Isla spends her summer in the polytunnels, breathing dank composty air. At the end of every day she goes home with soil under her nails, her fingers tingling with leaf hair, and every night she thinks about the husband.
The husband has favourite places for smoking. Isla records these in her diary. He’ll linger by the farmhouse, tapping his ash in an ancient milk bottle, or he’ll wander between the sheds and rolls of netting. She makes a collage from torn bits of Cosmo, glues R–E–A–L next to a felt-tip heart.
Isla imagines driving round with him in his BMW. They park outside the shops and he gives her money for cherry cola. She runs her fingers through her fringe: in the car he strokes her hair while the ones from school look in and see. She takes a hand from the duvet, places her tongue on the wrist, and feels hot breath on her skin.
The other pickers are Polish. Their minibus is parked at the back of The Central where they live in the flat-roofed annex, their jeggings and vests hung between windows like faded bunting. In the early mornings before the tunnel warms up they shiver and mime how cold they feel. When she moves near them to sidestep their trolleys, she feels their foreignness up close.
Isla’s often late in the mornings and the wife makes her stay after the others leave. The tunnels are silent then. Echoey. Time goes more slowly with the radio turned off. Isla watches shadows passing the polythene—the gardeners with their spades and hoes. She hears the tunnel ripple. It’s only the breeze but she imagines the door flapping shut and turning to find the husband there. He would have a cigarette in his hand. Since they haven’t spoken, it’s difficult to picture him talking. He’s posh, so she gives him a voice like Prince Harry.
‘Hi,’ the husband-in-her-head says.
‘Hi,’ Isla says. She often speaks her pretendings out loud—she’s tried not to, but words escape in the intensity of the thing. She superimposes him into the space by the fertilizer bags so that she sees both the cloudy polythene and him in his checked shirt and jeans, and then she picks some berries. She doesn’t want him to think his being there bothers her. She tries a pout, like Nicole does in her Snapchats. When she looks again he is sucking at his cigarette. He blows the smoke over his shoulder.
He holds the packet out. She takes one and sits on the raised plant bed, crossing her legs so that the frayed denim of her cut-offs fringes her thigh. She tries to imagine her legs are nice legs. She closes her eyes. They are long and thin and tanned, like Nicole’s. At the same moment that the husband sits beside her, stubbing his cigarette, a woman’s voice says, ‘Finished?’ and Isla looks up to see the wife there and the tunnel door ajar.
Fresh air mingles with the staleness of the tunnel.
‘Is this all you’ve managed?’
Isla’s cheeks go hot. The husband was about to put his hand on her knee.
The wife stares at the two pitiful crates Isla has been filling since lunch, and Isla tips her tub into the top one. Berries tumble and roll but the mound looks no bigger. Their hands either end of a packing case, the wife helps her load the trolley. Isla’s certain that in the awkward squeaks of polystyrene the wife can feel her betrayal. The wife pulls the door wide and waits while Isla wheels the trolley out.
Lying in bed, Isla continues from where she left off. He is sitting beside her. She sees the concrete floor under their feet, the rubber irrigation hoses, the grey tape patching the polythene. She hears his breath deepen. His eyes move slowly over her face. When they kiss, she opens and closes her mouth like a fish. The wet sound brings her back to the bedroom.
On her way to work, she sees him smoking by the porch. Mist hangs over the bay. She thinks he looks bored—probably wishing that he was back in the city, where buildings cut out all the pointless sky. She slows, taking in his loose shirt-cuffs and how his hair sticks up at the front. As he pats it down, she feels its softness in her own palm. Smoke clouds his face. When it clears their eyes meet. Under his gaze her knees lock and each step feels like she is walking through bog. By the time she reaches the tunnels her skin is clammy. She puts the heavy apron round her neck but fumbles with the ties. The others are already there, the radio tuned to a distant station. Isla begins with the same bushes as the night before, waiting for her heartbeats to slow.
She will tell Nicole how the husband had been eyeing her up, that he’d watched her walking all the way to the polytunnel. She won’t mention how scared she felt, or how something below her tummy had tingled. She will say instead that he was gagging for it. Nicole has told her that all men are.
At noon the wife weighs the raspberries on her big white scales and Isla almost feels sorry for her, knowing that when her eyes meet her husband’s—to discuss yields and next week’s orders—she feels none of the ecstasy Isla does. Some of the pickers call the wife Mrs Pippa. A Pippa should have fair hair and freckles, but the wife is dark. She wears frosted lip gloss and flicks her eyeliner out at the corners. Nicole is an expert with eyeliner. Isla has watched as she leans into the changing room mirror to reapply it after PE.
The wife nudges Isla’s crates, making the scales recalculate. She always pays to the nearest ten grams using the spreadsheet on her laptop.
‘Three kilos five-sixty, Isla. For a whole morning?’
Isla looks at the raspberries. They’ve deepened to crimson since being picked. The colour oozes into a dark aura above the polystyrene, their cores softly gaping.
‘This is Nicole,’ Mrs Fraser had said, showing the girl to Isla’s desk. She had black hair and chipped nails, and didn’t smile once the whole of double English. Isla watched her picking the red polish.
‘Got them done at Neon.’
It was the only thing she said.
Isla googled it under the desk in French. A place in the city with a hot-pink sign. The window said SILK WRAPS GELS FILLS, the photo too dark to see inside.
Later Nicole told Isla other things, like how she’d been dumped on her granny, and about the tattoo on her bum. Isla said no way but when Nicole pulled down her waistband, it was there under the lace thong—a tiny cherub.
In Mrs Fraser’s class Nicole refused to read any of the parts from Streetcar, but somehow Isla got lumped with Blanche. Every time Stanley came in, Nicole sucked her finger, or made panting noises, until Isla couldn’t read for giggling.
‘Imagine being called Blanche,’ Isla said at break.
‘No,’ Nicole said, ‘I mean, I just couldn’t. I mean, your name is everything. It’s everything about you.’
Isla wished she was a Dakota or Juno. Maybe a Kirsten. Anything but Isla.
Nicole and Isla made plans to go to the city. Nicole knew a club where the bouncers would let them in.
‘What do you drink?’ Nicole said in Chemistry.
When Isla said Sex on the Beach, Nicole shrieked, and they looked up to see Mr Taylor scowling. Isla whispered to Nicole that he’d been caught with the blonde teaching assistant in the art cupboard last year. Nicole spent the rest of the afternoon doodling cartoons of him on the desk.
‘Why’s he holding a baguette?’ Isla asked.
Then it was her turn to squeal.
On the last day of term Nicole took Jason Skea behind the wheelie bins and everyone said they did it. Isla knew it was true because Jason is a big lad but in class afterwards he faded into his chair. Later Nicole told Isla that she’d done her mam’s boyfriend too and how Jason was a crap ride.
Nicole has gone to stay with her mam for the holidays. Isla isn’t sure if she’s coming back. With the husband showing an interest, it wouldn’t be so bad. If the husband groped her boob, or even kissed her, that would do. It’s only a fortnight till school starts. Isla will borrow the Fake Bake from the holiday bag on top of her mam’s wardrobe. She read in Closer that bronzed skin is more alluring.
Now the Polish women are laughing. They laugh so much one knocks over a stack of seedling pots, and the old one with no bra grabs her chest and rocks. Isla watches the wind drumming the polythene, the change in tunnel light as the sun comes out between clouds. When the wife appears at lunchtime, the tray at Isla’s feet has only a thin layer of berries.
The wife shakes her head. ‘I’m warning you, Isla…’
‘Sorry, Mrs Pippa,’ Isla whispers after the wife has gone. She likes how the p bursts on her lips like bubblegum.
Isla works away from the others and replays her favourite daydream, the one where the husband comes in for a smoke.
‘I saw you that day,’ he says.
‘I know,’ she says.
‘What’s your name anyway?’
The dream pauses. Isla can’t decide.
Juno, and her wild curls. Keira’s sexy eyebrows.
But wait. Something’s missing.
She rewinds the conversation and begins again.
He holds the lighter for her. When she exhales, he winks and says, ‘Get your knickers off,’ which is a shock made worse by the foliage shaking and the sunlight suddenly in her eyes.
‘What are you at, Isla?’ the wife says.
Isla drops the tub. Raspberries scatter.
‘That’s it,’ the wife says. ‘Get your things. You’re fired.’
Isla turns so the wife can’t see her cry. She takes her jacket from the pile under the seedlings shelf. At the front gate, she ducks behind the wall. Her throat stings.
‘You all right?’
The voice isn’t like Prince Harry’s. When she looks up, he’s sitting on the dyke, taking cigarettes from his pocket.
She hears herself saying ‘fine’, feels the grass prickling her legs. Marlboro. She notes the red packet. If nothing else, she’ll get this detail right in future.
The husband puts a cigarette in his mouth. He’s about to stuff them back in his jeans but hesitates.
‘Who are you then?’
‘Nicole,’ she says, reaching up to take one. ‘Nicole.’