Claudine had never really been lonely in her life. Even in her darkest moments (or what she had thought were her darkest moments), there had always been someone close on hand for her to talk to, even when she told herself there wasn't. She lived in a large family, eight members in total, so it had been basically impossible for her to ever have been alone long enough for her to become lonely.
Living in a house with eight other people, six of them siblings, caused you to very much become your own person, develop your own uniqueness, without ever having to rely heavily on yourself for anything. Growing up sandwiched between two younger siblings and three elder meant she had always tried to be a little bit louder, a little bit funnier, a little bit cuter, a little bit more wise … but had always failed. Whenever she tried to tell a joke, someone else would always know how it ended. If she tried to show off her Math or English skills, her big brothers would scoff, claiming it to be "baby stuff", "unimportant", "trivial". One time she decided when she grew up she wanted to be a clown. Rushing home from school, she thought of how surprised her mother would be to see her in her costume, and how much attention this would bring.
As she arrived home, she flung her bag to the floor and ran upstairs, sneaking her mother's make up into her room. With the beautiful red lipstick she painted on a huge grin and rosy cheeks, and with the blue eye shadow she highlighted her big eyes. Giggling, she put on one of her mothers silky satin shirts and a pair of her fathers huge shoes. She marched downstairs and somersaulted in to the living room where, for once, her mother and father sat alone.
"Ta da!" She shouted, putting out her arms, and grinning wildly.
Her mother jumped to her feet, her hands on her face in horror.
"Claudine! What have you done to my silk shirt? There's make up everywhere… on the carpet…in your hair," her voice trailed off. "Where did you get the make up?"
Claudine froze, her hands still in the air. This wasn't how it was supposed to go. Her mother was supposed to be happy, not distraught. A tear escaped, the blue trickling down her face. Her mother frowned.
"You know you're not to play with my things. I'm very disappointed in you."
Suddenly her mothers face lightened and Claudine stood up straighter. Maybe she would see the funny side?
Her mother began laughing as she looked at a spot behind Claudine, and gasped.
"Oh, honey, " she said to Claudine's father. "Look at little Peter!"
A small clown marched into the room, hands on hips, unsteady on his feet. Make up, like Claudine's, but much messier, was scrawled all over his two year old face. He tugged on his mother's skirt, leaving a red handprint, which she ignored.
"Ma ma, I pretty?" Peter asked, giggling. Claudine's mother smiled brightly, picking up her infant son, hugging him tightly to her.
"You're beautiful, " she said. Then, turning to Claudine, she frowned again. "Clean up this mess, kay?"
Claudine sighed deeply, kicking off her father's too-big shoes.
That was the last time she tried to be cute or funny.
Living in a family of all boys was always going to be hard, but being smack bang in the middle as she was made it just that little bit more difficult. Peter and Frankie, below her, were always cute and could do no wrong, it seemed. They scampered about the house, ripping her books or stealing her pencils, drawing on everything they could. Walls, floors, cabinets … if it was flat, they'd draw on it. Then Claudine would get the "don't leave your stuff where the boys can reach it" talk, even when they had stolen the stuff from her room.
Mark above her was awkward and shy, and was constantly being discussed by his mother and father.
"I'm just worried about him going to high school", "I'm just worried that he won't talk to people in his year" or "I'm just worried he'll turn to drugs to fit in". With their parents it was always "I'm just worried"… until exam times, where they were always "so proud of our smart boy." It was impossible to compete with Mark in the brains department, he was so clever that he'd finished high school two years before his classmates, and then went on to be the youngest person in their town to complete a university degree.
Brad and Simon, on the other hand, had little or no interest in scholastics. Both tall, broad and shockingly handsome, the two had been born within a year of each other and were the best of friends. They were rarely without girlfriends, even when they had been younger. At four and five years of age Brad and Simon had had a double wedding at their preschool, picking up "mistresses" some five or so days later. As they went into high school, Brad become somewhat of a ladies man, while Simon was more serious, eventually marrying his high school sweetheart of six years at the age of twenty three.
Claudine, forever in the middle, forever silenced by that of her brothers, had no outstanding talents whatsoever other than fantastic artistic ability, an ability that her parents always claimed would never get her "anywhere decent in life". She had always wanted to be an artist (albeit the all too brief period of wanting to be a clown) and knew that one day, she would be. Enough people had told her throughout her life that she had talent, and all she had to do was look at the easel or sketchpad to know that they were right. It came naturally to her, as naturally as breathing or thinking.
But, she was plain Claudine, destined to have nothing but her talent, quiet yet thoughtless, she kept her head down and crossed no one, strived for nothing. Until the terms before the end of high school, when her art teacher, Miss Fernel, took her aside and shoved an application form in her hand, an application, she was told, for a wonderful art scholarship at a marvelous university.
Claudine had started suddenly, a look of distress creasing her plain features into something slightly more interesting.
"Oh, no, Miss, I'm not going to college." She had said vehemently.
"But Claudine, you must! At this college they teach you all the proper techniques, and use the most beautiful materials… nothing like the drab paints and canvases we use here. You can sit all day and just paint, draw, or sculpt, nothing more is expected of you but to further your skills and enhance your knowledge of all things artistic. It's perfect for you."
Claudine, who could have created a masterpiece using the most basic materials known to man, but who had always hungered for something more, was silent as she thought about it.
"But, I'm not sure my parents will want me to… you know they'd like me to stay and… well, I'm not really destined for anything fancy, and…" She trailed off, gazing at the floor.
Miss Fernel sighed, and she clasped the girls hand in her own.
"Just fill it out and bring it back to me."

That night at the table, her father across from her, her mother looking tired and drawn, Claudine wondered if she should mention the application at all. It was a relatively quiet night, with Simon out on a date, and Frankie at a friends house. Mark was at university, first year, Peter had excused himself already, and quiet music wafted from Simon's room, where he was with his girlfriend, Lisa.
Claudine cleared her throat nervously, her parents barely looking up as they engaged in mild conversation about the village.
"And Sarah says that if he'd just stop being so stubborn about the medication, he'd be well in no time."
Her mother sighed.
"That poor woman, what will she do if anything happens to him..? I mean, what with the children, her son in college already and.."
"Can I go to an Arts College?" Claudine interrupted, her voice loud and assertive for once.
Her parents glanced up quickly, as if they'd forgotten she was even there. Another sigh came from her mother.
"Hon, I thought we'd discussed this. You just don't have the brains your brothers do. And what with the cost and all, it's nearly impossible."
"But, it's a scholarship! You wouldn't have to pay for much, just clothes and books and stuff, "
Her father laughed. "How in God's name are you going to get yourself a scholarship?"
"It's an art scholarship. For an arts course. You paint, and sculpt, and sketch…"
"Sound very airy fairy to me," Her father grunted. "How's that gonna help you in the real world?"
Claudine sighed, tears of frustration pricking her eyes. She'd known it would be like this. The first thing she'd really, truly wanted in her life, and they were going to stand in her way. Suddenly she began to get angry.
"Well what else am I going to do in the 'real world' dad? Become a receptionist? Work in a supermarket? Sell my body?" Her breath came out in loud gasps, and her father actually looked stunned. An awkward silence spread around the table until her father cleared his throat.
"Don't know who'd pay for your body. But if it makes you happy, apply for the damn thing. It's your future after all." He paused. "God knows you got no other talents."