The following is excerpted from Scarlett Thomas's novel. Scarlett Thomas was born in London in 1972. Her other novels include The Seed Collectors, PopCo, and The End of Mr. Y, which was longlisted for the Orange Broadband Prize for Fiction in 2007. She teaches creative writing at the University of Kent.
On Monday everyone starts a new diet. It’s Lissa’s invention.
The diet is this: whole wheat bread and Sandwich Spread only. No butter. Vegetables are allowed but no fruit. And no potatoes. Natasha has never had Sandwich Spread. It’s English and gross, like cold sick. At lunchtime they ask for vegetables only and old Mrs. Cuckoo the cook rolls her eyes and laughs at them and saves them extra treacle tart for dinner, which by then they all eat, except Bianca, who crumbles hers into tiny pieces that she feeds to the birds.
Late at night the girls do their secret things, after telling each other stories of the village boys. The village boys howl outside the windows after lights-out, like wolves, because they are so desperate for it. But from whom, exactly? Not Rachel, whose dark regiment of pubic hair has paraded shamelessly up to her belly button and down her thighs. Not Lissa, whose T-zone cannot be absorbed by all the cotton wool balls in the world. Not Donya, whose underarms smell of offal. Tiffanie: yes. The village boys would probably kill for Tiffanie, with her B-cup French breasts and shiny hair. Maybe that’s why, when everyone is asleep, they bay at the windows like beasts; perhaps it’s all for Tiffanie, or perhaps now some of the clamor is for Natasha, with her odd purity, her dark- honey hair and blank blue eyes. Her ability to ride.
Bianca doesn’t care about the village boys, and so when everyone else is asleep she sneaks out of the old servants’ door and does star-jumps in the moonlight while bits of dandelion clock and fairy circles whirl in her head.
The White Lady is called Princess Augusta. There are pictures of her everywhere. The biggest one is on the wall opposite the grand staircase, facing you as you come down. It depicts her in a flowing white dress, with a turban, holding a large harp between her legs, its shiny head nuzzling her right breast. The dress makes her look immense. For some reason she is wearing sandals with it, and sitting by an enormous pale classical column which reflects the light in a way that does not flatter her. The light instead picks out the complex black jewel in the turban. The jewel sucks in the light and absorbs it and hints that it is gone forever.
Tash finds Bianca at the bottom of the stairs gazing at a smaller portrait of Princess Augusta, aged 15, looking almost pre-Raphaelite with her halo of pale physalis hair and her pomegranate lips. The odd jewel is there, this time on a choker. Her skin is smooth and powdered like white marshmallow. She is not wearing a bra. Natasha suddenly realizes that Bianca has exactly the same halo hair and is about to say something when Bianca glides away, sits at the grand piano and starts playing Chopin.
The dark eyes in the painting are like polished lychee stones. They are saying “Make me.” They are daring, dangerous eyes, especially for a 15-year-old. They are saying, “Go on, then. Do it.” The jewel glints in the same way.
The story the girls tell on the rare nights when there are no village boys goes like this: the man who first owned this house was called Sir Brent Spencer. He had high cheekbones and a pure white beard and kept a nightingale in a turquoise cage. He was in love with Princess Augusta, but as he was a mere commoner they were not allowed to marry. Instead, they lived in sin and he died clutching a simple silver locket containing her picture and then she drowned in the lake beyond the sheep field. She had been ruined years before by the sultan who gave her the black diamond, but Sir Brent Spencer didn’t care.
Did her hair look like that while she was drowning? Did her eyes? Did the locket tarnish until it was turquoise like the bird cage and then crumble into dust?
Tash wants to ask Bianca for directions, but Bianca has her eyes shut, her narrow, ravaged body bent like a claw over the piano. Her arms are like brittle talons. She is the only girl who does not roll up her regulation green kilt to mid-thigh. She instead wears hers absurdly long, ending mid-calf.
Where is the Porter’s Cabin? It’s apparently where the post comes. If you have post you get a notification on your School Tablet. There is no map on the tablet, and the school is a complicated burrow of stairs and passageways and back-stairs and servants’ areas, some reserved for Year 10 and some reserved for Years 12–13. Tash can’t find the Year 11 stairs and then takes the wrong door down the wrong flight of stairs and ends up in a cold boot room surrounded by lacrosse sticks and carrier bags and a couple of sulky Year 10s giving her The Look. The Look says, Who the fuck are you? It says, Why are you here? It says, You’re lost, and we’re not going to help you. It says, You’re new money. You’re foreign. You’re a Jew. Your father is an oligarch and you don’t even know what that means. Back up the stairs and through a different doorway and into the wide corridor that leads to the front door that nobody uses. The headmaster’s study is here. Outside his door it smells of coffee and old wood. Is she allowed to be here? She isn’t sure. Tash hurries down the corridor before anyone sees her, past more pictures of Princess Augusta, and a framed list of School Rules. One picture of Princess Augusta shows her in the lake, floating on her back holding a withered rose in her pale dead hands. Outside the windows are the gardens with their bright green grass and geometrical hedges, all draped with new cobwebs.
She doesn’t tell anyone about the sadness and the failure and the light inside her that is a bright white color but is never bright or white enough.
By the time Natasha gets to the Porter’s Cabin, the one-hour allotted time for picking up post has passed, but he gives it to her anyway. Why is this? Is it the way she bites her lip and looks like she might cry? But she doesn’t let that feeling into her eyes. Her eyes express something else entirely.
It’s a letter, from Nico. The envelope is thin, and smells of his mother’s cheap Russian cigarettes, the only ones you could get during communism. He’s got the address of the school slightly wrong. His handwriting looks like that of a slow child who has only just learned English letters. On the back he has written his address across the seal in Russian. Natasha hates him so much. She hates him for being innocent, and Russian, and poor. She hates him for his cheaply cut thick hair, and for his pathetic aspiration to be a martial arts sensation on YouTube and eventually move to Moscow. Not Paris, not London. Moscow. She hates his saliva, the memory of it. His white socks.
She hates the pact they made, that they would only communicate by letter from now on, because why? Because people might read the emails? Because the servers might go down? Because anything might collapse at any time: the electricity companies owned by the oligarchs, or capitalism. Capitalism might be the next thing to go. But the postal service? Natasha hates Nico’s faith in the postal service.
She hates his belief in aliens. His cold face.
His bitten fingernails.
His small hands.
Another trip to the Porter’s Cabin. A parcel from Tash’s father. At last. She hasn’t heard from him in weeks, not since the visit when it was decided about the English school. It’s a pair of boots in a wrapped box. No one in the school is allowed to order anything online: all parcels must be sent from home. But you can’t buy these boots online anyway: they have long since sold out and there is a lengthy waiting list. They are from the Balenciaga shop in Moscow, where someone knows someone who . . . In Moscow, “knowing” sometimes involves guns and threats but not in Natasha’s world. Not yet. Not that she knows of. But anyway, why has he bought them in pink when she specifically asked for them in white? She sighs and asks who wants them, these useless millennial-pink sock boots in a size 39.
She thinks her father would like this: she’s sure of it, in fact.
Danielle’s eyes are wide. The boots cost a thousand pounds.
Natasha gives them to Tiffanie, and at six o’clock she emails her father for the right color. She complains to him about the email system here. About the food. It’s all so fattening, she says. So English. But she will probably get into an English university; that’s the main thing. And she’ll try out for the sports teams but she won’t develop too much muscle.
The next day a padded envelope arrives. The porter raises his eyebrows. So much post for the sexy Russian girl. Inside the envelope is a book of Chekhov’s short stories in the original Russian, and hidden in a hole cut out of the story ‘Peasants’ is a thin, shiny, silver 5G-ready iPhone which connects to a secret network and allows its owner fast unlimited internet access for free, wherever they are in the world. It has an Apple Music account activated, which is useful, and an app called DarkWeb, which is frightening. The phone has been set up so its owner can look at literally anything: beheadings, anal penetration, how to make bombs. Not that Natasha would want to look at those things, of course. She really only wants to look at girls who are about the same shape and size as her wearing clothes she hasn’t thought of wearing. And boys with longish dark hair and freckles. And fierce-looking ponies.
Sellotaped to the back of the phone is a black Amex card in her name, and a note in Russian, in handwriting she doesn’t recognize, saying, “Buy anything you need with this. You may not hear from your father for a couple of weeks, but don’t worry.” The card is more solid than other credit cards: harder and more lustrous.
Natasha hides the phone and the black Amex in the secret compartment in the lid of her trunk that her father showed her before she came. “If you have to hide some- thing really dangerous,” he once told her, “put it in someone else’s things. Some secret place they don’t even know they have. And then say it’s theirs.” She has thought about that a lot. When he first said it to her she didn’t know what he meant, but she does now. It’s a bit like Tiffanie always hiding cigarettes in Donya’s wardrobe. That night Lissa goes looking for porn again through the school’s WiFi. Today, she manages to force through the parental controls some Victorian charcoal illustrations of a fat man in a top hat waving his massive dick at a frightened servant, and a woodcut of a Japanese man penetrating a peasant who has her legs tied to a broom handle. His penis is enormous.
“Is that what they really look like?” asks Danielle. “Haven’t you ever seen one?” says Lissa.
“Have you?” says Danielle.
“Of course,” says Lissa. “Hasn’t everybody?”
No one actually has, except Tash. And even then, she didn’t really see it.
After lights-out everyone has something glowing under their sheets. They write to parents, siblings, attractive cousins; they listen to podcasts to help them sleep. They listen to music they have downloaded earlier. Then there are the secret things. And the things that are too banal to be made public. Tiffanie listens to French pop music and plans her modeling career, and then her wedding, and then her funeral, which will have a botanical theme. Bianca has downloaded Fanny Hill for free and has found details in it far more troubling and thrilling than anyone could discover with a search engine. But she does not tell anyone about it, because she does not really tell anyone about anything. She doesn’t tell anyone about the sadness and the failure and the light inside her that is a bright white color but is never bright or white enough. She doesn’t tell them that she wants a black diamond like Princess Augusta’s that will take the light away, and purify it, and make it better.
From Oligarchy by Scarlett Thomas. Used with the permission of the publisher, Counterpoint Press. Copyright © 2019 by Scarlett Thomas.