Rachel gazed at the pages of her book, turning one occasionally but not concentrating, not even seeing the words

Rachel gazed at the pages of her book, turning one occasionally but not concentrating, not even seeing the words. She had given up trying to read in the noisy common room and had been lost in her thoughts for a long time.

She glanced across at the other side of the room where a large group of people were sitting by the CD player, talking and laughing loudly during their free period. These were the kind of people who put very little before their hair and clothes, their image in general, which Rachel suspected they were discussing now.

One of them, a girl, was not talking. She was very tall, with blue eyes that were paler than you would expect one with such dark hair to have. The girl pushed back her long, shiny hair and turned suddenly to look at Rachel.

Rachel quickly turned her gaze back to the book, but she felt the girl's eyes on her for a while and did not relax until she was sure she had looked away.

The girl, Ruth, had once been a good friend of Rachel's, and was one of the things on her mind as she stared vacantly down.

Rachel had not had the slightest interest in clothes or fashion of any sort, nor in being socially accepted or "cool" for a long time. She saw that sort of thing as fake and shallow, not to mention completely pointless. Once, she knew, Ruth's opinion had been exactly the same. That was one of the reasons they had been such good friends. Ruth had moved from Scotland and joined Rachel's class in her third year of school. Rachel, at this point, had had very few, if any friends.

She glanced once more, quickly, at the group by the CD player. Before Ruth had arrived, she had been very like them, she realised, worrying about impressing people and being in fashion, or at least pretending to worry about these things in order to do them. Then the people she had called friends had decided that she wasn't good enough for them. She had seen it happen to many people and had felt no sympathy, but being rejected by everyone had felt like the end of the world. Soon afterwards, however, she had realised that it was possibly the best thing that could have happened to her. It had taught her many lessons that, harsh as they were on a young girl, she counted invaluable.

She had met Ruth, in whom she saw something of herself, and they had become the best of friends very quickly. They were real friends, who trusted each other and enjoyed each others' company, relying on each other sometimes. Looking at the people who laughed at them for being individual, and at other people who changed their personalities and themselves totally to be liked by these people, they swore never to change for anyone. Never to put meaningless things before their friendship, before anything. Never to be like that, ever.

"I'm never going to be like that," Ruth had said to her once, and she had completely agreed. "I'm never going to care about being cool. I'm never going to be something I'm not."

Rachel put the book face down on the table. She caught a snatch of conversation from across the common room.

"What are you wearing on Saturday, Ruth?" someone was asking.

"Oh, I haven't decided, Ruth started, but Rachel would not listen to any more. She remembered the old Ruth, and could just see the expression that would have been on her pretty face if anyone had asked what she was going to wear. She smiled to herself, but the small smile faded as she wondered when it had all changed. She just remembered sudden realisation that Ruth was different. Not herself any more. She remembered wondering briefly if it was, in fact, she who had changed but seeing Ruth's style change, her individuality fade and knowing that Ruth was becoming what she said she would never become. Ruth had not even acknowledged that anything had changed between them although it evidently had, and Rachel too had kept quiet as her best friend drifted away from her.

She had ended up on her own, again. Still, she thought, she had coped. And there was not long to go now. For in less than two months she would be leaving to travel for a year, then on to university to study English. To start over. She would find new friends, although friendship, in her experience, meant very little.

She pushed her short hair behind her ears and reached into her bag. She pulled out some brightly coloured paper. She always used paper and ink in bright colours that Ruth had once tagged "eccentric". She searched for a pen that worked and started writing absent-mindedly, random thoughts and any words that came into her head. She loved writing, stories, poems, just writing in general. She enjoyed it, and it was something she was good at. It was escapism, to her, a way to express herself and her feelings, a way of coping with everything.

She pulled her chair up to the table in front of her and began to write in earnest.

Not long after Rachel started to write, the bell rang for the end of the day. Most people had already left the common room. Ruth hurriedly stuffed all her things into her bag and stood up. She watched Rachel go out of the room. Sighing, she headed for the door herself but stopped, noticing a piece of bright pink paper on the floor.

"Eccentric," she muttered, almost smiling.

After a quick glance around the now empty common room she picked it up, frowning slightly. Tears filled her light blue eyes as she read the few lines scribbled on it in biro, words that were meant for her but not meant for her to see.

What have you become?

Cold and unfeeling

Caring only what others think of you

When it suits you

How can you think the things you say

These things, the be all and end all

In the eyes you all pretend are yours

Can you really be happy

In your shallow fakery?

Does society accept you?

I'm happy for you

And I pity you

Although perhaps you think you'd pity me

If you cared

I wish you had not become

What you said you'd never be