Authors: C.J. Skuse
is the author of the YA novels PRETTY BAD THINGS, ROCKOHOLIC and DEAD ROMANTIC. She was born in 1980 in Weston-super-Mare, England. She has First Class degrees in Creative Writing and Writing for Children and, aside from writing novels, lectures in Writing for Children at Bath Spa University where she is planning to do her PhD. C.J’s fifth novel THE DEVIANTS will be published by Mira Ink in 2016.
For Jamie, he is my brother
I said there is no other
‘Hell is empty. All the devils are here.’
Jenny Savill at Andrew Nurnberg Agency for your belief when I needed it most.
Anna Baggaley, Sarah Reader and everyone at Mira Ink for your ceaseless support, editorial advice and general love for my little Monster
All my family, friends and early readers—my sister Penny Skuse, Matthew Snead, Laura Myers, Di Toft, Rachel Leyshon and Barry Cunningham. Thank you for all your advice and encouragement.
Hestercombe House and Gardens—a constant inspiration to me. This time round, Bathory School in the flesh.
Connie Bowler—for your very helpful reminiscences about boarding school life.
Judy Wasdell—for having a dog who habitually sniffs out spines.
All the UKYA book bloggers who follow me on social media and regularly spread the word about my books.
As always, a soundtrack of artists helped me knit and unpick this book every step of the way: Aiden, Alice in Chains, Gabrielle Aplin, Avicii, The Bangles, The Beatles, Birdy, Eminem, 5 Seconds of Summer, Foo Fighters, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Ellie Goulding, The Heavy, Hole, Keane, Jay-Z, Linkin Park, Marilyn Manson, My Chemical Romance, Nirvana, Paramore, Rage Against the Machine, Royal Blood and Slipknot.
And to anyone who has screwed me over, rejected me or even just mildly pissed me off in the last thirty-odd years—you helped too. A lot.
hat last week at school before the Christmas holidays, death was in everything.
In Geography, the sea was eating away the coasts. In English, Juliet was stabbing herself with Romeo’s dagger. Even the school gerbil, Rafferty, was found stiff in his water bowl on Tuesday lunchtime. The skies above us bore a foreboding grey gloom, telling us snow was on its way to suffocate the land. In the dorms, everyone was packing up their trunks for the coming break and preparing to say goodbye to the year.
And in our last floodlit netball practice that Friday evening, I saw the monster.
The thing generations of Bathory girls had nightmares about. The Beast of Bathory.
I watched it in the fading light through the wire mesh
of our netball court fencing. A black mass, stalking quietly across the playing fields, its two yellow eyes turning to stare at me every so often as it walked, unchecked. Unafraid.
went the whistle.
‘Nash, pass! Pass! I’m free! I’m free!’
I was watching it as much as it was watching me.
‘Natasha, are you playing netball today? Or are
playing netball and
playing Musical Statues?’
I tried to get my head back in the game. ‘Sorry, Mrs Scott.’
‘Rebound, pink team,’ she called, marching back up the court, whistle ready in her mouth. I sneaked a look behind me to the playing fields, but there was no sign of it. It must have dashed into the hedge. I put my trainer to the yellow line and clutched the ball firmly, looking for a free pink-bib to throw to.
‘Nash! Nash! Overhead! Here! Here!’ Maggie Zappa was calling for it. Wing Attack, socks at half-mast, hair a mass of black curls. School rebel. I wasn’t throwing to her.
‘Nash! Here!’ Clarice Hoon, Goal Attack, too much make-up, bedmate of half the Lower Sixth St Anthony’s boys. We had a history. I wasn’t throwing to her.
Dianna Pfaff, my opposition Centre, was using everything she had. She wasn’t as fast as me, but she was tall, with a ballerina’s balance, and had several times marked me out of the game. Her thick blonde curls bounced and flew as she darted left to right in front of me, shadowing my every movement with her hands. I had to throw.
I saw Regan. Wing Defence, black plaits hanging down and thick, clear-framed glasses. Way back on the line. She had arrived in the Lower Fifth with a subtle smell of wrongness
about her and the appearance of a spinster in her late fifties. She wasn’t even calling for it. I threw to her.
It bounced high off the ground in front of her, and she fumbled it offside.
‘Foul ball. Advantage blue team.’
Regan bit her lip. Clarice rolled her eyes.
Maggie Zappa puffed and blew her fringe curls up from her face. ‘Da fuq didn’t you throw it to me? I was free. I had acres!’
‘Margaret Zappa!’ yelled Mrs Scott.
‘But I was free!’ She turned back to me, slapping her hands to her sides. ‘What did you throw to her for? You might as well have thrown it over the fence.’
The blues scored a goal before Mrs Scott had finished dressing down Maggie for a string of ensuing bad language. We all went back to the centre. Dianna Pfaff had the ball.
‘Dianna, here! Here!’
I marked Dianna’s movements like a shadow. She couldn’t pass, couldn’t get to anyone. Frustration screamed from her.
‘Possession. Advantage pinks.’ Mrs Scott’s fat thighs smacked together as she marched over to us and pointed to the spot, handing me the ball. I spotted a free pink and lobbed it across the court.
‘Aw, hospital pass!’ cried Mrs Scott, as the ball bounced away from Jenny. ‘Rebound! Advantage pinks. Rebound. Advantage blues. Come on, you’re not nailed to the ground, reach for the ball! Jump for it!’ Goal Attack to Goal Shooter. Score.
‘Pinks lead two to one.’
Dianna threw me a look as the ball was lobbed back in my direction.
‘Nash, pass! Over here, over here! I’m free!’
‘Nash, for God’s sake!’
‘Natasha! What are you …’
It had stopped there, just in front of the hedge, a black shape moving in the falling darkness across the playing fields. The huge black shape. It was waiting for me to go over to it. I went across the gravel, across the grass of the playing fields to the swings.
‘Natasha, come back here! What on earth …’
I had to see it more clearly. I had to know if it was there for sure, the thing I’d been seeing for weeks now, darting across fields, hiding around corners, vanishing behind trees. The killer of dozens of sheep and chickens. And possibly humans.
But, in a second, it had gone, vanished into the hedge with barely the rustle of a leaf.
Someone was behind me, walking quickly to catch up. I turned. Regan Matsumoto.
‘That was it, wasn’t it?’ she said breathlessly. ‘You saw it, didn’t you, Nash?’
I didn’t answer. Our PE teacher was marching up the grass behind us, face as red as her Aertex shirt. I was going to be punished. The only punishment Mrs Scott ever doled out: the thing no one wanted to do.
‘Just what the hell …’
‘I’ll collect the balls, Mrs Scott.’ I walked past her back towards the court.
There were many bad things about Bathory School for Girls—the rules, the staff, the food, the beds, the homesickness and the spooky legends including the Beast of Bathory—but some things about it were truly wonderful.
For a start, there was the amount of time we were expected to be outside. We were always playing sports—netball, hockey, tennis in the summer, swimming when it was hot enough in the outdoor pool.
Then there were the Hidey Holes, secret doorways and passages all over the main house, which had been there since Elizabethan times. Apparently their original purpose was to conceal Catholic priests who’d visited South Devon and taken refuge there—according to legend, one priest had hidden in a Hidey Hole for so long that he suffocated and died. Bathory girls had found four main Hidey Holes—two linking the Fiction and Reference Libraries, one in the Laundry room behind the towel rails and one in the wall behind the stage at the back of the gym—but there were more. The house itself was this huge, imposing grey building, surveying the remote South Devon moors like some buxom grey nursemaid with shining black eyes. It had a long flat roof and large turrets at either end. One turret was the Observatory where we had telescopes for stargazing, and in the other was the Weather Station where we took readings for science.
We had Hogwartsy-style Houses—Plantagenet, Tudor, Hanover and Windsor—and there was an unwritten rule that girls seemed to get picked for them according to their status, which was kind of like Hogwarts too. All the bad girls went in Plantagenet, all the ones good at sport went into Hanover, all the brainy ones went to Tudor and all the, well, the ones who weren’t really good at anything went in Windsor.
Another wonderful thing about Bathory was its setting. It was literally in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by fields and woods and acres of land in which to get lost. We
were miles away from any form of civilisation, but we were quite self-sufficient. We had tennis courts, netball courts, playing fields, hockey pitches and formal and kitchen gardens where the cooks grew herbs and vegetables. Behind the house was a huge wooded valley with two large ponds and five beautiful follies in the upper sections of the woods. These were called the Birdcage, the Temple, the Wendy House, the Tree House and the Chapel. If you stood at the bottom of the valley by Edward’s Pond and looked up, you could see all of them, dotted around at regular intervals, like ornaments on a giant cake.
Back in the mists of time, before it became a school in the 1930s, Bathory House was the private home of the Duke and Duchess of Bathory and their twins, Edward and Grace, who were incredibly spoilt. When the little boy had asked for a pond to keep some fish, the little girl asked for a lake. Then the boy had asked for a tree house in the woods, but the girl had asked for a life-size version of her doll’s house, and so on and so forth. So basically, the Follies were monuments to the tantrums of two greedy little brats.
The wonderful really did outweigh the not-so-wonderful at Bathory and I loved it there. Especially at Christmas. The week before Christmas hols was usually the most magical time—full of parties, log fires, tobogganing down the hillsides in the snow, making sugarplums and traditional decorations for the end of term concert. It normally left me with the feeling of complete and utter happiness. Of safety. Of certainty that this was perfection.
But this Christmas, everything was different. There was no squidgy feeling. There was no safety. For me, Christmas was cancelled.
And Dianna Pfaff was making the most of my misery.
She sidled up to me as I was collecting up the balls after netball practice that evening.
‘Your head’s not really in it at the moment, is it?’
‘Oh, it’s okay, you don’t have to help. Mrs Scott asked me to …’
‘I want to help,’ she said, and set the bibs down on the ground to help me pick up balls. ‘I heard about your brother …’
‘What about my brother?’
‘About him being missing. Everyone knows.’
‘He’s not missing. He just hasn’t been in touch with my parents for a few days. They’re a bit worried. He’ll be okay. How does everyone know?’
‘Penny Marriott heard it from Kezzie Wood who got it from a Pup with chickenpox who was waiting outside Mrs Saul-Hudson’s office when you went in this morning.’
‘So the whole school knows?’
Dianna’s lips thinned. ‘What’s the latest?’
She said it like you’d ask for a weather update. ‘He went on some whale-watching expedition at a national park on the northern coast of Colombia. He was supposed to ring home two days ago but he didn’t. Probably just out of range.’
Dianna nodded. ‘Do you think you’ll be staying here for Christmas then? If your parents have to fly out to Cambodia?’
The thought was acid in my mouth. ‘It’s Colombia. And no, it won’t come to that. He’ll be fine, I’m sure.’
But still Dianna looked twitchy. ‘Mum said there’s a chance I might be staying. Hope not though. Christmas here would be a nightmare. She’s still in Spain. New boyfriend. Such a leech … Anyway, if you want a hand with any of Mrs Saul-Hudson’s stuff …’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Well, I don’t know, just, like, the diary or making her tea or organising anything, you know, just give me a shout. I’m here if you want the help.’
She’d been like this for months, ever since she found out I was the front runner for Head Girl. The final week she had really ramped up the helpful bit.
‘I know you want Head Girl as well, Dianna.’
‘No, no, it’s not that at all,’ she said with a nervous laugh, eyebrows up in her hairline, trying to come across completely blasé. She bounced a white netball between her fingers. ‘But you’re under a lot of stress at the moment, getting everything ready for end of term and the Christmas Fayre and the concert and what with your brother …’
‘My brother will be fine,’ I said, measuring every word so it didn’t come out as loudly as I wanted it to. So many other words teetered on my tongue, from ‘I can manage perfectly well without your help, you endless parasitic worm’ to ‘Get lost and die a slow lingering death in a ditch.’ But none of those things were ever going to come out of my mouth. In the end I simply said, ‘Thanks.’
In the changing rooms, the school matron and Maggie Zappa were arguing like two alley cats over a fish bone.
‘I didn’t take it, all right? Stupid old fart. Why do you always assume it’s me?’
‘Because it usually is!’ screeched Matron, hands on hips, her tight blue uniform dotted with melting ice flecks. She’d apparently been head first in the chest freezer, looking for some lost meat.
‘I haven’t touched your stupid turkeys. Get your hands off me!’
Eventually, Mrs Scott and Matron grabbed Maggie’s arms
and led her bodily up the corridor towards the Head’s office, a string of expletives dancing along the air behind her.
‘Margaret, the more you struggle the harder you’re going to make this for yourself.’
‘I didn’t take them! Am I speaking another language? Have I woken up Chinese like that woman in the science video? I’m not responsible for your stupid turkey theft,
‘You’re a liar,’ said Matron, teeth gritted, a huge bunch of keys jangling violently against her hip and strands of her black hair coming loose from her tight bun. ‘This has got your name written all over it, Maggie.’
‘Where? Where’s my name? Where? Tell me. Where’s the proof? I haven’t done anything. Nash, tell them I didn’t take them!’
I said nothing as they came past me, just did that very British thing of averting my eyes, cleaning a smudge on a nearby door frame. I made my way into the changing rooms and got washed and dressed for Prep.
I couldn’t associate with Maggie Zappa this week. Not this week of all weeks. I’d already blotted my clean copybook in netball by going into some kind of trance and walking off court. I couldn’t defend Public School Enemy Number 1 as well. Maggie had earned over twenty Blue Tickets for Plantagenet House this month alone. This week was just too important to even be seen talking to her. That badge was too important.
All I’d wanted since I’d arrived at Bathory was the Head Girl badge. The previous Head Girl had left the school suddenly at the start of the autumn term and ever since then Mrs Saul-Hudson had been vetting potential prefects. I was the front runner, there was no doubt. I’d made sure of it. I only had one more week to wait for the announcement and
then all my deportment badges, my 349 Gold Tickets, my academic awards, my staying up late to help the Headmistress with the diary, all my sycophancy would be rewarded. Just one more week.
After changing, I did my hair in the sink mirrors and found myself standing next to Clarice Hoon. ‘They found your brother yet?’ she said, applying a thick layer of concealer to her under-eyes.