She usually enjoyed taxi journeys. The drivers, she knew, encountered a unique sequence of passengers every day; they must have listened to all kinds of amazing stories, and, by consequence, must have amazing stories to tell. Today, however, she would have been grateful to have landed one of the less talkative drivers, to stare out the window uninterrupted. Unfortunately the driver had recognised her. She had therefore made the effort to appease the enthusiasm of one more admirer by deploying the same stock phrases and responses she used in every interview.
In turn, she had feigned bright interest in the man's daughter, evidently a die-hard fan. She agreed with a forced smile to sign the back of a crumpled supermarket receipt. Self-consciously placing the scrap of paper on the empty passenger seat instead of stuffing it back in his wallet, the driver thanked his famous fare, oblivious to any insincerity in her pleasantness. She felt fraudulent, as though the autograph sitting on the leather seat had been scrawled by someone else: she was naturally kind, innately positive; having to act such qualities felt wrong. Grudgingly, she took it as a sign that she was still adept at the job she had abandoned less than forty-eight hours ago.
It was the right thing to do, she assured herself. She gazed out the window and experienced a pang of nostalgia: the expanse of fields being grazed by sheep and their newly-born young, surrounded by seagulls and crows; the moody skies, interposed by columns of wind turbines; the winding roads lined with trees, cottages and pubs … It all meant home.
The cast and crew would undoubtedly be scratching their heads back in Los Angeles where she'd left them – her phone had not stopped buzzing inside her bag – but she'd never been more convinced of a decision in her life. It had been a long time coming. The intensity of the past few years had slowly weathered her, like waves crashing against a lone sea stack – until one incident had finally sunk her, had finally opened her eyes to the toxic side effects of her profession.
She closed her eyes, fighting back the emotion rising in her chest. Stay strong, for five more minutes. Finally, the taxi turned a corner and the driver pulled up before a pair of impressive iron gates.
A hammer blow to the stomach: a pack of men was here waiting for her, and they pounced on the taxi like hyenas to a carcass, cameras poised, rough voices shouting. She wasted but a second on wondering how they could have known of her arrival so quickly: showbiz news travelled unlike any other, as fast as neurons across a synapse, as ruthless as wildfire.
'D'you need a hand getting inside?' asked the driver eagerly as he accepted her notes and coins; he was evidently enthralled by the prospect of tasting a glimpse of stardom life. She politely turned down the offer, which she regretted the second she opened the back door.
Click click click.
'Congrats on the award, Alexa, you and the team must be proud.'
'Over here, Alexa, let's see that smile.'
Click click click.
'Why have you returned to the UK, Alexa?'
'Homesick, is that what it is?'
'Have you missed Garth?'
Parasites, she thought savagely as she threw the taxi door shut and buzzed opened the iron gates with a button on her keyring. At once she marched up the long straight drive and the men jogged after her. One of them raced in front to snap pictures of her face, which she quickly buried in her scarf. She kept her expression blank and bored, despite her heart ramming against her ribs. Her breath shortened as she again fought back tears. It was all she could do to not break into a run. The three-tiered house at the end of the drive never seemed to get any closer.
Click click click.
'Are you heading back to LA soon?'
'When does filming for the new season start, Alexa?'
'Don't go just yet, Alexa, turn this way.'
Click click click.
At long last, she rounded the gently-playing fountain, flew up the steps of the wooden veranda and burst through the front doors, which she slammed behind her. To her stupendous relief, her parents were waiting in the hall for her. Her mother immediately rushed forward.
Her voice was lost in her mother's shoulder, and now the tears burst their banks. Two whole days she had kept them at bay: from the night of the awards evening, while throwing her possessions into a case, during the ten-hour trans-Atlantic flight, to the taxi journey from Gatwick. But now, seeing her parents in the flesh for the first time in months, all the emotion was gushing out of her. Her whole body shook with it as she threw herself into her father's arms.
'It's OK,' he murmured, kissing the top of her head. 'It's OK … You're home … You're home.'
FIVE MONTHS LATER …
The kitchens, brightly-lit by a grid of fluorescent discs in the ceiling, were alive with the hiss of sizzling fat, barked orders and whirring extractor fans; fast food fumes turned the air heavy. Steam gushed and billowed from the pans, propelling more heat at the bustling workers.
Finn Pickett lifted his cap, swept back the mop of golden curls beneath, and glanced at the clock above the stainless-steel worktops for the umpteenth time that evening. Eighteen minutes. Eighteen minutes longer in this sauna and stupid uniform.
His hands slipped into autopilot, his mind drifting far from the realms of coffee-making and burger-packing. In honesty, the prospect of tonight had consumed him all day – all week, really. He was going to something he'd never been to before, which was why he was extra anxious for his shift to end.
'Where's the cheese?'
Finn snapped back to the present to find his hand on the glass divider separating him from a grumpy-looking businessman, who was looking at him expectantly from his car.
'What's that?' said Finn blankly.
'Cheese, son. I ordered a cheeseburger, you've only done half the job. I really haven't got time for this, so get a move on.'
'Sorry,' muttered Finn, feeling his cheeks burn, and hastily hunted for a square of plastic-like cheese. It was never fun dealing with the rude ones. At sixteen, Finn was the youngest employee here, and subsequently victim to a surprising number of patronising customers. He'd learnt to deal with it, of course – being pleasant was rule number one in this job – but passivity only made the exchange feel more demeaning. The businessman snatched his amended order from Finn's hands, paid, and shot off in his showy car. Finn watched it round the corner and sighed.
'So … this freshers' party you're going to,' came a sleazy voice from behind. 'Any chicks going?'
The voice belonged to Dennis, a spotty boy a couple of years older than Finn, whose hair was so greasy it looked as though the only washing it got was in the pans he worked from.
'No, it's an all-boys college,' said Finn, now preparing a cappuccino. As usual, Dennis missed the sarcasm.
'All-boys?' repeated Dennis with comical disgust. 'Bore off. No need to invite me, bruv.'
'Good to know,' muttered Finn, and handed the coffee through the divider. That was the extent of their conversation and, in all honesty, it had lasted longer than usual. Lest Dennis's hair make contact with his skin, Finn skirted past to arrange the next order, his eyes automatically finding the clock. Twelve to go.
The orders came through thick and fast. Having fallen again into contemplation of tonight's party, Finn didn't immediately register the raised voices from the window. When they failed to abate, he looked up and groaned: this wasn't the first time Dennis had ticked off a customer. Ray, their boss, had gone to the loo, which Dennis somehow took as his cue to vent some frustration. Finn decided to leave him to it and surreptitiously hid behind the oven; that was until he heard Dennis swear loudly and Betty, a girl wider than she was tall, shrieked and clapped pudgy hands to her mouth.
Finn peered around the oven. Dennis was cowering on the floor in panic.
'D'you see that?' he yelled wildly. 'Tried to clock me one! Should be locked up, 'e should!'
Outside, a fat man was staggering across the driveway and brandishing a beer bottle, shouting slurred obscenities. Finn had never seen a tramp in Telhurst, but this man seemed to fit that description, with his overlarge coat and, once he turned to face the window again and Finn got a good look, matted hair that spilled from beneath a green beanie and spread in a bushy beard over his grimy face.
Finn hesitated, then approached the window. Dennis got to his feet but backed away, muttering under his breath. A car horn blared. The tramp, or whatever he was, saw Finn at the window and shuffled forwards.
'Where's it?' the man grunted.
Finn opened his mouth but no words came out. He turned to Dennis.
'What did he order?'
'He's crazy, man, look at him,' whimpered Dennis desperately.
'Shut up and tell me what he ordered, then he'll get out of here. What drink does he want?'
'He didn't order anything, bruv – we can't serve him anyway, I told him this is a drive-fru not a walk-fru, but he wouldn't listen.'
Finn turned to face the tramp.
'What drink can I get you?' he asked clearly, trying to bring a little civilisation back to the conversation. 'There's coffee, Coke, milkshake …'
The tramp presented his empty beer bottle. 'More.'
'I'm sorry, sir, but we don't serve alcohol –'
'MORE!' the tramp screamed, looking utterly deranged. Before Finn could think what to do next, the tramp drew back his arm and brought the bottle swinging down like a tennis racquet. There were gasps from behind. Finn instinctively slammed the divider shut and just had time to turn his face away, eyes shut tight, when the piercing crash of glass on glass rang through the air; screams, swearing and a cacophony of car horns followed. Panic rose amongst the employees: none of them had been trained to deal with this degree of impatience. Finn opened his eyes.
The glass divider had withstood the strike, though a cobweb crack had been left in the centre. There was no sign of the tramp.
Dennis was first to the window. He carefully slid open the damaged divider and stuck his head out.
'He's running off!' he shouted. 'Get Ray, or call the police or someone – stop 'im, then!' he ordered the next driver in line, who got out of his car half-heartedly.
Finn leant against the wall, breathing heavily. He'd been a second away from a serious injury. He always welcomed a little excitement to his job here, but this was perhaps a bit too much.
When both the wailing police car and seven o'clock arrived, Finn slipped away to the men's room to change, leaving Dennis to deal with the cops. He had to flatten himself against the wall as Ray shuffled past, hoisting his trousers up and muttering anxiously. Finn changed quickly and left through the front entrance before the police could question him, too.
The air was pleasantly cool in comparison to the stuffy kitchens, and that metallic smell that precedes rain hung in the car park; sure enough, a shower descended as Finn traipsed through his woody shortcut, though he hardly noticed: the experience of almost having his head battered by a glass bottle had rather driven everything else from his mind. He was unusually paranoid, constantly looking back over his shoulder, performing double-takes where light shifted in the dark bushes. It seemed to take forever to reach Anglesey Way.
The front door of number seventeen was locked and the lights were off. Of course: Luke had taken his mum out for dinner in another bid to ingratiate himself with the family. A dog's shadow floated behind the stippled glass as Finn fished for the key. Riley's tail waved in welcome when Finn entered on the hall and flicked on the light.
'Hey, boy,' muttered Finn, crouching to scratch his black retriever under the neck, the dog's favourite spot. 'Big night tonight.'
He showered cold, as he often did to counter those four hours spent in the steam-filled kitchens. The icy water took the edge off his nerves, though it could not wash from his mind the recurring image of the crazy tramp; while buttoning up a white shirt and whirling a black tie around his neck, Finn speculated whether the man had been subdued in the back of a police car or still blundering around in search for a pint.
Downstairs in the small kitchen, he knocked up a hasty carbonara to stem his hunger: he'd long since grown sick of the greasy burgers at work. When he turned to tip the pasta onto a plate, however, he saw someone standing in the kitchen doorway.
Finn cursed loudly in alarm, then again in pain as his hand got caught under the hot pan. Anger flooded him when he registered who the intruder was.
'Tommy – you – what was that for?' Finn snapped, running his reddened hand under the cold tap and wincing.
'I didn't do anything!' said the round-faced boy with stifled laughter. Tommy was dressed similarly to Finn, though with the addition of a bright pink bowtie, which clashed horribly with his coppery hair. At least he had omitted the signature baseball cap.
'You could've made some kind of noise,' said Finn irritably, still nursing the back of his hand. 'Why are you here anyway, I thought the party wasn't 'til eight?'
'Change of plan,' said Tommy succinctly, plucking a string of spaghetti and dropping it in his mouth. 'The caretaker at the college found a leak in the boiler this week, so they can't host.'
'It's been cancelled? But why are you still wearing –?'
'Easy, mate, I haven't finished yet! The college can't host but one of the students is instead. No idea who, but they left an address and invited everyone, so props to them.'
'Really?' Finn glanced round, trying to imagine a hundred or so students condensed in his own house. 'That's brave.'
'Yeah. Or stupid. Plus there's no teachers, so you know what that means, don't you?'
'Dunno, we're allowed to chew gum?'
'Alcohol, Finny! I bet there'll be gallons of it! Trust me, this'll be the best party you've ever been to.'
'The first party I've ever been to,' Finn corrected him, pouring himself a glass of orange juice. It was true. And unless he counted sipping his parents' wine at the dinner table as a kid (which he didn't), he was a stranger to alcohol as well. 'Anyway, we can't drink, we're underage?'
Tommy rolled his eyes.
'Alright, Chief of Police, that's the whole point: no teachers, no rules. The only rule is to have an insane time and get completely spangled,' he enthused. 'Oh, and it started half an hour earlier, so …' His phone flashed the time at him. 'About now o'clock. We've got a cab waiting, so let's go.'
'But –' protested Finn, who had just sat down to tackle his carbonara.
'No, Finny! No time!'
'Just give us a sec, I haven't eaten since – oh, come on!' he shouted, as Tommy swept the plate away and poured the contents in the bin. 'You twat. Was that necessary?'
Tommy thrust a fiver into Finn's hand in compensation. 'We're late for the party of our lives, so yes, yes it was. Let's go.'
Finn and his stomach groaned.
Slanting sheets of rain flew across the darkening street outside, firmly washing away any lasting signs of summer. The boys dashed to the taxi; Finn ducked in behind the bald driver. The howling winds were dispelled when the doors slammed shut. With a little difficulty, Tommy extracted a scrap of paper from his trouser pocket and squinted down.
'Er … Maybell Place, Grovelands Road, Penford,' Tommy relayed to the driver, who evidently hadn't heard of the address because he reluctantly tapped it into his Sat-Nav; he scowled when it located the right place, as though hurt by the machine's one-upmanship.
'Next stop: carnage,' Tommy informed Finn. The taxi weaved out the estate and onto the main road, where the neon logo of the fast food restaurant was distantly visible.
Thunder rumbled in the distance. Rain pummelled the windows like bullets. The windscreen wipers flapped furiously. They passed open fields, where silhouettes of towering wind turbines stood stark in the last of the daylight; each trio of blades was in full motion and sent the oncoming rain spinning, much like sparks off a Catherine wheel, before disappearing once more behind a wall of trees. His nerves crawling back to him, Finn instead took to watching the blue arrow's progress through green plains on the Sat-Nav. They had only been on the road ten minutes, yet these winding country roads were unfamiliar.
They rounded a particularly sharp bend and the driver swore suddenly; he slammed on the brakes, tyres screeching, causing all three of them to jolt forwards. The figure of a huge walking coat in the middle of the road was suddenly ablaze in headlight. The way the man sluggishly swayed out the way suggested he was a typical Friday-night drunk. A cold shiver shot through Finn, though at first he didn't know why – but then, in the night's first crack of lightning, Finn caught a glimpse of the man through the passenger window as they passed. The overlarge coat, the green beanie, the thick, matted beard –
Finn twisted in his seat, a stronger chill zipping through him, but the man had been swallowed by the darkness.
'What, Finn? Who was it?'
Finn tore his eyes away from the rear windshield.
'Oh – nothing. No one.'
Two encounters in the space of an hour, two near-fatal collisions. Well, thought Finn, if they ever met properly, it would be an excellent conversation piece.
The driver continued to mutter under his breath about 'unemployment' and 'liability to himself', but after a while the taxi lapsed into a silence sabotaged only by the relentless torrent of weather.
'Oh my God!' said Tommy, so suddenly and loudly that Finn, who was feeling extremely jumpy by this point, came close to snapping his seatbelt.
'Have you heard? About who's going to our college?'
'You haven't heard?' Tommy twisted around so Finn couldn't miss his utter disbelief; his jacket buttons strained dangerously. 'It's been all over the local papers this week; everyone at work's talking about her, my sister won't shut up about it. She's like, a Hollywood star. No idea why she's getting back into education, but I'm not complaining. She's so hot, you won't even look at the other girls there – and only sixteen, like us. Not that you'd ever stand a chance with her, Finny. Just don't get jealous if she falls for my boyish good looks.'
'I'll try. Let me guess, you're not going to tell me who it is?'
'You know me too well,' grinned Tommy.
Of course, he spent the next few minutes trying to goad Finn into asking who the anonymous celebrity was. Having never reserved much interest in that strange world of gossip and showbiz, this news didn't enthral Finn as much as it perhaps should. As far as he was concerned, it was just one more person he had to avoid embarrassing himself in front of. Making friends was something he had struggled with through secondary school and the prospect of starting again from scratch was a daunting one.
Finn turned to see Tommy studying him. He hadn't realised how his leg was jiggling, or how sweaty his palms were.
'Nah, you're not,' said Tommy seriously. 'That's exactly how I look when I see a salad. I know it can be scary meeting a celeb, but –'
'It's not that,' said Finn through gritted teeth.
Tommy paused thoughtfully, then said, 'Look, you won't be the only party-virgin there, there'll be others as nervous as you. Stick with me and you'll be fine. I know every possible way to break the ice. Just basic rule of thumb: don't get in a fight, don't leave a drink unattended and don't throw up in the living room – or any carpet for that matter.'
Eventually, with all its passengers in one piece, the taxi passed through a pair of iron gates and up on a long straight drive lit by two rows of ground lamps, like a landing strip.
'Outrageous,' breathed Tommy.
Finn leant left for a better view. Between the fleeting moments when the wipers cleared the rain-splattered windscreen, he could just make out a huge, three-tiered house, its wooden veranda lit beautifully by lanterns and decorated with hanging baskets. Even the driver whistled appreciatively. What student lived in a place like this?
They pulled up at the top of the drive, where a fountain played lightly. Tommy paid the fare and together he and Finn raced over the crackling gravel and up the veranda steps, bowing against the diagonally-attacking weather. One downstairs window flashed coloured lights and there was a muffled thud of music. The terrace was occupied by a boy in a waistcoat and black skinny jeans who stood to one side, carefully trying to light a cigarette with a cupped hand, and some sort of security guard. The latter, bald and brutish, clutched a clipboard at his lap and spoke in a surprisingly soft voice.
'Tommy Saunders and Finn Pickett,' said Tommy, upon which the security guard ran a thick finger down the list of names and located theirs.
'Before you come in, I need to conduct a security search, just to check for any potentially dangerous items that may be on you, you are entering the home of a public figure as I'm sure you know,' the guard recited. He wielded an ominous-looking metal detector. 'Arms up, please.'
Tommy made a face somewhere between bemusement and excitement as the guard waved the rod over him. Catching Finn's eye, he mouthed This is her house!
The guard searched a numb-brained Finn before nodding curtly and opening one half of the double doors to admit them. Pounding pop music immediately gushed out; the beat fused with Finn's racing heart.
Their shoes clopped on glossy, chocolate-coloured flooring; the entrance hall oozed wealth and was easily bigger than Finn's kitchen and living room combined; twin staircases ran in a horseshoe to the upper floors. A silver banner bearing the legend 'WELCOME, KETTERS FRESHERS!' in purple lettering curved beneath a glittering chandelier.
'Well, this,' said Tommy, giving the place a sweeping scan, 'is going to be amazing. Leave your dignity at the door, Finn – you won't be needing it. C'mon, we've got ice to break and friends to make.'
'Tommy! Decided to turn up, did you?'
A tall boy with hair even more chaotic than Finn's emerged from a door on their left, clutching a cup of swishing beer.
'Better late than never. And better fashionably late than on time,' said Tommy, and the two grasped hands and clapped backs. 'Finn, this is Chris, he works at Dad's pub with me – Chris, this is Finn, we've been best buds since we were what, six? Seven? This is Finn's partying debut, so be gentle.'
Finn extended a hand, but Chris hugged him too, though it was more of a clumsy tackle.
'No worries, man. Any friend of mine is a friend of Tommy's. Wait, I mean … oh, whatever,' he said, straightening up and lazily brushing hair from his eyes.
'What's the damage, Chrissy? Have we missed anything?'
'No, man, but – what the hell is that?' Chris shouted, squinting at Tommy's garish pink tie.
'Babe-magnet,' said Tommy, like it was obvious.
'Uh huh. Well, you'd better get in there, then,' said Chris, jerking a thumb towards the room he'd just exited, where more students were dancing and talking.
'Outrageous,' Tommy smirked, looking inside. 'It's like a nightclub in there!'
'You've never been in a nightclub.'
'Well, look, it's a disco with strangers and drink, so I stand correct. Coming, Finn?'
'In a sec, I've got to find something to eat,' said Finn a little desperately; it may have been his imagination mocking him, but he thought he could smell hot pizza from the other end of the hall. Tommy and Chris ducked inside and were lost in the crowd of dancers, while Finn made for the kitchen beneath the balcony.
Chinks of glasses, laughter and light conversation: the sounds of newly-formed friendships. The kitchen harboured packs of boys in their black-and-white attire, looking a little self-conscious and frequently glancing over their beers at the girls in sparkling dresses and elaborate make-up. Everyone was out to impress, to fit in, to find their place in those abstract social divisions that had surely already begun to form.
However, Finn had much more pressing things to worry about, like not starving to death. He began salivating just looking at the platters of cocktail sausages, sandwiches and chicken drumsticks, bowls of crisps and peanuts, heaps of brownies and flapjacks, all surrounding a spectacular chocolate fountain.
He had a hand half-outstretched towards a slice of pizza when his attention was caught by a series of flashes. He thought of more lightning, but then saw a flock of girls fiddling with cameraphones, taking turns to stand alongside one particular girl. Finn's view was impeded but he caught a glimmer of blonde hair.
Once the girls had had their fair share of digital self-portraits, they dispersed and Finn was presented with a clear view of the blonde girl. In turn, she caught sight of him.
What he saw made his entire nervous system vanish, as though someone had simply switched it off.
He recognised the girl instantly. Not from the big screen, or a magazine.
It was Alexa. Alexa Turner.