Home > The Lying Game(12)

The Lying Game(12)
Author: Ruth Ware

‘It was nothing.’ I breathed out, watching the thread of smoke float up, past the rooftops of the school, towards a glorious white moon, just a shade off full. ‘But listen, what did you mean, that thing you said at dinner? About the points?’

‘It’s how we keep track,’ Kate said. ‘Ten points for suckering someone completely. Five for an inspired story or for making another player corpse. Fifteen points for taking down someone really snooty. But the points don’t count for anything important, it’s just … I don’t know. To make it more fun.’

‘It’s a version of a game they used to play at one of my old schools,’ Thea said. She took a languid puff of her cigarette. ‘They did it to new girls. The idea was to get them to do something stupid – you know, tell them that it was tradition for all students to take their bath towel to evening prep to make it faster for evening showers, or persuade them first years could only walk clockwise round the quad. Pathetic stuff. Anyway, when I came here I was the new girl all over again, and I thought, fuck them. I’ll be the one who lies this time. And this time I’ll make it count. I won’t pick on the new girls, the ones who can’t defend themselves. I’ll do it to the ones in charge – the teachers, the popular girls. The ones who think they’re above it all.’ She blew out a plume of smoke. ‘Only, the first time I lied to Kate, she didn’t hit the roof and threaten to have me ostracised, she just laughed. And that’s when I knew. She wasn’t one of them.’

‘And neither are you,’ Kate said conspiratorially. ‘Right?’

‘Right,’ Fatima said. She took another swig from the bottle and grinned.

I only nodded. I brought the cigarette up to my lips and puffed again, inhaling deeply this time, feeling the smoke going down into my lungs, and filtering through my blood. My head swam, and the hand holding the cigarette shook as I put it down to rest on the meshed wire of the fire-escape platform, but I said nothing, hoping only that the others hadn’t noticed the sudden head rush.

I felt Thea watching me, and I had the strangest conviction that in spite of my composure, she was not deceived and knew exactly what was passing through my mind, and the struggle I was having to pretend that I was used to this, but she didn’t tease me about it, she just held out the bottle.

‘Drink up,’ she said, her vowels sharp as glass, and then, as if recognising her own imperiousness she grinned, softening the haughtiness of the command. ‘You need something to take the edge off the first day.’

I thought of my mother, asleep under a sheet in hospital, poison trickling into her veins, my brother alone in his new room at Charterhouse, my father driving back through the night to our empty house in London … my nerves sang, tight as violin strings, and I nodded, and reached out with my free hand.

When the whiskey hit my mouth it burned like fire, and I had to fight the urge to choke and cough, but I swallowed it down, feeling it scald my gullet all the way to my stomach, feeling the tight fibres of my core relax, just a little. Then held the bottle out towards Kate.

Kate took it and put it to her lips, and when she drank, it wasn’t a cautious swig like the ones Fatima and I had taken, but two, three full-on gulps, without pausing, or even flinching; she might have been drinking milk.

When she had finished, she wiped her mouth, her eyes glinting in the darkness.

‘Here’s to us,’ she said, holding the bottle high, the moonlight striking off the glass. ‘May we never grow old.’

THEA, OUT OF all of them, is the person I have not seen for longest, and so the image in my mind’s eye as I descend the stairs, is the girl of seventeen years ago, with her beautiful face, and her hair like a storm front coming across a sunlit sky.

As I round the corner of the rickety stairs, it’s not Thea I see first, but the watercolour that Ambrose did, in the corner of the staircase, Thea, swimming in the Reach. Ambrose has caught the sunlight on her skin and the prismed light filtering through the water, and her head is flung back, her long hair slicked to her skull making her even more arresting.

It is with that picture in my head that I turn the final curve, wondering what to expect – and Thea is waiting.

She is more beautiful than ever – I would not have thought that were possible, but it’s true. Her face is thinner, her features more defined, and her dark hair is cropped close to her skull. It’s as if her beauty has been pared back to its bones, shorn of the two-tone waterfall of silky hair, of make-up and jewellery.

She is older, more striking, even thinner – too thin. And yet she is exactly the same.

I think of Kate’s toast, that night long ago when we barely knew each other. May we never grow old …

‘Thee,’ I breathe.

And then I am holding her, and feeling her bones, and Fatima is hugging her and laughing, and Thee is saying, ‘For Christ’s sake, you two, you’re crushing me! And watch out for my boots, the fucker chucked me out of the cab halfway up the Reach. I practically had to wade here.’

She smells of cigarettes … and alcohol, its sweetness like overripe fruit heavy on her breath as she laughs into my hair, before letting us both go and walking to the table in the window.

‘I can’t believe you two are mums.’ Her smile is just as it always was, curved, a little wry, concealing secrets. She pulls out the chair that was always hers when we sat and smoked and drank into the small hours, and sits down, putting a Sobranie cigarette, black with a gold tip, between her lips. ‘How did they let reprobates like you reproduce?’

‘I know, right?’ Fatima pulls out her own chair and sits opposite, her back to the stove. ‘That’s pretty much what I said to Ali when they gave me Nadia to take home from the hospital. What the hell do I do now?’

Kate picks up a plate and holds it out to Thea, one eyebrow raised.

‘Yes? No? Have you eaten? There’s plenty of couscous left.’

Thea shakes her head, and lights her cigarette before she answers, blowing out a stream of smoke.

‘I’m fine. I just want a drink. And to find out why the hell we’re all here.’

‘We have wine … and wine …’ Kate says. She looks through the lopsided dresser. ‘And … wine. That’s it.’

‘Christ, you’ve gone soft on me. No spirits? Go on then, I guess I’ll have wine.’

Kate pours into one of the cracked green-blue glasses on the side, a huge glass, a third of a bottle at least, and hands it to Thea, who holds it up, watching the candle in the centre of the table through the ruby depths.

‘To us,’ she says at last. ‘May we never grow old.’

But I don’t want to drink to that now. I do want to grow old. I want to grow old, see Freya grow up, feel the wrinkles on my face.

I am saved from commenting when Thea pauses, her glass halfway to her lips, and points with one finger at Fatima’s glass of lemonade.

‘Hang on, hang on, what’s this shit? Lemonade? You can’t drink a toast with lemonade. You’re not knocked up again, are you?’

Fatima shakes her head with a smile, and then points to the scarf lying loose around her shoulders.

‘Times have changed, Thea. This isn’t just a fashion accessory.’

‘Oh, darling, come on, wearing a hijab doesn’t mean you have to be a nun! We get Muslims in the casino all the time, one of them told me for a fact that if you drink gin and tonic it doesn’t count as alcohol, it’s classified as medicine because of the quinine.’

‘A, that advice is what’s technically termed in theological circles as “bullshit”,’ Fatima says. She’s still smiling, but there’s a little hint of steel under her light voice. ‘And B, you have to wonder about the dissociative powers of anyone wearing a hijab in a casino, considering the Koranic teachings on gambling.’

There is silence in the room. I exchange a glance with Kate, and draw a breath to speak, but I can’t think what to say, other than to tell Thea to shut the fuck up.

‘You weren’t always such a prude,’ Thea says at last, sipping her wine, and beside me I feel Kate stiffen with anxiety, but Thea is smiling, the corner of her mouth just quirked with that wry little tilt. ‘In fact, I might be wrong, but I distinctly remember a certain game of strip poker …? Or am I thinking of a different Ms Qureshy?’

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