Holly dumped her schoolbag on her desk, her coat over the chair, although what use it was to her now she wasn’t sure, and lay down on the bed, her feet hanging off the end. Safe. She burst into tears, and buried her head in her pillow.
What had she done to them? What had she done to deserve the name-calling every day? The snide comments. The notes stuck on her coat, or dropped in her hair. Her PE bag being messed about with, or come to that any of her belongings apparently being fair game.
If year eight had been bad, year nine was proving worse than she could have imagined. Her coat was the last straw. She didn’t want to go to school tomorrow. She would have to fake a stomach ache again, or maybe she would actually be sick and the school rules would prevent her returning for forty eight hours. Only if she did go, and showed the deputy her coat, would they take her seriously then? Would the school actually do something, and help her replace her coat before her Mum saw it? Even better, let her change her name? _Please? Back to what it was before the divorce would be an improvement!
The sound of the vacuum cleaner rose and fell as her Mum did the hall floor, going back and forth across Holly’s doorway. Then the door opened and it nosed its way in, clicking over the metal strip.
“Sorry Holly,” her Mum said, turning it off for a moment. “I didn’t hear you come in. Have you been here long? Would you like some tea?”
“Only a few minutes,” she lied. “I was feeling a bit queasy so I thought I would lie down until I felt better.”
“Is it your period again?” her Mum asked bluntly. Holly had started them earlier this year. “I’ll get you a hot water bottle if you like?”
“I’ll be okay,” Holly said, knowing a hot water bottle would be of no help whatsoever. “Maybe I’ll go and have that tea.”
“Okay, I’ll finish up here then. Don’t forget to hang your coat up, will you?”
Holly grabbed the coat and headed back down the stairs, trying to work out if she was relieved or disappointed that her Mum hadn’t noticed the cuts in the back. Let’s face it, her Mum was pretty useless at dealing with problems right now. She would say she didn’t have time and could they talk later, which never came, or blame her Dad for walking out on them, or her work for not being flexible enough, or the landlord, or the neighbour, or just about anyone else who might be passing. She said they were a team, but actually Holly felt completely on her own most of the time.
She would have to go and see Mr Wilkins again, before school. Which meant she had to find a new battery for her alarm clock as her Mum didn’t always wake her up very early.
The phone rang as Holly sat cradling her hot chocolate. Realising her Mum was still busy upstairs, she went to answer it.
“Holly! How are you?”
“Dad? I haven’t heard from you for ages.”
“I know, and I’m sorry. I’ve been working down in Hampshire, crazy hours just like I told you, and whenever I’ve tried to phone I’ve only got your mother. But I’ve got you now, and I wanted to invite you to come and stay for half term. Must be coming up soon, unless your dates are different to here.”
“Week after next,” she confirmed. She swallowed. A whole week with her Dad. That would be amazing. She tried to think of a reason that she couldn’t go, but since the only other option was kid’s club for the week, she couldn’t see her Mum objecting. “I’d love to come. Does that mean you’re back home again now?”
“Ah. That’s the other thing. I’m going to be staying in Hampshire, because I’ve met someone new. Suzy. I think you’ll love her too, and she’s dying to meet you. She’s a widow, has two boys of her own, both quite a bit older than you, so you won’t be lonely even if I’m at work some of the time. I’ll buy you a train ticket, and then we’ll all meet you at the station here.”
Holly’s head reeled as the cozy image of her and her father doing things together like they used to was shattered into a thousand tiny pieces. It wouldn’t even be her father there most of the time. “You won’t be coming to get me?”
“I can’t, it’s four, five hours drive each way. But you’re a big girl now. Nearly Thirteen! Think of it like an adventure, coming on the train by yourself. I’d better talk to your mother to confirm the arrangements. Is she there?”
“I’ll go and get her,” Holly said, feeling deflated.
Somehow Holly managed to survive until the holidays arrived. Ten days had never felt so long. But then come Saturday morning she was on a train, away by herself with her new suitcase with wheels on the bottom and her schoolbag over her shoulder with fun things and food in it instead of the usual heavy pile of books. She was scared, but on discovering the seat with her name on it like she belonged there, and being able to sit at the window and look out, it wasn’t as bad as she had feared. It wasn’t as if she had to change trains, she only had to get out at the right station and they announced them regularly.
Her Dad was right, it was a bit of an adventure, and she enjoyed telling him about it in the car as they drove Suzy’s house. Most of all she liked seeing new places, and the driving was even better than the train because for part of the way they drove down lanes that ran through open countryside with no hedges or fences and ponies wandering into the road just because they felt like it. Her Dad even had to stop to wait for them to move out of the way. She wondered if anyone rode them, or if they were just wild.
Her nervousness returned as they pulled into a gravelled driveway, and she knew she would have to meet new people. But Suzy and Alex were friendly and seemed pleased to see her, and Steve was away at university so it wasn’t a huge crowd of strangers.
After being shown her room and being given some time to sort her things out, Holly made her way back downstairs. The table was almost set for dinner and she helped put the cutlery and glasses into their right places. She was surprised to find she was hungry, despite not having done much all day. Luckily the food was good when it came, and she could just sit and eat and listen to the others talk, without having to join in too much. Alex was just starting A-levels and some of what he was asking her Dad about sounded quite interesting to her.
Until the conversation turned to her. “How are you getting on at school?” her Dad asked. “Working hard I trust?”
Why did he have to remind her about school? She thought she was safe for another eight days! “Of course,” she said stiffly answering the second question only.
“Prickly as ever, eh Holly?” her Dad said with a laugh. “Holly by name, Holly by nature, that’s always been you.”
Holly felt her face flame and wanted to burst into tears. She might have done if she had been alone, but she could feel three pairs of eyes watching her.
“I need to go and make the custard,” Suzy said, getting up. “I hope you like apple crumble Holly, because we’ve had a bumper harvest.”
“Mum makes great custard,” Alex said to Holly conspiratorially, as if sharing a great secret. “When she’s not here we have to have ice-cream instead, because Steve’s useless and mine comes out lumpy, but it always tastes better with custard. I hope you like custard too.”
Holly realised he was trying to help her and appreciated it. She couldn’t find her voice but gave a half-smile. She had no idea if she liked properly made custard or not, but if Alex liked it then she reckoned it was probably going to be good. She wouldn’t mind a brother like him, she decided. He was cool.
It was strange just being with Alex on Monday, Suzy and her Dad both being at work. She had never been without an adult around before either. Feeling increasingly shy, she wondered what they would do.
Alex had no such doubts however. He said the most important thing was for her to learn her way around, so they went for a walk around the village to the shops and then back via a grassy area, where there were more ponies just standing about eating. He told her about the ponies, and as they went past some holly bushes, she found herself telling him about how she hated her name.
“Everyone always says I’m prickly, but I’m not. Only when people are rude to me. Even Dad. It wouldn’t be so bad if Mum hadn’t changed her and my name, but Holly Woods is just no fun at all.”
“Holly isn’t always prickly, you know,” Alex replied. “It’s only the lower leaves, that the ponies and cows can reach easily that are prickly. Look up the top there.”
She did, and realised that he was quite right. The upper leaves had perfectly smooth edges.
“They cut them in winter for the animals, you can see that tree over there was cut last winter and it’s growing back now extra prickly. The trick is to use the prickles wisely, for protection against those you don’t like, and then know when you can let your guard down.”
“Someone at school made holes in my coat, cut it with a knife and said it was my prickles.” Even the memory upset her. Alex was the first person she had told apart from Mr Wilkins, who had given her class a huge telling off which rebounded on her the next breaktime when she was accused of being a tell-tale. She’d had to tell her Mum the coat had gone missing in the end, but at least the replacement they’d bought cheaply from the supermarket was still intact.
“That’s pretty horrible. And senseless, causing damage like that.”
“The worst is I never know what to say back. It always comes out wrong. So I probably am prickly sometimes. Just not always.”
“Exactly, not always. And maybe your prickles are ineffective, like this leaf here. Take a look.”
She did. It seemed to have small prickles coming out in all directions, but was actually surprisingly soft.
“So sharpen a few points, use them when you need to, and then find some people who you can trust to be friends with. The others won’t bother you so much then.” They walked on for a short way, just inside the edge of a more wooded area, then he paused and said, “I’ve got an idea.”
Holly watched as he went over to a holly tree, stood before it for a moment, and then taking a folding knife out of his pocket, used the saw blade to cut off a small branch. He then walked over to a nearby log, sat down and proceeded to whittle the branch with the knife, peeling the bark off before starting to shape the wood. Holly joined him and they sat for a while, him whittling, her just enjoying the view of the ponies through the trees and the birds singing and the freedom not to have to do or be anything.
Eventually, “here,” he said, passing her his carving of a small bird.
Her mouth dropped open in wonder as she stared at it. “Wow. It’s … it’s beautiful.”
“So are you. It’s a beautiful tree.”
“It’s so white.” She assumed it would be brown or yellow like most wood she had seen was. It was more than white though, it felt almost alive in her hand. She could feel power in it, and love, and something else almost indefinable. It was almost vibrating with an energy of its own.
“We could sand it and oil it if you want to keep it white, stop it getting dirty. Do it at home later if you like. But keep it in your pocket and hold onto it when you need some extra protection or extra defence. I promise you it will work. Make you stronger. Could make you a necklace pendant as well if you like, or you could. It would be even better if you made it. Make it flat and rounded, you could even slip it into your underwear in PE. Holly’s secret weapon.”
The bird felt warm in her hand as she stood up, and she could feel its power flooding through her fingers, up her arm, and into her body. She felt strong, alive, tall like she had just grown six inches. Glowing with light.
Holly started a smile, then a giggle, and then as she imagined her tormentor’s faces when she was strong enough to stand up to them, a real laugh. She could picture the pendant she was going to make already, which would be a circle but also a perch for the bird. She jumped onto the log opposite Alex and balanced along the top of it holding her arms out with the bird in one hand, almost flying, feeling her new-found energy could hardly be contained.
“Come on, we’ll bring the rest of the bit I cut. I don’t know about you, but I’m starving. Home for lunch.” He jumped up and carried on down the path leaving her almost trailing in his wake and she had to run to catch up.
Keen to get started, she was almost disappointed at leaving the woodland, but then realised as they turned a corner that his house was in view and she could return at any time. No matter what happened, if she couldn’t stay here forever, she was going to change things. Not be a victim any more. She was strong, she had defences, she had protection, and she was beautiful. She was Holly. Holly Woods.