‘Hi.’ Florence breathes the greeting through her long nose, barely looking at Birdie, and plonks her heavy bag down on the table. Seconds later Kelly walks into the cafeteria, smiling brilliantly.

Florence and Kelly are mates, although they are vastly different. Florence’s horsey looks and deadpan personality are in vast contrast with Kelly's radiant smiles and fierce emotional blushes.

‘Have you gotten far?’ Kelly nods at the book that is open in front of Birdie. Birdie wonders who or what is feeding Kelly’s glow. Not she or Florence, that's obvious.

‘Er, this is history?’ says Birdie. Just saying the word ‘history’ makes her entrails ache. Two days until the presentation, and she hasn’t written more than two lame introductory lines. And now she has to discuss this stupid novel.

Florence, who is rummaging through her bag, looks up. ‘My presentation was rubbish. I’m glad it’s over. I just don't see the point and I'm not good at it.’

'Oh, no, you did so well, Flo,' Kelly says. 'Honestly.'

'Simmons wasn't even listening. I felt like a twat standing there talking about all this boring stuff and nobody even listening.'

'But I learned so much! - '

Birdie, trying to ignore Kelly's doting remarks and Florence's nasal objections, wishes she hadn't hooked up with them. She puts the history book away and gets out the novel. When she resurfaces, she feels the kindly eyes of Kelly on her.

‘Is this an old copy?’ Kelly gingerly places two fingers on Birdie’s Wuthering Heights and cocks her head. ‘Because, Miss Tomkins specifically told us to all use the same editions, otherwise -’

The book is an old one, well not that old actually. It's from when Felicity had read it, before she became too cool for school. It is the one book Felicity claims to have finished and liked.

‘This is the copy I'm using,’ Birdie says.

Kelly’s smile shows a ripple, like the surface of a lake touched by a breeze, but she doesn’t say anything. In fact, while Florence, bored, is reading the back cover of her copy, and Birdie sits gloomily leafing through hers, she bravely takes the lead.

She reaches into her bag and comes up with a colourful array of biros. They smell funny.

‘Beatrice. Florence. Kelly. There.’ Their names appear at the top of three different columns, and a line is drawn underneath.

‘Next?’ Kelly gives the others an expectant look, but before anyone has a chance to say anything, she is already busy writing stuff down in the columns, using various colours.

‘Characters. Plot. Setting.’ She looks up from what she's written, and cheerfully meets the other girls’ faces. Florence is looking blank, Birdie dispirited.

‘Let’s divide the tasks, shall we. Florence, do you have a preference?’

‘I don’t really care,’ Florence says. ‘But I don’t think they’re all the same amount of work. It seems like "setting" would be far less work than "characters".’

Kelly looks thoughtful, but also pleased with Florence's observation.

‘Yes. We could take a different, original approach. Don’t you think Miss Tomkins would like that? We could incorporate ‘setting’ into ‘characters’. There was this question in our handbook, I have it here...' She flicks through her notes and quotes: 'In Wuthering Heights, the spirit of Catherine Earnshaw animates the setting of the moors. What does this mean and give an example.'

'I think that means that she haunts it,' says Florence. 'Like, in her nightgown?'

Kelly looks fazed for a moment, and then starts off a discussion with Florence.

Birdie is staring at Kelly’s furiously scribbling biro, and lets her thoughts escape the setting in which she's trapped.

Never mind the moors. The title Wuthering Heights does not bring a windswept English bog to her mind’s eye, but a different landscape altogether. It's an arid desert plateau, with giant red rock formations and brittle juniper bushes and vultures soaring high on the up-currents of the hot shimmering air. There are canyons, the earth slashed open and showing its layers like a cake- brown, yellow, red, grey. Animals are hiding from the scorching afternoon heat. Snakes, rabbits, coyotes.

A man in a hat and sunglasses flashes her a sweaty grin. She smiles back and waves her map at him. She is the guide. She's the one who decides where they will go. Together, she and dad are explorers of the canyon, hardy contenders of the heat and the rattlesnakes. They are camping by the river at the bottom of the canyon, and it will be cool, and they'll build a fire and look at the stars.

Birdie smiles. She does not notice how Florence and Kelly suddenly go quiet, because a boy is approaching their table.

It's Cassius.

He ignores Florence and Kelly, who seem oddly stricken, and he hands Birdie a book. ‘Thanks for letting me borrow that.’

With that, he's gone again.

Birdie has never seen the book he’s given her, and it's definitely not hers, but she pretends it is and puts it out of sight and into her bag.

When she looks up again, there is an odd silence. Florence and Kelly have their eyes fixed on her like they expect her to explain something, something which has offended them. They must have noticed she's been daydreaming.

‘I’ll do the setting,’ she says. 'Or- anything. I don't mind.'

More silence. Kelly’s face has flushed a bright crimson, and miraculously, her ooze of enthusiasm has stopped. If anything, she looks confused. 

In Florence’s eyes, a greedy gleam of interest is shining. ‘What was that for?’

Birdie shrugs. ‘He borrowed a book.’

‘Bollocks.’ Florence leers at her. She turns to Kelly, giving her a meaningful glance, and then they both set their eyes back on Birdie.

‘You’re trying to be his girlfriend, aren’t you?’ Florence’s directness is shocking.

Kelly, if possible, flushes even deeper. She looks tortured.

Birdie stares back at them, speechless.

Florence pushes on, not in the least concerned that it's none of her business. ‘Come on. You want to go out with him, don’t you?’

Birdie sees how Kelly releases a noisy little puff of air through her nose, a little snort or gasp, it's hard to tell. She is swallowing, and appears to be trying her hardest to smile.

Meanwhile, Florence presses on. ‘Go on, say something. It’s important.’ She raises her eyebrows, and gives a tiny nod at Kelly.

Birdie understands.

Not really knowing why, she shrugs off their stares, and starts doodling on a piece of paper with Kelly's bright pink pen. Then she says, casually: ‘No, I don’t know him very well and I'm not interested.’

Florence looks angry. ‘You’re lying. I’ve seen you together.’

Birdie continues drawing, but Florence's aggression is making her want to be rude. ‘So what? What’s it to you? And what gives you the right to spy on me?’

Florence narrows her eyes, which are cold and mean like a dinosaur's. Kelly seems hurt and ready to cry.

‘Come on, we’re losing our time with her.’

They get up off their chairs, Florence noisily, as if she is going to start a brawl, and Kelly wobbly, steadying herself. Florence leans over and snatches Kelly's pink pen from Birdie's hand. 'Give that here,' she snaps. 'There are some things you can't- you can't - take from my mates -...'

They stuff their books and pens back into their bags, and stomp off.

 

A sample...

Everybody wants something from Birdie.

Felicity, her frivolous mother, wants Birdie to get over the death of her father asap. Cassius, Birdie’s best friend, wants to lie at her feet in a swoon. Her estranged aunt Alice wants Birdie to come live with her in London.

Birdie doesn’t have what she needs: the attitude to tell everyone to bugger off and leave her alone.

It takes a funeral, a night on a stormy island and a natural disaster to free Birdie from the web in which she is about to get stuck...                                                                                            

                                                               

'A fluent, confident novel, full of meticulous psychology and beautiful language' - NRC Boeken

The Dutch version of 'Birdie' was first published in 2012 by Lannoo Publishers in Belgium (I hold the rights to the manuscript in English). 'Birdie' got glowing reviews, and it won 1.250 Euro in cash as the runner-up in the Literature Awards of the Province of West-Flanders in 2012. The new edition in Dutch will be published by Lannoo in January 2019.


‘Birdie’ is a true crossover-novel: it’s written from the point of view of adult and teenage characters.




Find out more on the website of Flanders Literature!