It’s already the second week of term when Natasha, the daughter of a Russian oligarch, arrives at a vast English country house for her first day of boarding school. She soon discovers that the headmaster gives special treatment to the skinniest girls, and Tash finds herself thrown into the school’s unfamiliar, moneyed world of fierce pecking orders, eating disorders, and Instagram angst.
The halls echo with the story of Princess Augusta, the White Lady whose portraits—featuring a hypnotizing black diamond—hang everywhere and whose ghost is said to haunt the dorms. It’s said that she fell in love with a commoner and drowned herself in the lake. But the girls don’t really know anything about the woman she was, much less anything about one another. When Tash’s friend Bianca mysteriously vanishes, the routines of the school seem darker and more alien than ever before.
Tash must try to stay alive—and sane—while she uncovers what’s really going on. Hilariously dark, Scarlett Thomas’ Oligarchy is The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie for the digital age, exploring youth, power, and privilege—available now from Counterpoint Press.
She starts two weeks into term, on the wrong day, when everyone else in her class has been at the school for four years. Her plane lands on a rainy evening and while other people close their eyes during the turbulence she presses her face to the small window and sees London. London! Its smeared varicose veins below pulse with moneyed fluorescence. She is not afraid of turbulence because her father would never let anything happen to her, because he understands the fluorescence, and he is almighty.
In the car that takes her to Kings Cross, the driver, a shrivelled man with a baseball cap and a deep voice, starts talking. They are in some kind of underpass which looks as if it might go on forever and then doesn’t. None of the vehicles are moving. It’s all so clogged. Atherosclerotic. A heart attack waiting to happen. A—
‘Yeah, I got a Zombie Slayer,’ he says, slow and sonorous. ‘It’s a large knife, like a machete with a serrated edge. I got it with me now, if you want to see it.’
Some fight-or-flight hormone—whatever you call it in English, the thing that makes you fat if you don’t act on it—begins to burn in her but then goes out like a match fizzing in the rain. He can’t really have just said that? But perhaps dying on a slick dark night in London would be interesting. Efficient. And she would not have to lose her virginity, or learn how to use eyelash curlers, or ever go home. Still, she tilts forward a little in her seat. Manages to swirl up a few more hormones. At the next red light, she could—
‘But I need you to know that I don’t want to kill anyone. That’s not why I carry a knife. But of course a lot of people who don’t mean to kill actually do, because once you’ve got a knife you can’t help it and…’
Yes; she could probably jump out. These doors are locked, right? But only so people outside can’t get in. She could leave any time she wanted, like in that film. But what about her massive suitcase? This road has no obvious pavement. How would she climb over the barrier? Is this how people actually die, worrying about silly details?
‘You need to understand that of all the young people caught up in this lifestyle, ninety per cent are coming from fatherless households.’
What? OK. Right. It’s not her cab driver talking; it’s the radio. A call-in programme about knife crime in the city, one of the reasons her mother did not want her to come here. The useless chemicals in her body swirl like flower petals and then sink into the mysterious darkness of her insides, along with the Diet Coke she had on the plane, and the half lemon, and the one vegan salted caramel chocolate that she hates herself for right now, even though she threw the rest of the box away.
On the train north she worries about being raped by the unshaven man sitting opposite her. Why is he even in the first-class carriage at all? She has a large Americano that she bought from the English coffee kiosk on the platform at Kings Cross. When he goes to the buffet she puts one of her long, dark-honey hairs on it, so she’ll know if he’s tampered with it when she goes to the toilet. But when she comes back the whole cup is gone, and there’s an East Coast Train employee limping up the carriage with a large fluorescent bag that is not full of money.
Her name is Natalya but at home they call her Natasha, she explains. Like in War and Peace. Or Tash, which is more English, apparently. Her thighs are massive. The French girl in her dorm, Tiffanie, is demonstrating how, if you stand up straight with your legs together, you should be able to see three diamonds: ankle to calf; calf to knee; and then between your thighs. She says much of this in French, which no one seems to mind. Your thighs should not touch each other anywhere, not even if you were born like that. Everyone tries it, apart from Bianca, who is absurdly spindly and has more diamonds than you are supposed to have anyway. Tash has the right proportions, although her thighs are still massive. They are nowhere near as big as Rachel’s, though. Rachel is huge and doughy, with an enormous Roman nose and a fuscous moustache that she has to wax. And then there is Lissa, who is sort of greasy all over, like she has been smeared with butter.
Natasha does not yet know her way around the school, a vast country house with attics and turrets and ghosts. It is on the edge of a village that has a church, a shop and a phone box that now functions as a miniature library with books that smell of drunk boys’ piss. The school’s main staircase is haunted by the White Lady, whose portrait hangs there, and student WiFi is only on for an hour a day, between six and seven. How are you supposed to do anything with only an hour a day of WiFi? The girls compose emails offline and then hit send in a wild stampede at six o’clock that sometimes crashes the WiFi and ruins everything for everyone.
They—the boarders, the imprisoned—are perhaps the only people left in the country who are so antiquated that they still use email, but there is no other choice. After the stampede they spend the rest of their hour downloading music, and streaming like crazy. You can’t get Instagram or Snapchat offline, but there are two or three celebrities whose feeds and stories are compulsory, to whose lives an hour a day of access is not enough. The girls are not allowed on YouTube because they are too precious. They are not allowed to upload anything, ever, because their lives are still little foil-wrapped secrets. They hear of new platforms and apps, but what are you supposed to do when you are locked up in this place with its wood panels, heavy curtains, dangerous tasselled rugs, BO and acne? Who needs group chat when you are a group that chats anyway, like IRL, like literally all the time, even in bed?
Danielle lives in the village. She spends every evening in the Year 11 common room half in the IRL group-chat and half creating capsule wardrobes on Pinterest for holidays she will never go on, to Abu Dhabi and Kenya. She goes home just before it gets dark. Tonight, in the bad corner of the common room by the ancient CD player and the old beanbags with the period stains, Lissa manages to get a search result on antique erotica, despite the ‘parental’ controls. For some reason the only images that make it through are of big-arsed women with enormous dark bushes, which Donya says will turn them all lesbian, which means wearing horrible boots with laces and driving your own car. There are no penises. Tits everywhere, of course. Strange stomachs that must be over 35 per cent fat. Skeletons, for some reason, looming. Fainting couches. Bianca is like a looming skeleton herself. She leans over like a damp paper straw and types something into Lissa’s iPad and lo there are some cocks, although one looks like a carrot and the other is on a boy who looks about twelve. They are line drawings, not photographs. Woodcuts, FFS.
Tiffanie gets out a Sherbet Fountain, which she calls a ‘dib-dob’. She eats all the sherbet and saves the liquorice stick to hide in Donya’s bed. Later, while trying to remove some of the grease from her forehead with a cotton wool ball, Lissa whispers to Tash that Bianca has secretly joined a Pro Ana WhatsApp group and spends all her time in the loos puking, which is why she has such bad breath. She adds that Bianca also does not TePe daily. Outside the windows is a dark silence, the dark silence of English villages in autumn, the barest sound of leaves fluttering to the ground and the last wasps sucking out the insides of the last plums, and mysteries in the depths beyond the gloom.
These two dorms are stuck together out of the way, in one of the old turrets. They have sloping ceilings and shiny wooden wardrobes with little brass keys. Tiffanie, Lissa and Natasha are in one; Donya, Rachel and Bianca are in the other. It’s as if they were put here for some deliberate reason, to make them feel different from everyone else: to make them go bad. Then again, things stored carefully in dark remote places are not supposed to go bad, are they? Like apples; and potatoes, which are apples of the ground, according to Tiffanie.
Before lights-out, Rachel has a bath, and then offers Natasha the used bath water. Is that what they do here? Should she accept to be polite? But she has never done that. She is not polite, not any more. And just imagine what there would be in someone else’s bath water. Pubes. Microbes. Bits of fuscous moustache. So gross.
‘No thanks,’ she says. Rachel smiles. Natasha has passed the test. Tiffanie has Marlboro Lights hidden in the top of Donya’s wardrobe, foreign ones without pictures of desperate old people’s black lungs and missing toes. Does Tash want to go to the woods with them tomorrow? She does. It’s damp and mossy and English, English, so fucking English. But the smoke reminds her of her father, and home. It tastes how he smells. She remembers his aftershave, and the haze of his big cars with the leather interiors, and the way he loves her more than he ever loved her mother, or his last wife. He loves her more because she is his own flesh and cannot ever betray him. Because she is new. And because she is thinner.
Horse-riding is on Sunday morning, after church, a blur of girls in green felt capes and the death-ray stares of villagers who hate them. In the dorm Natasha’s thighs look like prize-winning hams in her pale jodhpurs. She has to stand on her single bed to look in the wood-framed mirror on the wall and she notices then how her fat wobbles. She has never seen her fat wobble before. She is thinner than her mother but her fat still wobbles. Is it because she is standing on a bed? But everything looks wrong here in the strange low light filtered through ancient dust and history that is different from home.
The stables are also different from the ones at home. The horsesmell is the same, but here everything is done by red-faced village girls who work in return for free rides at the end of the day. They talk all the time about the rich girls who own the horses but never ride them. They look at the girls from the school with bafflement and pity. First of all, because they are rich but don’t even own horses. They have to come here and ride tired old Min and moody Lucky and restless Pablo, who has that mad look in his eyes. They can only ride once a week! No one trusts them with anything, and they aren’t even allowed to tack up.
Natasha is given Pablo, possibly as some kind of prank, but she controls him easily. She knows how to talk to animals so only they can hear. To Pablo she says things like: I know how you must feel, because you were expensive once and now you’ve gone a bit crazy and no one cares about you except for a lot of stable girls with bad clothes and fat mothers. And he understands that they are the same, that maybe she too has been sent to this place to die, and so he canters for her in a way he won’t for anyone else and everyone is impressed but Tash just shrugs. She still doesn’t know why she was sent here, to this remote, dowdy place. There is cheap, watery hot chocolate afterwards, and village boys, of course; village boys are everywhere. It’s just that no one ever sees them.
Excerpted from Oligarchy, copyright © 2019 by Scarlett Thomas. Reprinted by permission of Counterpoint Press.