Niki Valentine is an award-winning writer who, under a pseudonym, has been published internationally to huge acclaim. When she isn't working on her next psychological horror novel, Niki teaches Creative and Professional Writing at Nottingham University. For more details about Niki, please visit http://nikivalentine.webeden.co.uk/
Emma was sitting on her bed. She had been there for an hour, since her mother left. She was paralysed. She knew that she should leave her room and try to meet some of the other students, start her new life, but she couldn’t make herself move. She kept staring across the landscaped gardens of the university and towards the building where she would be spending most of her time. The Conservatoire. Its name whispered through her head but the building stared back at her with the blank eyes of its windows and the black maw of its doors, and she felt like it might swallow her up, completely consume her, if she wasn’t careful.
The first time Emma had come here, for her interview, she had imagined the place as a jolly castle and university a bit like boarding school, except with bank accounts and much more freedom. Coming from a state school in Manchester, Emma’s idea of boarding school was a romantic one, story-book stuff about midnight feasts and hockey matches. Now she was here, she knew better. She felt the reality of being away from home, completely alone. She had never realised before how safe it had been, wrapped up in her family.
Now, as she looked at the Conservatoire, she couldn’t imagine how she had ever thought it friendly. It loomed on the top of a hillock, quite a distance from the halls of residence. The sky was dark with clouds, casting shadows over the building. It was more like a stately home than a castle, in fact, with two north towers and large picture windows. Above the main hall there was a silver-green dome, a smaller version of the one that loomed above St Paul’s Cathedral. An exact replica, she’d been told at interview. There was a staircase up to the main doorway. The stone was grey and aged and the whole effect was like the gothic churches she’d loved in Paris when she’d gone with her mum, a treat for doing so well in her A levels. That holiday seemed an age away now, as did school and her family life. Emma felt like she’d walked through a portal and into another world. In the books she’d read that started that way, there was evil in that other world. The Subtle Knife, the wicked queen with her Turkish delight; these things lurked in her imagination. But she didn’t believe in nonsense like that and had never bought these stories, preferring adult fiction instead. She wasn’t going to let them scare her now.
She thought about getting her clock out and checking the time, but she still couldn’t budge. She knew she needed to break the paralysis but she didn’t know how. Then there was a knock at the door. And it was as if it broke a spell, because Emma found she could move. She got up.
Emma opened the door, and a girl stared in. She was tall and slim, with hair that was almost jet black and eyes that were powerfully blue. So blue they seemed to glow with ultraviolet. A sense of unease settled over her. Why was she letting herself get spooked? It wasn’t even her style.
‘Hello,’ said the girl, holding out a hand. She had a cutglass accent, the kind of voice Emma associated with villains in James Bond movies.
Emma looked at the hand for a moment as if she didn’t know what it was there for. Pulling herself together, she shook it, and smiled. ‘Hello,’ she said. ‘I’m Emma Russell.’
‘Yes.’ The girl’s eyes were sparkling. They looked mischievous, and Emma could imagine messing around in class with this girl, playing knock-a-door-run on the street like she used to with her cousin. ‘I know who you are. I saw you play in Birmingham.’
‘Oh.’ Emma was still unused to this reaction. ‘What’s your name?’ she asked. She felt suddenly very young asking this question, like a kid in primary school.
‘Can I come in?’ The girl didn’t wait for an answer, but flew past, rushing into the room and sitting on the bed. ‘Oh,’ she said, turning with a broad grin. Her face seemed to glow. ‘You haven’t unpacked yet.’
‘No.’ Emma laughed. She found this girl’s company infectious and wanted to confess everything, getting the sense that she’d understand. ‘I’ve been sitting feeling sorry for myself and staring across at the Conservatoire building.’
The girl smiled at her. ‘I had to get away.’ She leaned back on the bed and looked up at the ceiling, her eyes following the cornice work and the stains. ‘My sister was driving me crazy.’
‘I know what you mean. It was the same at home. It’s just me and my mum, see, and she can be a bit over the top. Overprotective. You know?’ Emma heard her own voice, the harsh nasal tones of the north, echoing around the room. For the first time in her life she heard how she must sound to other people and she didn’t like it.
The girl on the bed looked confused, as if Emma had missed her point altogether. Then there was a sound at the door. Emma turned. She hadn’t realised she’d left it open. For a moment, she thought she was seeing things. There was another girl in the doorway, the absolute image of the one on the bed. Emma looked from one to the other. Her head went dizzy trying to take them both in.
‘I was looking for you, Sophie,’ the girl at the door said.
‘I’ve been meeting Emma. You know, the prodigy. We saw her play in Birmingham.’
Emma winced at the word ‘prodigy’. She had always hated it. She found that people her age used it against her more often than as a compliment.
‘This is my sister Matilde,’ Sophie told her, gesturing towards the door. She was hugging her legs and looked at home sitting on the bed, as if she owned the place. Emma would never have dared behave like that in someone else’s room. She wished she could be more like this strange, confident creature.
‘Come in,’ Emma told Matilde. She wasn’t sure she actually wanted company, not even these two bright, beautiful girls. Perhaps especially not girls like these. She felt out of her depth. But Matilde smiled then and there was a real warmth in the smile. She walked over to the bed and sat near her sister but on the edge of the bed. Emma looked at her and she smiled again, and Emma realised she was looking for some reassurance that sitting on the bed was all right.
It was odd. Emma had read about twins and seen documentaries, knew all about how they were supposed to have divergent character traits despite the identical DNA, but it was still strange to see this, right in front of her. Whilst the appearance of the twins was dazzlingly similar, she immediately sensed the difference in their personalities. It was as marked as the difference in the way they sat on her bed. Whilst, judging by their accents, the twins’ background was about as different from hers as it was possible to be, she sensed that Matilde was somehow like her. If it hadn’t been for Sophie, they would probably both still be sitting on their own beds, staring out over campus. Emma caught Matilde’s eyes again and the two girls shared a smile of recognition.
‘I’m bored,’ Sophie said, stretching across the bed like a cat. ‘Let’s go out. For dinner or something.’
‘I need to be careful with my grant,’ Emma said, straight away. She was so programmed to think this way that it came out before she could stop it, before she could think about how that might sound to girls like these.
‘Grant?’ Sophie said, at once. She made the word sound ridiculous. ‘I thought that was something people got in the eighties.’ She let out a shot of laughter, and Emma flinched, knowing what was coming next. ‘Ah, you got a scholarship, though, of course you did, being such a vicious talent. I forgot about that!’ She sounded very pleased with herself for working it out.
‘We can pay,’ Matilde said, quietly, seriously. She was chewing on a nail, quite intent at biting something off it. She frowned and pulled away her hand. ‘In fact, I insist.’
‘I’m not sure,’ Emma said. She wanted desperately to go out with these girls and get to know them, but she was scared, and proud. She felt a kind of dizzy feeling just sitting with them, something she imagined was a little like falling in love. She felt danger.
‘Don’t be silly,’ Sophie said. ‘Of course we’ll pay.’ She stood up, and Matilde too, then Emma found that she was reaching for her bag. They both followed Sophie through the door and Emma locked it.
She turned towards the twins, two strangers now, in a strange hallway at a university in a city she knew nothing about. She was terrified, but she also felt she would follow Matilde anywhere. And she looked at Sophie, and knew that she was a girl who was used to getting her own way.
The girls had taken a taxi into the city centre which the twins had paid for. Sophie told the driver where to go with more confidence than Emma could ever imagine having about such things. Her instruction was very specific, a bistro on Henrietta Avenue, and Emma realised they knew the city already.
Sophie didn’t even notice, rushing in and looking for a table, but Matilde turned. Emma knew it was Matilde because she was wearing the red top, but she thought she might have worked it out anyway, just by the fact that she was waiting for her. She came back and reached out a hand. ‘Come on,’ she said. ‘Papa knows the owner. It’s really good.’
This was enough to get Emma through the door. Sophie had picked a table and they all sat down. Emma looked around. The restaurant had high ceilings and there were even chandeliers. She stared up and they sparkled at her. She couldn’t believe there were chandeliers. It was like something out of a Jane Austen novel. She turned to the other two girls to find they were both staring at her. She felt self-conscious then, like the subject of a study or an animal in the zoo. She realised that she was as exotic a creature to the twins as each of them was to her.
‘You know the city well,’ she said, to break the silence.
Sophie smiled. ‘Our parents live nearby, in the countryside.’
Emma noticed another tone to her accent then, something she hadn’t heard before. A slight European twang.
‘Are you from France?’ she said. The question came like a breath out and she regretted it immediately. Sophie had just told her they were from around here.
‘Our parents are. I mean, we were born there, but we’ve lived here for as long as I can remember.’ It was Matilde speaking, and her soft voice felt like a rescue.
Sophie looked rather annoyed, as if she thought Matilde had spoken out of turn. As soon as Emma saw it, the expression disappeared, and she wondered if she’d imagined it after all. She realised she hadn’t looked at the menu yet, and tore her eyes away from the twins to do that. She had missed a meal, sitting on the bed in a daze earlier, and felt hollow inside she was so hungry. She couldn’t believe how stalled she had been. It seemed ridiculous now, in a plush seat in this posh bistro, with these beautiful, polished young women. She looked up at them and smiled. They had helped her remember what an opportunity she had. She remembered what her mum had said to her about wanting to go to university but her parents not supporting her and she was thankful again.
The menu was confusing and Emma didn’t understand half of the descriptions. She had no idea what carpaccio was and she could translate chèvre chaud but couldn’t imagine it really meant hot goat. She was too embarrassed to ask, so she played it safe with a bowl of pasta. Sophie fussed over the wine list for a while and eventually settled on a ‘passable’ Bordeaux, after tutting and complaining about the years they had listed of almost everything else. Emma knocked the candle over and, flustered, grabbed for it, just in time to stop the tablecloth lighting up. She spilled hot wax on her hands, though, which was painful, but she tried not to show that it hurt. She was certain that if she was herself around Sophie, even for a moment, she would end up regretting it. She couldn’t imagine Sophie having anything but contempt for this unsophisticated creature brought up on council estates by just her mum.
‘Who will your piano tutor be, Emma?’ It was Matilde who spoke. Even her voice was less harsh than Sophie’s somehow, lilting and kind.
Matilde seemed to wince at the name and Sophie became all distracted, signalling to the waitress and asking about the whereabouts of the wine she’d ordered only minutes before. Then something changed and she looked straight at Emma. ‘He’s a friend of Papa’s,’ she said, pronouncing Papa the old-fashioned way with the stress on the second syllable. ‘We’ve known him for years.’
‘And you don’t like him?’ Emma heard her own voice, sounding panicked. She had warmed to Wood at her interview and he was one of the reasons she’d chosen this university. He had seemed honest, and fatherly.
Sophie made a strange sound, a strangled laugh that sounded bitter. ‘I wouldn’t exactly say that.’
‘You can be such a bitch sometimes, Soph,’ Matilde said, frowning.
Emma flushed a little and the atmosphere frosted over. She was confused. She got the distinct impression that Sophie was implying some romantic connection. She couldn’t mean that, surely? Wood was so much older than Matilde, and he didn’t seem the type.
‘Tell us about how you taught yourself to play,’ Matilde said. ‘I love stories like that.’
Emma smiled awkwardly. She could tell by the tone of her voice that Matilde wasn’t making fun or laying a trap.
‘It was such a long time ago that I barely remember it. I just got a book from the library.’
‘Such a talent,’ Sophie said. It wasn’t as clear from Sophie’s voice if her intentions were honourable.
‘What’s Wood like then?’ Emma’s turn to change the subject.
‘He’s the best,’ Matilde said. ‘By far the best piano tutor you could have,’ she added quickly. Her cheeks had turned pink.
The waitress returned then with the Bordeaux. She looked flustered as she showed the label to Sophie, who nodded her assent and told the girl to pour it. Emma swilled hers around in the glass, the way she’d seen people do on the television. She took a sip. It tasted bitter and made her throat close up. Perhaps wine was an acquired taste.
‘Probably it needs to breathe,’ Sophie said.
Emma had no idea what that meant but she guessed it was something to do with mixing with the air. She placed her glass on the table carefully and looked at the twins, searching for signs to tell them apart. Now she looked, they were not so much identical as mirror images of each other. Mirror twins. She had read about that before. It was a subtle difference, though, as their faces were so symmetrical. The pair of them looked happy and perfect, but she imagined they must be hiding some dark secret.
Then she smiled at herself. How ridiculous. She had read too many Daphne Du Maurier novels. Real life wasn’t like that at all.
(C) Niki Valentine 2012
© Paul Kane 2003-2017. All rights reserved. Materials (including images) may not be reproduced without express permission from the author.