Tressa crumpled up the shrink’s latest letter of positivity. La. La. Heard it all before...tried it all before...got the tee shirt...
Yeah, shrieked her inner voice, it has trouble magnet, coward, printed all over it.
Tressa pushed down the voice and counted to ten...and then twenty, slowly, while thinking about books (not hard), favourite colours (shades of red and yellow), yummy food (peanut butter and cheese on toast).
When she got to thirty she turned on the computer and checked her in-box.
School. School. Sonnie. She opened that one first. Her online fantasy life was so much better than school.
Sonnie had sent a joke through and a link for an article on their favourite book characters.
How about writing a joint post for the webzine on the best book in the universe? We can do it. Let’s link it to our lives...small families, working parents, going to school, little houses, annoying brothers etc. We’re normal, let’s contrast it with the weird lives of the characters and why we like them so much.
Tears welled up in Tressa’s eyes. They rolled down her face and dripped off the end of her nose splattering the keyboard. She brushed her hand across the keys, the screen blurred. She blinked hard, scrubbing her face with her hand and then with her tee shirt while trying to ignore the ache in her throat. Normal.
‘We’re normal,’ Sonnie had written.
Little did she know, the voice revved up its ugly chant.
‘Stop it. Stop it,’ shrieked Tressa, jumping from the chair and throwing herself on the bed. She pounded the pillows, drowning out the voice with the sound of the thumps, until she could hear it no longer.
‘Come on honey,’ said her father, coming into the room and wrapping his arms around her. ‘Ride it out, honey. It will get better.’
Tressa looked into her mirror to see her father’s face. The tears in her eyes were making his face wobbly. She blinked. His face still looked wobbly, the mouth was twisted and his eyes looked sad. ‘What did the shrink say?’
She sniffed, counted to ten slowly, breathed in and out... ‘Well, he said I can set myself goals to get used to new places and people...’ Tressa sighed, ‘and I have to learn to trust myself.’ Trust myself...yeah sure, said the voice, faintly, trust yourself to screw up.
‘Well, we can set goals, that’s easy,’ said her father, in his oh goody, let’s be positive voice. ‘We do it in the band all the time. Top of the charts,’ he chuckled. ‘What’s the ultimate goal and how will we get there?’ He squeezed her tight.
‘I want to be a normal kid in a cottage with a dog, in a normal family and go to school.’
‘Oh,’ said Paul Morrison, lead singer of one of the most popular bands on the planet. ‘One of the tough goals huh?’
Sonnie’s eyes hurt as she went past her brother’s door.
There was a new poster of his favourite band, The Craic, on it. Craig must have scored it from a music shop. The riot of colours clashed horribly. The five band members, in strange hats, were posed, staring in different directions on a purple splotch background.
She stopped and squinted at the logo again. Would it look nicer with a red background instead of that yucky purple?
The door flew open and her brother came thundering out. ‘Ah, nice to see you appreciating art!’ he said, sounding like her principal, as he shoved past her in the narrow hallway.
‘Art?’ queried Sonnie. ‘That logo looks like something a baby puked up.’
Craig started to turn round. Sonnie slipped into her own room, slammed the door in his face and leaned against it. Her brother started shoving on the other side. Sonnie leaned harder. She heard several kicks hit the door.
Mr Blair yelled out, ‘Craig, are you doing that?’
Craig muttered something rude and stopped kicking. ‘Art! You moron,’ he hissed through the door.
‘Puke logo,’ Sonnie hissed back, quietly having the last word.
The puke logo was everywhere: plastered on fuse boxes, shop windows, her brother’s room. The band would be touring New Zealand in three months and radio stations were starting to do teaser promotions. Competitions to meet band members and for concert tickets were all Sonnie’s brother Craig could think about. Tickets were going on sale in a week’s time. Craig had saved up with his friends, pleaded with Mum and Dad and generally raved on and on about the concert.
When Sonnie came into the kitchen she heard Craig droning on to her father about the band. Would they play their old hits or would it be only music from the new album which he didn’t think was as good as the last one and they really should go back to their roots?
‘Roots,’ her father scoffed. ‘What roots? Fly by night, one hit wonders.’
‘Dad! The Craic have been together forever. You can’t call them one hit wonders. They’ve had five platinum albums!’
Craig, who last year had tried to get his family to call him Craic, finally realised that his father was joking. He stormed off to his room to play The Craic very loudly until dinner.
Mr Blair rolled his eyes. Sonnie laughed as she dumped the junk mail from the letterbox on the table.
‘How was your day?’ asked Mr Blair, as he grated cheese. ‘Did you get all your homework done at the library?’
‘Good, and yes I got my homework done. Was there any real mail?’
‘Not that I saw.’ Her father started slicing bread. ‘I think Mum may have come home for lunch tho’ because there were dishes in the sink when I got up.’
Tressa’s parcel should be here soon, thought Sonnie. She hadn’t missed Sonnie’s birthday in the three years they’d been pen friends. Tressa had promised her another strange Irish tee shirt to go in her collection. She had been teasing Sonnie in all her emails for the last three weeks, with a different description each day.
It’s black and has a picture of trolls.
It’s pink and sparkly and has fairies on it.
It’s holy; my little sister cut it with scissors.
It’s purple with a picture of my Dad on it.
Sonnie couldn’t wait to see what her pen friend had sent. It was two months until Tressa’s birthday and Sonnie already knew what she was going to get her. A new print shop had opened up in town that did special printing onto tee shirts. Sonnie was going to get a tee shirt with ‘Tressahead’ on it just like the Irish band, The Craic’s. Fans of the band were called Craicheads. Tee shirts with that name and the band’s logo were only sold at band concerts.
Craig was desperate for one.
‘Hi kids,’ called Mrs Blair as she came through the back door into the kitchen. In her arms was an overflowing laundry basket; piled on top, her coat and her big workbag. Mrs Blair heaved the basket into the laundry and came back into the kitchen. ‘What’s for dinner love?’ She gave Sonnie’s father a peck on the cheek.
‘Spaghetti on toast.’
‘Oh really? Great!’ said Mrs Blair, sitting down with a flop at the table. ‘What are you calling it at the restaurant?’
‘Spaghetti bathed in a spicy tomato sauce, served with melt in your mouth slices of brioche. Topped with fresh Parmesan and garnished with a swirl of delicious ricotta cheese,’ Sonnie’s father intoned solemnly.
‘I’d like to see you swirl ricotta,’ laughed her mother. ‘It just blobs.’
Mr Blair grinned. ‘Ah, chef’s secret. How were the little horrors?’
‘Horrible! I confiscated two cell phones today. We spend all this time teaching them the school rules about no cell phones and then they moan when we enforce them.’
Mr Blair handed his wife a glass of wine and went back to stirring the sauce.
‘You’ve got five minutes to drink that before I serve. I’ve got to get to work.’ He glanced at Sonnie. ‘Sonia set the table.’
Her mother made a face. ‘I hardly see you!’
‘Yes, I know. But when you do, it’s so worth it!’
‘Yup,’ said Mrs Blair, blowing him a kiss.
Sonnie gagged, as usual, and her parents laughed. They were always like this, so predictable, so boring.
‘Mum, was there any mail?’ asked Sonnie, setting out the plates.
‘What?’ her mother said, absently, flicking through the junk mail.
‘Oh, yes,’ said Mrs Blair, stacking the junk mail together. ‘A parcel. It’s in my bag. I was backing out when the courier stopped outside.’
Sonnie’s heart leapt. Had it come?
‘A courier?’ said Mr Blair. ‘My new chef’s knife, probably. About time.’
‘I can’t remember whose name was on it,’ said her mother. ‘I was in a hurry to get back.’
Sonnie rushed through the table-setting and bounded to the laundry. She found her mother’s big workbag propped up next to the washing machine and fished in it. The parcel wasn’t very big so it wasn’t a chef’s knife. It had Irish stamps on it.
Yes! It had come! She raced back into the kitchen.
‘Oi! Steady on! You know the rule!’ her Father growled. ‘Don’t…’
‘...run in the kitchen,’ finished Sonnie as she slowed down, barely.
‘Well, is it addressed to you?’
‘Oh, yes.’ Sonnie glanced at it. She hadn’t really looked at the address, so certain that it was for her:
239 Taupo Avenue
‘It’s from Tressa!’
‘Imagine that,’ said her father mildly. ‘You weren’t expecting anything were you?’ He sniggered as he poured the sauce over the pasta.
Sonnie struggled with the parcel tape.
‘Here.’ Her mother handed her a pair of scissors.
The parcel was small and flat. It can’t be a tee shirt, thought Sonnie, slightly disappointed. She reached in and pulled out some soft fabric.
It was a thin silk scarf in rainbow colours. Sonnie gazed at it. It was beautiful, but did it really go with jeans and tee shirts, which were all she had in her drawers?
‘A letter fell out of it,’ said her mother. ‘It’s on the floor.’
Sonnie put the scarf on the table and ducked under the table. Snatching up the letter she read aloud:
‘Dear Sonnie, Here is your tee shirt...Yes I know, it’s not a tee shirt but when I saw this I thought of you.’
‘How sweet,’ commented Mrs Blair.
‘You were saying you needed a belt for your jeans and all the girls are wearing scarves as belts here.’
‘Oh, you’ll be ahead of fashion,’ said Mrs Blair. ‘New Zealand is always about six months behind.’
Fashion? As if Sonnie cared about that. She hadn’t thought that Tressa cared all that much either.
Sonnie glanced back down at the letter. The words seemed to run together.
Mum! Tressa’s coming to New Zealand!
‘Here,’ said Sonnie, ‘It says …
‘Dad’s got a bonus and he’s been asked to do some work in New Zealand so we’re coming. Well me and Paddy are coming with Dad. Mum is staying home with the twins. She thinks New Zealand is too far away from Dublin. I’ll bring your tee shirt with me. Dad will be travelling with a work group. I think they’re having a conference there or something.
‘Anyway we’ll be in New Zealand for ten days in November and we hope to get down to Wellington to see you.
‘E me when you get this.
Sonnie started to get up from the table, to race to the computer.
‘No!’ Her father’s voice stopped her. ‘I’m serving. Call Craig!’
‘Oi! Craig!’ Sonnie yelled. Her mother winced.
‘Ok! Ok!’ Sonnie trotted to the hallway. ‘Oi Craig!’ She hammered on the door. ‘Tea!’
‘You moron,’ she said quietly.
She hammered again and the music was turned down a fraction. ‘Tea,’ she yelled.
Sonnie went back along the hallway to the kitchen, humming to herself. Tressa’s coming, da da de da!
She was walking into the living room when she heard her mother mention her name. She slowed down to eavesdrop.
‘Do you think it could be an internet stalker?’
Sonnie strained to hear her father’s reply.
‘...not like other girls. She is sensible.’
Go Dad, thought Sonnie.
‘Yes, but she’s spending a lot of time gossiping on that computer. How do we know?’
‘She’s writing stories too.’
‘I just hope this is going to turn out ok. She doesn’t need another crack-pot friend. We should get rid of that computer.’
Craig’s door opened. Sonnie moved her feet forward towards the conversation. The computer was her lifeline away from Craig! How could they?
She opened her mouth to protest then shut it as she heard the next words.
‘Get rid of it if this friendship doesn’t work out. We don’t need the drama.’
Think before opening mouth, she reminded herself. This friendship will work out. I need that computer.
When she walked into the kitchen, her father was placing full plates on the table. The food looked interesting. ‘How did you do this?’ asked her mother.
‘Un po’di olio uno spicchi di aglio,’ chanted her father solemnly in Spanish.
‘A little bit of oil and a clove of garlic,’ Mrs Blair and Sonnie chorused.
Craig rolled his eyes.
‘Tuck in.’ Her father only stayed for the first few mouthfuls then dashed out the door. As head chef in a hotel restaurant, Mr Blair had unusual hours. It was a weeknight, so work wasn’t too heavy and he could make an early dinner for them before he left to supervise the evening shift.
Sonnie twirled spaghetti around on her fork and thought about finally meeting Tressa in person. The few photos she had were wacky ones. One was of Tressa, aged eight. Her hair stuck straight up in spikes for a school play in which she played a punk rocker. The most recent was a blurry picture of her in the garden of her house, which was a real old-fashioned cottage.
It looked really small for two adults, four children and a dog, thought Sonnie to herself.
Tressa wandered into the kitchen.
‘Hi Manny. What are we having tonight? Need any help?’
‘You are having meatballs, unless you want to try Sancia’s latest diet sensation.’ The chef shrugged dramatically. ‘Madonna swears by it.’
Tressa sniggered. Her stepmother was as thin as a twig already. Taking the weight off after having twins was an obsession with her. Tressa thought she had looked much nicer when she was pregnant, but if you said anything you would be treated to the latest version of her ‘my body is my canvas’ speech.
Tressa’s brother, Padraig, privately called their stepmother Picasso. Her face was thin and her arms and legs were really bony. She looked like one of Picasso’s weird paintings side-on.
‘You can make a salad, ma petit, while I puree the twins’ food. Don’t forget to wash the lettuces carefully,’ he said with a grin.
‘Oui Manny.’ Tressa stuck her tongue out at him. He had never let her forget her first salad, with the interesting wildlife crawling out of it. It was Sancia’s fault for only allowing organic food. Her father had roared with laughter, but Manny had been in trouble with Sancia for letting Tressa in the kitchen.
That had started a row between Sancia and her father: Paul Morrison insisting that Tressa learn to cook, and who better than a French chef to teach her; and Sancia saying that Tressa didn’t need to cook and having her in the kitchen would probably distract Manfred.
Tressa had ducked out of the dining room as fast as she could, but Paddy had pulled out his small video camera and recorded the whole thing until Sancia caught sight of him and demanded the camera. Her father had backed Sancia up. He didn’t want any pictures or film taken that he wasn’t personally in control of.
The salad incident had had such an impact on the family that it was a wonder Manny had ever let her do another.
As she washed lettuce leaves, she thought about Sonnie. It would be early morning in New Zealand. How long did it take to get a parcel from Ireland to New Zealand?
Manfred served the twins pureed organic salmon in their matching bowls and left them to cool on their tray. Their nanny would be down soon to pick it up.
‘Manny! When am I going to be able to cook any food?’ sighed Tressa.
‘Well, at the moment not soon, until Madam has finished her diet obsession,’ he smiled. ‘The kitchen in here isn’t all that great, and one chef making four different menus to cater for everybody doesn’t leave me much time for teaching.’
‘Yes, I suppose so,’ sighed Tressa. She thought she knew the real reason though.
The kitchen was the only place not under Sancia’s eagle eye, and the staff valued it as a refuge. If Tressa spent too much time in there, so would Sancia. It was a difficult balancing act, learning to cook without Sancia’s interference.
Manfred had threatened to resign if Sancia came into the kitchen, saying he didn’t tell her how to model so she shouldn’t tell him how to cook, and as he had previously worked for Posh, Sancia didn’t want to let him go. But it didn’t stop her from coming to the kitchen door periodically to check that Tressa wasn’t in Manfred’s way.
Tressa finished the salad. As she placed it on the bench for Manny, Mrs Collins, the housekeeper, came bustling in. ‘Hello dear. How was your day?’
‘Same old, same old,’ said Tressa. ‘How’s Jenny?’
‘Well, she has a new pet rabbit called Mr Macgregor,’ said Mrs Collins fondly. ‘So she’s pretty busy settling him in with the others.’
‘Really?’ said Tressa, unenthusiastically. Jenny still hadn’t got over her Peter Rabbit obsession. Surely a twelve-year-old girl would have better things to do than keep rabbits.
Tressa had once hoped that Jenny could be a friend as they lived on the same estate: Jenny in the gardener’s cottage with her family, Tressa at the big house, but they just had nothing in common. Jenny didn’t get any of Tressa’s jokes, didn’t read much and spent too much time with rabbits. As well as being obsessed with Sancia and Sancia’s friends who all appeared in the only magazines that Jenny read.
Sancia was all right in little doses. ‘Like an old magazine at the dentist’s. Something to look at while you wait for the pain,’ said Paddy. ‘You know she’s there but you wouldn’t choose to spend time with her.’
Tressa wondered why her father did.
‘Image,’ said Paddy, dismissively. ‘Do you remember when Mum left? She said that it was the band or her.’
‘Yeah, vaguely,’ said Tressa. ‘I was only four or five.’
‘Well, they were just starting to break into the pop charts. Dad needed to get the band noticed more and he started going to awards with models. Mum didn’t want any part of the marketing of the band you see, so she left. Pity really. If she’d stayed she probably wouldn’t have died.’
‘Um, yeah,’ Tressa didn’t really know. There was still a little ache inside when she heard her mother mentioned. She found herself rubbing her scar and jerked her hand away.
Sancia had arrived when Tressa was nine. Until then her father had been living a bit of a wild life with models coming and going and being on tour all the time. Paddy and Tressa had lived with their grandparents most of the time and went to the local school until the kids found out who their father was.
Her grandparents shifted them to different schools a couple of times but it never worked. First the kids got friendly, then they started asking for things like, ‘Can you get autographs?’ Then, ‘Can you get concert tickets?’ After the kidnapping, her grandparents had told their son-in-law to take back his children. Their lives had been too disrupted and they wanted to settle down without the stress of his life.
Eight-year-old Tressa had asked eleven-year-old Paddy what stress was?
‘Children,’ replied Paddy sourly.
Finding Sonnie in that chat room had been a real bonus. They had both been first-time posters on a book fan website and had struck up a friendship. They talked about book characters, wrote each other fan fiction based on their favourite characters, endlessly discussed plot development, waited desperately for the next book in the series and generally had a good time online together. But Tressa was very careful. She had never let Sonnie know that her carefully crafted family life was as fictional as the fantasy book they both loved. She had based it around Jenny’s life but without the rabbits.
If the Band didn’t go to Wellington, Sonnie would never know, she thought to herself.