With butterflies in her tummy, she perched on the long, green bench by the boardroom door. When a tall lady in a blue suit called her name, she rose sedately, determined to face the grilling with aplomb.
“Miss Cornwell, your contract to appear on Dingbat is ready for signature. Before you can sign, however, we need to be convinced the rumours swirling around you are unfounded.”
Tall Lady paused and looked Kayleigh slowly up and down, then went straight for the jugular.
“Are you, or have you ever been, a thief?”
“Before I can answer…”
“Miss Cornwell, a simple yes or no is all that’s required.”
“So, when I was eight years old I had a special friend I stuck to like glue. Wherever Polly went, I went. Whatever Polly liked, I liked. If Polly had told me to prostrate myself at her feet, I would’ve. By the time I was nine, I was in the habit of doing her favours. But whatever I did, she always wanted a little bit more until, one hot Saturday afternoon, when we were hanging out in the park, Polly asked me to commit a crime.”
“Not a heinous crime. Just a little one. She wanted me to take some sweets from our local shop. Without paying, naturally. Of course I knew it was a very bad thing to do, but on the other hand it did seem quite easy when the prize would be to secure my position as Polly’s bestie.”
Kayleigh scrutinised the faces on the far side of the table. The men looked unimpressed. Prejudiced against her from the start, she thought. Probably misogynists.
“And did you steal? Did you become a thief?”
“Yes, I did. At first I was full of remorse, but in the weeks that followed, my attitude changed from shame to indifference. No matter how blatantly I took things, no-one noticed. Then one Friday afternoon we had a supply teacher who could only keep the class quiet by reading to us. The story that changed my life was about a girl who couldn’t stop taking objects that didn’t belong to her. When the word ‘kleptomaniac’ came up, the teacher gave us its full etymology, from kleptos meaning ‘thief’ and mania ‘compulsive’. As she explained it, I felt myself blushing – my neck, my cheeks, then my whole body. I was burning up and Polly noticed. That was the moment she had the idea to call me Kaleigh the Klepto. Within minutes, my new nickname went round the class and within days I was known throughout the school as Kaleigh the Klepto, or Klepto for short.”
Amid their chuckling, I hung my head and noticed, for the first time, a faded yellow line half away between my chair and the table. I calculated there was seven and a half feet from the line to Misogynist Number One. If I’d had my darts and he’d had a treble twenty tattooed on his forehead, I’d have stepped up to the oche and scored one hundred and eighty. Easy.
“Miss Cornwell, or should I say Klepto?” He waited for the smirking to die down. “Is there more to come, or are you finished?”
Before I could answer, there was a knock at the door and I turned to see a tea-trolley being wheeled in by a lady in a white bonnet and grimy pinny, who served the panel with tea and biscuits. Aware of my dry throat, I was pleased when she came to me too.
“I’ve been listening outside the door, duckie. I think you could do with this.”
“Thank you,” I said, taking a mug of tea and a ginger biscuit.
While I was draining my mug, Tall lady had got out her compact and was titivating herself. So I waited for her to finish, brushed the crumbs off my top and continued:
“Being known as Klepto at school was bad enough, but three weeks later, my situation got a hundred times worse. In bed with my phone, I saw, to my horror, that Polly had referred to me as Klepto on Facebook and already had fourteen likes and six comments. By lunchtime, there were photos of me on Instagram too, and it became more than I could bear. That night, I cut myself for the first time and had to spend two days in hospital. When I came home, my Mum took me on holiday till the last day of term, and six weeks later we moved away. My ordeal was over.”
“So let me summarise what you’ve told us.” It was Tall Lady again. “You’re attempting to establish your innocence via a peculiar logic, which goes:
I was bullied at school.
I became a thief.
It wasn’t my fault.
I cannot be blamed.
But isn’t this a bit facile, Miss Cornwell? Lots of people are bullied without becoming criminals.”
“There’s more to my story.”
“Really? All right. Go on.”
“With no stigma at secondary school, I enjoyed life again. I never cut myself or stole anything and slowly the bad memories faded. Years later, for my eighteenth birthday, my Mum took me to see Hamilton at the Victoria Palace Theatre. I sat enthralled through the first half and was ready for a drink by the interval. Queueing at the bar, I took no notice of the person in front till she turned round with a tray full of drinks. It was Polly. Plumper than before, with dyed blond hair and straightened teeth, but undeniably, her. We said hello awkwardly and made our excuses. But the second half of the show was ruined. When the lights went up, we sat in our seats while the audience trooped out. I had to be sure there was distance between me and my nemesis. That night I dreamed Polly was bullying me again and when I checked my phone next morning, I discovered she’d posted on Facebook:
Hey girls, you’ll never guess who I ran into last night. Kayleigh Klepto! Remember her? The girl with the sticky fingers.
I hardly dared read the torrent of cruel comments that followed. Since my appearance on The Voice, everyone knows who I am – and now the whole world thinks I’m a criminal!”
“Is that it, Miss Cornwell?” said Tall Lady, wearily.
“Yes, I’ve told you what happened and why rumours about me have recently surfaced. Now, I’m begging you to give me a chance as a contestant on Dingbat. Doesn’t everyone deserve a second chance?”
Misogynist Number Two rose and said:
“Wait outside, Miss Cornwell. We’ll call you when we’re ready.”
Back on the green bench, I wondered if I had time to go to the loo. I didn’t – and a few moments later I was learning my fate as Tall Lady leant over the oak table and, without a word, passed me a document.
“Welcome to the Dingbat team, Kaleigh,” she said, “it’s good to have you aboard.”
Outside on the pavement, I could hardly believe it. What a zinger! I’d triumphed! They’d fallen for it, hook, line and sinker. Am I that good? Really?
Suddenly I realised I was famished.
“I could murder a Twix,” I thought, but I’d come out without my purse.
Just at that moment I was passing a newsagent.
“Mmm,” I wondered, “should I or shouldn’t I? Just once more won’t hurt.”