Maggie Quart’s Guide to Unpopularity
1. Tell on Scott Branum in Year 3 when you catch him feeding marshmallows to the school rabbits.
I’m the girl that sits in the corner of the cafeteria, squidged up against the wall where the rest of the school doesn’t notice me. I wear trainers and jeans and whatever T-shirt comes out in my hand when I dig into my drawers in the morning. I have braces, too, but I don’t think they can be to blame for my social status, because Shana Wright has braces and she’s queen of the in-crowd. Though, to be fair, I think hers might be studded with diamonds.
I wear glasses—that definitely ticks the nerd box, especially since I got thin, round Harry Potter style frames. I think they’re cool, and it means all I have to do for Halloween is draw a lightning bolt on my forehead and steal my brother’s cloak. Yeah, dressing up on Halloween as something other than a sexy cat probably contributes to the unpopularity meter too.
I’m not gorgeous and I’m not ugly; like most people, I’m just somewhere in between. My grandmother says it’s all about how you present yourself and that I’m lucky to be a woman because pretty much anyone can look beautiful with enough make up and fancy clothes. I told her about my friend David who paints his nails and puts on eyeliner better than any girl in my year. My mum scowled at me because apparently, we’re supposed to tiptoe around Grandma’s prejudices, but Grandma just clucked her tongue and said, “Maybe he can teach you a thing or two.”
David would love to give me a makeover. He sits next to me on the corner table along with Millie, Ben, Fatima, and Jelly. Jelly is not Jelly’s real name, but we call her that because it’s the only thing from the cafeteria she’ll ever eat. Millie and Ben are twins which should automatically make them too cool for our table except Millie is almost completely blind. It’s not that I think being blind makes you uncool and I don’t think the popular kids think that either. It’s just that everything for them is about looks in a way that it never will be for Millie. She can’t judge you on your fancy new blouse or on the way you style your hair, and I think the popular girls don’t quite know what to do with that. When appearances are your currency, a blind girl makes you bankrupt.
Fatima is probably the coolest person in our group because she knows how to dress, and she models for John Lewis. Fatima told me once that she earns £2000 for a day’s work so she’s pretty and rich. All the money gets put into an account though for when she turns eighteen, except for £100 after each job, which Fatima uses to take us all out for a Chinese. I don’t really understand why Fatima is unpopular; the only thing I can think of is that she’s too nice. I mean, who gets £100 and spends it on her friends? Not that I’m complaining; Chef Peking does the best spring rolls ever.
So, that’s us—me, David, the twins, Fatima, and Jelly: the unpopular crowd. At least it was, until Olivia happened.
* * *
2. Forget to take the toothpaste off your spots and make it all the way to last period before one of the teachers realizes you’re not trying to make a fashion statement and tells you.
We were hanging out in the music room after Jelly’s band practice like we did every week—when the Olivia Invasion happened. That’s what David dubbed it later that evening when none of us could stop talking about it on WhatsApp. I said he was being dramatic and that Olivia was far too pretty to be an alien, a statement which I regretted approximately one minute into Ben’s lecture on alien misrepresentation in the media. I then regretted it again when Millie sent me a private message saying, “So Olivia’s pretty, huh?” followed by about a hundred winking faces. Olivia is pretty. Her face is all strong lines and ivory skin with billows of blonde hair to soften the look. She walked into the music room like a warrior princess, somehow making the checked school skirt and baggy blouse look good. We all shut up when she entered and turned to stare at her. I think perhaps the number of nerds in the room was unnerving because she stood frozen by the door.
“Are you okay?” I asked.
Olivia blinked. “I’m fine. Are you guys allowed to be in here?”
I shoved my elbow into his side. “Totally,” I said, “as long as we clean up after, Miss Restri doesn’t mind.”
Olivia took us all in, her eyes skating across the selection of tables and chairs we’d pulled together and the copious amounts of snacks we were feasting upon. “What are you doing exactly?”
We all shared glances, well, apart from Millie, but you could tell from the way her eyebrows raised that she was thinking the same thing. Fatima rolled her shoulders in her graceful version of a shrug and her lips quirked in a bemused smile. “We’re, um, hanging out, I guess.”
David blew on his nails, a fresh layer of purple polish shining at his fingertips. “Don’t you ever do that?”
Olivia scowled. “Yeah, we just don’t do it in a classroom after school’s finished.”
Ben rested his ankle on his knee and leaned back in his chair. “And, yet, here you are.”
I don’t know where everyone got this sudden confidence from, maybe it was because Olivia was in our territory, but we were definitely controlling the room right now. Olivia eased back a step and I sort of wanted to kick Ben.
“Whatever.” Olivia shook her head. “I just came to get my flute.”
At this, Jelly, who had been sitting on the table, pretty much oblivious to the whole conversation, perked up like a duck coming out of the water. “I play the flute,” she said, holding her jelly spoon mid-air.
“I know,” said Olivia, and then she walked to the other side of the room where the instruments were kept.
We sat there in silence, watching her like maybe she was an alien, while she found her flute and made her way back over to the door.
“Well, have fun, I guess,” she said.
Then she left, or at least, that’s what should have happened. The crossover episode of the popular and unpopular would have come to an end; Olivia would have gone back to her world and we would have returned to normal. Except, instead, I blurted, “Ben and I were just about to play Bunny.”
Olivia looked at me like I was speaking Elvish and the back of my neck prickled from David and Ben’s stares.
“It’s a game,” I said. “You have to stuff as many marshmallows into your mouth as possible and still be able to say the word ‘bunny.’” Olivia blinked and I noticed how long her eyelashes were. “Hence the name,” I added.
“Bunny,” I said.
David thumped his head in his hands.
I ran my tongue over my lips because they’d gone all dry and sting-y. “It’s pretty fun to watch; I mean, if you wanted to stay for a minute.”
My heart started to hurt an awful lot like someone was squeezing it inside their fist.
Olivia glanced at the door and then back at me. “Can I play?”
I grinned. “Sure, but you won’t win.”
* * *
Sometimes we’d be sitting on the floor, with our backs against the wall and our hands would get so close that our pinkies would touch. When that happened, it was like my body received an infusion of electricity and I’d have enough energy to run a marathon three times over.
3. Play cricket (if you’re a girl; if you’re a boy, then I don’t know, maybe try out for the netball team?)
Olivia didn’t win Bunny, not that first week at least. She got to four marshmallows and sneezed so hard, a string of snot dangled from her nose. Her eyes bugged and she went so pale I thought she might pass out. We froze for a moment and then Ben snorted with laughter and marshmallows dribbled from his mouth like a melting snowman. I shoved tissues in both their faces and worked on swallowing my marshmallows with tears of laughter running down my chipmunked cheeks.
Olivia came back the next week, and the week after that, and the week after that. To start with, she pretended she forgot her flute again, but soon it became the norm. It wasn’t a major change—the popular kids stayed popular and we all stuck to our groups, but on a Tuesday afternoon, Olivia joined us in the music room. We chatted about David’s latest crush (a boy in the school play who looked like Ron Weasley); we bet Jelly couldn’t eat five pots of jelly in five minutes (and lost); we debated who was the most stuck up of the popular kids (and guessed how many new outfits we’d see each week); and sometimes, everyone would be caught up in an argument over some TV show and I’d catch Olivia’s eye and we’d scoot over to the side.
We’d talk about how she wanted to be a research scientist and discover a cure for dementia, and how I had no idea what I wanted to do, but I knew I could never be a doctor because I’d once fainted at an episode of Holby City. She laughed at that, one of those throw your head back laughs that made the edges of her eyes crinkle. Sometimes we’d be sitting on the floor, with our backs against the wall and our hands would get so close that our pinkies would touch. When that happened, it was like my body received an infusion of electricity and I’d have enough energy to run a marathon three times over.
Tuesday became my favorite day of the week, even though I had biology first period and I was pretty sure Mr. Sacks had some sort of dissection fetish. It could be the worst lesson in the world, and I wouldn’t mind because later I’d get to tell Olivia all about it. For one hour after band practice, we’d joke and talk, and my heart would beat twice as fast, but I’d feel perfectly at ease. It was the best hour of my week and it wasn’t enough.
* * *
4. Remind the teacher to collect the homework because you spent three hours working on your essay and you want it marked.
We never said anything out loud, but I think we all knew our arrangement had rules. Our friendship with Olivia existed in a bubble outside the space time continuum. We didn’t wave in the hallway or meet up out of school. If it wasn’t between three and four on a Tuesday afternoon, we did not know Olivia and Olivia did not know us. At some point, that stopped being okay with me.
I don’t recall ever making a decision to say something. We were putting the tables back in place and Olivia grabbed her flute and headed to the door to leave before us. I set down my end of the table and said to her back, “Why do you always do that?”
It took a second for Olivia to realize I was talking to her, but when nobody else replied and Jelly hid her face in her bag, she stopped and turned around. “Do what?”
“You always leave before us,” I said. “It’s so no one sees us together, isn’t it?”
Olivia didn’t answer fast enough so I carried on like a volcano of anger suddenly erupting. “Why do you even come here if being seen with us is so embarrassing?”
“Maggie,” Millie said gently, but it was too late.
“That’s not fair,” Olivia said, “You don’t want to be seen with me either.”
“I’ve heard you guys talking about the popular kids.” She used air quotes around popular kids, like they were some concept we’d invented. “You think we’re shallow and bitchy.”
“You’re not either of those things.”
“But my friends are?” Olivia shook her head. “You laugh at them just as much as you think we all laugh at you.”
“So, they’re your friends. What are we?” What am I? I added in my head. “I guess we’re friends for an hour each week and then we go back to being strangers because it would break some universal law of adolescence if you were to come sit with us at lunch.”
Olivia frowned. “You don’t get to be all high and mighty, acting like this is my doing when you’ve not once said ‘hi’ to me outside of this room. I may not have sat at your table, but you haven’t sat at mine either.”
“Because I can’t! You think because you just had to walk over and sit down that it’s that easy for everyone? You get to be a secret nerd once a week, but you don’t understand what it’s like to be us.”
Olivia didn’t say anything for a moment. She looked up to the corner of the room and opened her lips to breathe. “I came here because I liked spending time with you. I liked that there was no judgment, everyone just did what they wanted to do and owned it.” She looked at me then and her eyes shone. “I guess I was wrong about that.”
* * *
5. Sit in the corner table at lunchtime.
Olivia didn’t come back to the music room after our fight. I spent the week alternating between writing apologies in my head and wanting to hear an apology from her because we’d both been as cowardly as each other. It didn’t matter though because Olivia never showed up on Tuesday and I was left with a hundred things I’d saved up to tell her and what felt like a rock in my stomach.
I tried to carry on as normal but my list of things I wanted to tell Olivia was growing longer and I was struggling to remember them all. At lunch, I’d hesitate by the popular table only to walk by and sit in the corner. I was watching Olivia across the room one day when David put down his fork with a clatter.
“Right, that’s it,” he said. “I am fed up with watching more of your food land on your lap than in your mouth because you’re staring at that table. It is uncouth.”
I picked the bit of penne off my jeans and grimaced.
“Come on.” David stood up and lifted his tray. “We’re going.”
“Going where?” I asked.
“To sit with Olivia.”
My mouth dropped open and the pasta I’d just put in fell out again. Before I could protest, Jelly, Millie, Ben, and Fatima were all standing. They picked up their trays and started marching through the cafeteria. I scrambled to catch up.
“This is a bad idea,” I said.
“Hush,” David replied.
We reached the popular table and stopped, like pins about to get bowled down.
“Hi,” Ben said to the group of well dressed, beautiful-faced teenagers. “Do you mind if we sit here?”
They looked a bit perplexed, but one of the guys shrugged and said, “Sure, I guess.” So, we sat and when I looked up, Olivia was sitting in front of me.
“Hi,” she said.
I swallowed. “Hi.”
Olivia smiled and a foot nudged mine under the table.
I breathed out a shaky breath. “Mr. Sacks made us analyze a bull’s eye. I printed off a picture of a dartboard and said the bullseye is worth fifty points.”
Olivia laughed and the stone inside my stomach disappeared. I felt so light I was scared I’d float away.
“Tomorrow we’re sitting at my table,” I said, and I twined my ankle around hers.