Jack Shipley doesn’t know that the image he’s about to capture will, within a week, be familiar to everyone who reads newspapers. Perhaps if he did he’d take more care with it, at least making sure everyone’s smiling in the right direction. Instead, he’s wondering whether he has time for a lunchtime pint before his next job. There’s nothing remarkable about this lot. There’s the usual fat shepherd hidden away at the back, looking like she’d rather die than crack a smile, and a bossy Mary who keeps gesturing at the others, telling them where to go. He’d hate to get on the wrong side of her when she’s older.
The star of the show is the little angel at the front, who doesn’t seem to realise she’s in a play. She’s picked all the sequins off her costume and she’s tossing them up in the air, laughing to herself as they fall. Her curly blonde hair’s so fine that her scalp shows through. Later, Jack will think that it was like a permanent halo. It will trouble him that he didn’t do her justice, that in her last ever photograph her eyes were closed.
Brodie doesn’t want to be a shepherd. It’s a rubbish part, especially for a girl. She’s not even the shepherd who explains to Mary how they all knew where to come, or the one who gives the lamb to Baby Jesus. All she has to do is sit on the hall floor round the pretend fire, and shield her eyes with her hand when the angels turn up with Glad Tidings, whatever they are. Then everybody gets up and trudges to the stable, and she has to stand at the back because she’s one of the big ones. She hates being a shepherd.
The only good thing is that nobody can see her hair, because it’s covered by a tea towel. Brodie’s hair has a mind of its own. Daniel Jones said it was like a toilet brush. Every morning her mum huffs and puffs as she tries to make it do what she wants. Sometimes the brush gets stuck and Brodie cries, which just makes her mum even more cross. Brodie hates her hair. She wishes she had hair like Sadie.
The rest of her costume’s horrible. The first one didn’t fit and she heard it ripping as Mrs Adams, who’s only a helper, not even a proper teacher, tried to pull the edges together. Mrs Adams shouted across the room to the teacher.
‘We’ll have to find something else for Brodie.’
The teacher sighed, like she always does when it’s anything to do with Brodie.
‘I’ll bring in my old dressing gown. That should go round her.’ Everyone looked and knew Brodie was too fat. Now Mrs Adams is on her list of people to think bad thoughts about. She does this every night before she goes to sleep, wishing for bad things to happen to people she doesn’t like.
The person right at the top of her list is Carmella. Now, Brodie stares at Carmella’s blonde head without blinking, the way her cat does. She wishes Carmella would just disappear, then Sadie could be her best friend again. Carmella spoils everything. She’s even spoiling the photograph, not looking the right way. She’s the most stupid person in the world. She’s so stupid she thinks she’s a fairy, not an angel. She keeps asking for her wand. Brodie can’t understand why Sadie would rather be friends with Carmella than with her. Carmella needs to have everything done for her. She’s always losing stuff, but she never bothers, because she knows someone will always find it for her. That someone, lately, is Sadie. She told Brodie she couldn’t play with her anymore, because the game was just for two people. She won’t let Brodie sit by her at circle time.
Brodie stares and stares at Carmella. Eventually Carmella turns round. Of course, she doesn’t know how much Brodie hates her, so she does what she always does. She smiles. Carmella likes everyone. She doesn’t understand that some people can’t be trusted, even when they smile back at you.
Sadie thinks being Mary is actually quite boring. The best part is when the angel tells her she’s going to have a baby. After that, Joseph takes over and does all the talking and knocking on doors. Once they get to the stable all she has to do is sit there nodding and smiling and rocking the doll, which is grubby and has lost all its eyelashes. She does what she can, trying to be a good mum to Baby Jesus.
Sadie hates the way her costume covers her hair, because she wants people to see it. It’s cut into what her mum calls a neat little bob, with every hair exactly the same length, completely straight and shiny and never out of place. That’s what Sadie likes, the way it does exactly what it’s told.
Some people say Sadie’s bossy. Some people, like Brodie’s mum, say something much worse. They say she’s a bully. But Sadie just likes to be in charge of things. She loves to look after people. Even now, when she knows she should be smiling for the photograph, she’s looking at Carmella, rolling about at the front of the stage, messing with shiny bits. Sadie hisses softly at her, trying to get her to sit properly. She likes everything in its proper place.
Two days before Christmas, Sadie and Carmella will trail through the park behind Carmella’s big sister who’ll be talking on her phone and not watching them properly. Bored, Sadie will tell Carmella they’ll have a game of hide and seek. She’ll tell Carmella to hide and wait until she’s found however long it takes. Counting, she’ll watch through her fingers as Carmella trots away. She’ll think how much easier this is than being friends with Brodie, who would have sulked because she wasn’t the seeker.
An hour later, Brodie will stomp through the park in her pink wellingtons, angry because her mum says it’s too cold for ice cream. Carmella, having just trusted one stranger too many, will already be lying dead under some bushes, not far from where Brodie will stop to have her tantrum. She’ll notice nothing, although much later she’ll claim to have had a funny feeling about the place. Carmella’s body won’t be found until that evening.
On the first day back at school, Sadie will cry and cling to her mum. Nothing in her world will be where it should be. She’ll know it’s her fault Carmella’s dead. She was the one who lost her. Brodie will be the only one who understands. She’ll put her arm round Sadie’s shoulders and whisper that she’ll take care of her.
Brodie will pretend to be sad, like everyone else, but inside she’ll be smiling the biggest smile of her life. She’ll have Sadie back, even if Sadie won’t ever be quite the same as she used to be. What’s more, Brodie will have learned that if she wishes hard enough she can make things happen. She’ll be the only one who could tell Sadie it wasn’t her fault and actually make her believe it. She won’t, of course. She’ll be happy with things just the way they are.
Ten years later, Brodie knows that this time she won’t get pushed to the back of the photograph. She’s the one everyone’s eyes are drawn to. She smiles at the camera as though it’s an old friend. There are very few things that can’t be fixed. She knows this now. She’s discovered straighteners and products and she doesn’t have to touch her hair to know it’s perfectly smooth. Instead, she strokes her flat stomach and, with the other hand, reaches to reassure Sadie, who’s standing beside her, wishing she was somewhere else. She’s here because Brodie’s told her to be. Just like always.
Brodie knows people wonder what the deal is with her and Sadie. No-one gets it; why she lets this sad lump of a girl trail in her shadow. Brodie just smiles and says they go way back. Sadie needs her, and knowing that makes her feel good. Besides, every girl needs a fat friend. She heard someone say that once.
Sadie knows this will be one more photograph she won’t want to look at. The dress Brodie told her to buy is too tight in all the wrong places, making her look even fatter than she is. She grips Brodie’s fingers and stares at the floor. She’s been holding on to Brodie for so long she doesn’t know how to let go. The thumb of her other hand is hooked into her sleeve, ensuring it doesn’t ride up and expose the cuts she made last night, to help her get through this. It’s her last attempt at control, and one of the only things she hasn’t told Brodie, although she suspects Brodie knows anyway.
To be honest, there’s something a bit creepy about the way Brodie always seems to know stuff she hasn’t been told. It makes Sadie feel suffocated, like she’s got no air of her own to breathe. In her head, she counts how many hours are left until she can go home. Too many, she thinks, because Brodie will insist on staying until the end. Her hair, greasy again just hours after washing, is a curtain across her face. She makes no attempt to push it back. It does whatever it wants, these days, like everything else she used to think she could control.
Brodie leans slightly sideways and whispers in her ear, telling her for God’s sake to smile. Still studying the floor, Sadie experiments, trying to make her mouth form the right shape. She’s not ready yet, although she knows in a minute she’ll have to be. Brodie will make sure of it.
Sadie’s mum tells her she needs to make a break away from Brodie. It’s an unhealthy relationship; toxic even. Sadie’s mum reads a lot of women’s magazines. Sadie knows she’s right, though. She thinks perhaps she’d like to be free. But not yet. She squeezes Brodie’s fingers a little bit tighter.
Jack Shipley hates prom photographs. Hormones and attitude – he’s lost patience with them. Not that he had much in the first place. He’s thinking about his next drink. He doesn’t need to count them these days. Not since he lost his licence, although lugging his equipment round in taxis is becoming a bit of a pain. He’s kept track, over the years. He knows this would have been Angel Hair’s prom. He’d like to say what happened changed him, but he can’t. It did one thing, though. It made him take the best picture he can, every time, just in case it’s someone’s last photograph. He calls to the dowdy fat girl to look at the camera. When she finally does, there’s something vaguely familiar about her, but he can’t put his finger on it.