end of the world. We all know it’s coming. But no one wants to think about it.
‘Time for your sleep pills,’ Bobs said.
‘I’m not tired.’
‘That’s what the pills are for,’ Bobs said.
These looked like someone rolled them out of blue and pink mush and squished it with their thumb. They tasted – if you were stupid enough to put your tongue near – like gone-off vinegar. Olly told me it wasn’t normal to take sleeping pills. Not for children anyway. Not unless there was something wrong with them. Then he looked at me like maybe there was. This was my first thought that trying to make Olly into my friend was a bad mistake.
‘Why do we need to take tablets?’ Eris said.
‘You just do.’
‘All the time?’
‘No one else has to take tablets,’ I said. ‘It’s not normal.’
‘Bad things will happen if you don’t.’ Bobs pushed it into my palm and watched me. So I put it under my tongue and smiled. Then I went quietly into my room and spat it out, glistening in the palm of my hand, because I’d decided. If it wasn’t normal to take tablets then I wouldn’t take tablets and then I would be normal.
I had to get rid of it. But where?
If I tried to peashooter it out of the window it would end up stuck to my chin. So I prised back the loose skirting board next to my wardrobe and hid it there. Now there were six dried out purplish dots. And it never occurred to me then that six days ago was the same time that the nightmares started.
Really I thought that the nightmares started because of the gift.