On Halloween night, Mariella Thompson, dressed head to toe in shimmering ancient Egyptian-themed costume and jewellery, poured another drink for her friends, Natasha Jenkins and Lavinia Barrington, who had come to her Halloween house party as "shady bitch hunters," which seemed to involve skin-tight black leather trousers, black leather jackets and various accessories which were apparently their tools in prosecuting the war against shady biatches and their shady ways. Inebriated and spiteful, at one point earlier in the evening Natasha had shimmied drunkenly over to Gemma March and said, "Watch out, Gemma. Tonight, we can hunt you!"
So far, the party was going well and Mariella was distinctly relieved that no-one had vomited. At her last party, Tangela had made the whole thing v. irritating by going projectile directly in the face of Mariella's elder brother, Hugo, who had understandably failed to see the funny side of being coated in lime vodka-scented throw-up. Adjusting her serpent-topped crown and glancing swiftly round the room, Mariella spotted no-one who seemed to be on a one-way ticket to Vom City.
In the Thompson family's large den, the drinks were flowing as freely as the gossip and the two shady bitch hunters, Natasha and Lavinia, were perched on a comfy blue ottoman, when Mariella sat down to join them. They were part of a larger group which included three members of the upper sixth popular clique, Sarah-Jane, Olivia-Grace and Louise, a few members of the First XV rugby squad and two members of the fifth year group - Imogen Dawson, currently snuggling up to her boyfriend, outside centre Stewart (dressed atrociously, Mariella thought, as some sort of demented version of d'Artagnan, Jack Sparrow or a 17th century hobo) and Cameron Matthews. Holding court with his rowdy banter was Peter Sullivan, a six-foot fifth year rugby player who, at some point in their lives, most girls in senior school seemed to have had a reluctant rite-of-passage crush on. Conversation had turned to Nicola Porter, a once-pretty fifth year who had since tried to transform herself into an easy-going sex symbol and had thus earned for herself the undying hatred of every popular girl at Mount Olivet. Mariella, who considered Nicola to be a boy-crazy desperado with bad hair and fat thighs, had banned her from ever coming within a five mile radius of one of her parties after Nicola had shamelessly flirted with Mariella's then-boyfriend, Richard Murland, at the Helen's Bay Country Club Young Members' annual mixer back in July.
"There are so many people who don't think Nicola's that hot," Peter continued, "but I think she's amazing. That girl is so sexy."
Mariella pursed her lips in an unimpressed fashion and shared a look with Lavinia, who hated Nicola with equal intensity but with far less reason. Natasha Jenkins shrugged disinterestedly but Imogen, who agreed with Mariella and Lavinia, was not prepared to let any compliment to Nicola go unchallenged. "Oh Peter, come on," she sighed. "She's not good-looking at all. She's so pathetically desperate for any kind of male attention that boys think she's attractive because, let's face it, boys are stupid and can never tell who's really pretty anyway." Mariella, Lavinia and Louise Mahaffy nodded enthusiastically.
Stewart wrapped his arm around Imogen's shoulder and agreed. "Yeah, dude. I don't think Nicola's that good-looking at all. She looks pretty slutty, to be honest."
Looking around for another boy to back him up, Peter turned to Cameron: "Cameron, mate, back me up on this one."
"Nicola Porter: hot, right?"
Cameron nodded obediently. "Oh yeah, no, definitely. She's really fit."
Out of the corner of her eye, Imogen saw the upper sixth girls exchange silken, poisonous glances at Cameron's statement. Their eyes were practically sparkling with vindictive amusement and even Mariella could be seen to hang her head for a moment in order to hide the mean-spirited smile that had very briefly lit-up her face. Imogen's suspicions were further inflamed a few seconds later when Olivia-Grace, Louise and Sarah-Jane got out of their seats.
"Bathroom," Louise explained, with an insincere and unconvincing smile.
The first-floor bathroom had already transformed itself into the power-nexus of the party, with Emily Rhys standing in front of the large mirror, back-combing her hair, whilst the lower sixth queen-bee Anastasia stood behind her, touching up her lip-gloss, with her faithful sidekick, Tangela, perched on the edge of the bath, scrawling through her i-Phone, complaining how there was too much grey and not enough green in her exchange with her current love interest.
"Like, hello and stuff," beamed Sarah-Jane, as she entered with her two friends.
"Oh my God," Olivia-Grace sighed, as she extracted hairspray from her bag, "you will literally not believe what we just witnessed downstairs."
"What?" asked Anastasia, with only the mildest of interest.
Shimmying up to the mirror, Olivia-Grace nodded at Sarah-Jane. "Tell them, babes."
"Cameron Matthews is downstairs doing an Alistair Loughlin."
"Oh my God. Of course he is. That's so cringe!" sighed Emily, who failed to move her eyes away from her reflection as she said it.
"I know, right?"
"Who's Alistair Loughlin?" asked Tangela. Anastasia bit the inside of her lip and struggled with not hating Tangela for her unending stupidity.
"He was this guy in the year above our year," explained Louise Mahaffy. "Total gay. Like, total. Everyone knew. Like, they just knew. Not that he was really camp or anything, but like somehow we just, like, knew. You know?"
"Yeah, and like, the way he spoke to girls was like so inappropriate like faux-macho-aggressive sometimes. Like so weirdly explicit, you know? And then, sometimes his friends were like, seriously, Alistair, stop! Like, the lads told him he was being an inappropriate creepzilla?"
"I know. And it's not like the guys he was friends with were like homophobes or Nazis or anything. I mean, one of the guys who told us about it, Christopher Guess, his big brother's gay and so he obviously, like, wasn't being a douche about it or anything. Like, what Christopher said to us was that it wasn't a problem that Alistair was gay, because like, I mean, whatever. But it's because he is gay, but insists he isn't. That's what makes him weird and creepy and stuff."
"That is such a good point," said Tangela, as she finished sending a text to Mariella, Natasha and Lavinia, telling them that she would have scandal for them about Cameron Matthews in five minutes' time. "Was Alistair popular, then?"
"Yeah, he was," said Olivia-Grace, slowly. "Although it's hard to remember how popular he was before he got so weird."
"He even had girlfriends and stuff," added Emily. "And they were quite pretty. ... Some of them... But it was all the guys who were like, when you know Alistair there's just something about him that, after a while, makes you think - okay, no stereotypes, no obvious mannerisms, whatever - but somehow, this kid is gay. And when any of them tried to talk to him about it, he became like super-aggressive, super-hostile, super-weird. So, eventually, everyone was like, eugh, why are we bothering to deal with this awkwardness and weirdness? It just became so annoying and so repetitive and so dumb. So, we kind of suggested that they should maybe shun him a little as a punishment and so did Allegra."
"Huntingdon-Bass?" asked Tangela, referring to last year's radiantly beautiful and spectacularly vicious queen-bee who, despite seven years of constant partying in high school, had inexplicably turned out to be a secret genius who had gone on to study Law at UCL.
"Yes," Anastasia answered, tersely. How many other Allegras do you know, Tangela? she thought irritably.
"I think shunning him if he got that annoying was totally fair," smiled Tangela.
"It so was!" agreed Emily, who had been one of the most casually vindictive of all the girls in her attitude to Alistair Loughlin. "Because once Alistair picked up on the fact that everyone thought he was gay, he became so much worse. Literally, any time he found out that someone thought he was, he would totally psyche at them and not speak to them for, like, weeks at a time. Plus, he kept working into conversation that he was straight. Like, I'm sorry, but I don't feel the need to remind people I'm hetero at random intervals, you know? So, if you are straight, why are you doing this Alistair? Like, why?"
Feeling that Emily was about to start on a fifteen-minute rant about how irritating Alistair had been, Sarah-Jane stepped in to guide the conversation back to Cameron. "True story. So, Alistair was always saying things like 'Oh, she's so hot.' 'She's so fit.' 'She's so sexy.' Anytime a marginally attractive girl was so much as even mentioned around him. And we were staring at him and were so embarrassed for his shady, desperate life." She looked round the bathroom for support for this statement from her friends, all of whom dutifully nodded even though they had never felt nothing but amusement for Alistair's plight. "And anyway," Sarah-Jane continued, sweeping an unruly strand of hairspray-coated black hair back into place, "just now, Cameron Matthews totally did the same thing. He was talking to that really hot yet slightly pervy guy, Patrick..."
"Peter," corrected Louise.
"Peter Sullivan?" Tangela asked. Her lip began quivering at the mention of Peter, who had dumped her three weeks before the start of term. Before Tangela could start crying again, Anastasia shot her a cold look, warning her to shut up and remain dignified.
"Right. Peter, sorry," said Sarah-Jane, who had never sounded less sorry about anything in her life, "was talking about some fugly slut C-lister in their year, with weirdly massive boobs and..."
"Nicola Porter?" asked Anastasia, rolling her eyes in disgust.
"Yeah, her. And Stewart Lawrence said he thought she looked like a tramp and Peter kept saying she was hot and asked Cameron to back him up, so Cameron did and sounded so like Alistair when he did it and we were all just like: ehm, time for a secret bathroom conference, much?"
"Obviously," nodded Anastasia, who liked Cameron but didn't feel that constituted a sufficient reason to stop someone gossiping about him.
"It was so cringe. Like, I cringed for Cameron's life when he said that," laughed Olivia-Grace.
"What happened to that Alistair guy in the end, then?" asked Tangela.
"I think he's at university in Scotland now or something, but like he graduated with hardly any real friends left and no-one in his year really speaks to him anymore. I mean, if you want to stay hiding in the closet, after a while people are going to leave you in there to do it on your own."
"Do you really think Cameron Matthews is properly gay, though?"
Five heads snapped in Tangela's direction, each one looking shocked and incredulous. Except Anastasia, who looked once again irked by Tangela's wanton idiocy. "Are you serious?" Olivia-Grace asked, rudely. "Tangela, wake-up! He's like Homo Central. Like there are same-sex marriages less gay than Cameron Matthews. Come on, Tangela! Be serious."
Dabbing a touch more colour on to her lips, Sarah-Jane stood next to Emily and Anastasia in the mirror. "I'm telling you this now, though, ladies: I really hope Meredith hurries up and gets Cameron to sort his life out before he ends up getting demoted like La Loughlin. That would be super-sad. For him."
From the bathroom door, Olivia-Grace tutted. "I am so over the age of the fauxmosexual. Closeted guys just annoy me so much. They make life irritating for everybody else."
"You're so right, babes. And BTW - fauxmosexual is about to become my new favezies word, ever," nodded Sarah-Jane, fishing her phone out of her bag. "Seriously. Meredith Harper needs to sort that boy out. Or kick him out."