Megan knew that she was beautiful- although she would never have said so- but she still hadn’t got used to being looked at. When people stared at her she usually thought that there might be something wrong. It took a long time in her bedroom sorting out hair, eyebrows- especially eyebrows- skin and make up to try to reduce the possibility of something wrong being noticed next time. It never dawned on her that a newly minted sixteen year old girl, stick thin with long legs and a drift of long polished hair, dark eyes and a shy way of looking at strangers was always going to attract attention. It wasn’t that she didn’t like attention, or not usually anyway, she just didn’t know how to react to it. Especially if it was a man. Boys her own age were no problem- they were just stupid. They went around with their shirts hanging out and the laces of their dirty trainers trailing in the mud. So long as they had a Superdry logo across their top they were happy. They shouldn’t have been, but they were. When men looked at her it was different. They were checking her out and it made her feel grubby. The man at the bus stop was doing that now. She looked round anxiously for her friend Katie.
Finally there was Katie, waving frantically from the other side of the road.
Arms flew into a hug.
“Stop it Katie. People will look.”
Katie didn’t mind people looking. She always wore variations on the same outfit. A flimsy dress, covered with a shapeless cardie or a long coat in winter, leggings and Doc Marten boots. Mostly black. Her dark hair was dyed an even deeper shade of black and cut very short. When she went out at night she wore a corset top. She didn’t look like anybody else and she didn’t want to. You must never, ever say that she was a Goth because that would mean she had joined in with something. Megan was in awe of her. Katie could outstare any man who looked at her and she said that she was an anarchist. She had already had sex once and announced that she didn’t like it much. Katie was exciting. She didn’t know how to look good in school uniform but give her a bit of freedom and she knew exactly how to stand out. She looked at Megan critically, taking in her outfit in a glance.
“Are you not rebelling then?”
“Yeah, but I don’t want to look awful while I’m rebelling.”
“You are killing it!”
“My hair though.”
Katie waved her head from side to side and dropped her jaw..
Megan fiddled anxiously with the two strands of hair that she had carefully teased out to frame her face. The rest floated gently down her back in a perfectly ordered, shining, pale brown cascade. Katie rolled her eyes.
“Your hair is perfect.”
“It is so not.”
Megan had not told her mother that they were going on a demo. Sixteen was almost old enough to do as you liked but not quite. Her mother had been a punk- now that really was going around rebelling and looking awful- and that should have helped her to understand but that was a very long time ago now. Apart from a tendency to play Blondie very loudly in the afternoons while she was ironing and a few grubby photo booth portraits with her tongue hanging out you would never know.
When the bus reached the city centre people were already gathering amidst a forest of placards. Most of them said variations on “Hands off our NHS” but some were quite funny. There was a young woman in a white doctors coat carrying one that said, “this sign would look better if I hadn’t worked a seventy hour week” and a lot more children than Megan had expected. One tiny boy was being held up by his mum clutching a sign that said, “toddlers against the cuts”. It was like a party- not dangerous at all. People were happy to be there, all thinking the same thing. One voice. She started to relax. Katie ran across to a man who was giving out small blue “save our NHS” placards and brought two back.
“There you go. All ready.”
Slowly the crowd thickened, found its purpose and moved off. Katie looked at Megan anxiously.
“Sure you’ll be OK?”
Megan nodded, too full of emotion to speak. She wasn’t sure. Three months ago she wouldn’t have been. Six months ago she would have been lying in intensive care after having her rib cage cracked open and her heart cut into. The team who had replaced her defective heart valve, looked after her and brought a body who expected to die back to life were her heroes now. There were dozens of them. People from all over the world, brought together to give her a new start. From the Spanish surgeon, who had just smiled at her quietly when she thanked him, to the small woman with long dark hair who had brought warm, carefully buttered toast with a piece of kitchen roll over it to her bedside each morning for the first few days. All of them. She slipped her spare hand inside her coat to feel her heart beating. The surgeon had told her that he had given her “a good valve”. When everything was silent she could hear it ticking. Her mum had been promised that she was going to have a quiet sit down in a coffee shop with Katie. They would do that afterwards. It wasn’t a lie. She would be fine. The crowd was moving slowly and the city square where the speeches would be happening wasn’t far away.
Katie grabbed her hand.
Megan took a deep breath, filled her lungs right up, as the physiotherapists had taught her and shouted.
“Hands off our NHS! Hands off our NHS!”