Title: The Red Beret
Disclaimer: Hex and all characters are the property of Shine Group and Sky One.
Character Focus: Cassie Hughes, Thelma Bates
Summary: On the night before Thelma's funeral, Cassie is still wondering what she should wear.
Context: Set before and during the first episode of season one.
On the night before Thelma's funeral, Cassie is alone in their room, still wondering what she should wear.
It should be a simple decision – after all, it's not as if there are many shades of black to choose from. But it's the impression it creates that complicates things, and it's always the impression she's worried most about; from the expensively sexy dress she squeezed into for Leon's party, right back to the Grateful Dead t-shirt she wore on her first day at school, the one that has since ended up as a tattered rag she uses to wipe her paintbrushes on.
"As if anyone would be grateful to be dead," Thelma had said, scornfully, once.
But the t-shirt and, later, the dress, had just been costumes. Ones Roxanne and her friends, with their pitiless X-ray vision, had seen straight through: as aware as she was that it was all an act, however many back-handed compliments they showered her with for it. Which was definitely not the impression she was going for. She'd wanted to wow them, have them welcome her into the inner circle and be amazed at how seamlessly she fitted there, as if she'd never been on the outside at all.
She'd wanted to pretend she was something she wasn't. Hoping if she pretended for long enough – she might even become it.
The hardest lesson Cassie had learned in those early days at Medenham wasn't in any of the classes on the timetable. It was that she could never hope to live up to Roxanne and her self-imposed standards, her ever-changing definitions of cool. So she'd stuck instead to classics that would never date, or make her uncomfortable, the way her cliquey classmates would if she wore the wrong thing.
Jeans and jumpers. Corduroy and cardigans. Shirts and skirts, never too far above the knee, never too tight, never too see-through. She became an expert at playing it safe, never daring to stand out or make any statements that might alienate her more than she'd managed to alienate herself already.
It's a funeral tomorrow, not a fashion show. But what she wears matters, and it's not just because Roxanne might hand around spiteful notes marking it out of ten, or because if she goes too far she'll look less like the best friend and more like the bereaved widow.
It's because it had mattered to Thelma.
Out shopping with Thelma, she sees the beret, pillar-box red, sitting on a stand seductively. Thelma never plays it safe. She likes making statements. And so she steers Cassie over and encourages her to try it on, ignoring her protests that it's much too bright, that red is Thelma's colour and not hers.
She does try it on, and it fits like a glove. Thelma whistles approvingly.
"Ooh la la..."
"I look like a matchstick," Cassie complains, knowing perfectly well she doesn't.
"How can you be a proper artist without a beret?" Thelma counters, admiring a brashly patterned woollen one with a white pompom stitched to it.
Cassie glances at a nearby mirror and thinks how nice it looks.
She wonders if Roxanne would think it looked nice.
"Thanks," she says, "but I think I'll stick to my smock."
She puts it back, pausing to finger the rich fabric before walking away. Thelma lingers by the hat stand and then follows, making one last bid on the beret's behalf.
"It's very French – very sexy..."
"I'm not French. Or sexy."
She looks back at Thelma, tossing her hair over her shoulder, expecting her to deny it.
Thelma says nothing.
It's the colour of valentines, of danger – of, Cassie thinks with a shudder, blood.
Images rush through her head like a rainstorm. Thelma, disappearing into the darkness of the night. Tied to the chair while Azazeal lurked in shadow behind. Stumbling as the knife skewered through her. Curled up in Cassie's arms, as if she'd fallen asleep there.
Being lifted from the depths of the lake, water washing down skin as pale as that of a porcelain doll.
She doesn't remember any blood. Which is strange: because her clothes, her hands, should have been covered in it.
She holds up her palms, examining them for faint traces of scarlet, but however closely she looks, the only colour there is the spidery purple of capillaries. Rubbing absently at them, she reminds herself that if it wasn't for her, Thelma would still be here. Instead she's lying blue-lipped and alone in a coffin, in the frilly outfit her parents picked out that Cassie is sure she would have hated.
Even the eulogy won't be quite right. It will be a tissue of lies, of things that should have been true but weren't: how inspirational Thelma was, what a shining example she set, how much everyone admired her. It won't be about Thelma. It will be nothing like her, because she was always honest, to the point of being tactless, and never once tried to pretend she was anything she wasn't.
Cassie can't influence what is said, and she can't change the people that will hear it, but she thinks there must be something she can wear or do to make the funeral more fitting.
It needs something.
It needs, she decides, on her way out of the door, a splash of colour.
"Black is definitely your colour," Roxanne tells Gemma as Cassie listens in from outside the open doorway. She feels more drawn than ever to Roxanne now, partly because she has nothing else to do and no one else to talk to; mainly because she envies the close circle of friends Roxanne is still lucky enough to have.
The gang are going to the funeral too, and even if it's just to make up the numbers, even if it's to give them a legitimate excuse to rubberneck, it gives them all a bond they've never had before. Despite everything she knows about them, the lack of regard they had for Thelma as anything except a figure of fun, Cassie thinks they might feel it too.
But as soon as she sees them she knows they don't. There is no sign that they feel anything at all, and even if they did, they are too conscious of appearance to ever admit to it. The bedroom – the boys', as usual, because Roxanne is too regal to share her own space – looks like a jumble sale, clothes piled on the beds in a messy mix of muted shades. Music is blaring out in the background, and Troy and Leon are huddled in a corner playing high-pitched video games, discreetly averting their eyes from the pouting and posing that's going on behind them.
She supposes they've seen it all before. Troy definitely has, in Gemma's case at least, and a white-hot jealousy slices through her at the thought of it.
"You don't think it makes me look washed out?"
"Oh, no. It's very slimming," Roxanne promises, combining a compliment with a dig at the thing Gemma is most sensitive about: the size of her waistline. She's paranoid about puppy fat, petrified that if the pounds pile on, Troy's attentions might start to wander. She can only look on at the chiselled figure Roxanne flaunts in the flimsiest of clothes, in the most inappropriate of places, no hint at all that it takes any effort to maintain.
With the cool clarity of loss, Cassie realises that her envy of Roxanne is misplaced: because nothing about the relationships she has with Gemma, with Troy, with Leon, is real. It's all a power play, all about petty games and scoring points. It's nothing like what she had with Thelma.
She will never again have what she had with Thelma.
Roxanne puts the people who are supposed to be her friends in their places, the same way she does the people who aren't her friends. The only difference is, her friends don't realise it.
As Cassie walks away, unnoticed, Gemma makes a feeble excuse and dashes off to the bathroom to bring back up her dinner.
Thelma was always eating. But it's not as if Cassie can start chomping away in the middle of the ceremony, or if anyone would recognise it as homage to her ever-hungry roommate even if she did.
Restlessly roaming the corridors, she thinks about the contents of her wardrobe, and wishes she had something of Thelma's to wear: even that awful crimson corsage she'd had pinned to her collar when she died. But her parents have already packed up her things and whisked them away. They'd be horrified if she asked them, she realises. They'd hate it, because it would make her friendship with Thelma look like something it wasn't. They still want to pretend their daughter was something she wasn't.
She's in no hurry to get back to their room. Her room, which seems bare and empty now, even with her artwork on the walls. But it's all that's left on them: except for a couple Cassie rescued by pretending they were hers, Thelma's parents have even taken down her posters.
They were just pictures, she thinks.
They were proud, defiant symbols, she knows.
And because of that, they were the first things to go.
She wonders what it is they're going to do with Thelma's belongings, with her clothes, and pictures them languishing, unloved, in some cobwebbed corner of a charity shop no one ever visits.
She can't imagine anyone wearing them but Thelma.
"You can tell a lot from the way someone dresses," Thelma informs her, scraping her teeth across a sugary pink lollipop. "It says things."
"Like what?" Cassie asks, suspecting this is a roundabout way of broaching the subject of how unadventurous she is – as if Thelma glowering disapprovingly at the background blue zip-up she's just bought wasn't evidence enough.
"Like...I don't know. Who you are."
"Did you get that out of a fortune cookie?"
Thelma removes the lollipop from her mouth and squints at it. "I don't think it'd fit..."
"Alright," Cassie says with a sigh, saving Thelma the bother and skipping straight to the point. She stops in the middle of the street and turns to face her, plastic bags flapping as she stretches out her arms. "So who am I then?"
Thelma cocks her head exaggeratedly. She looks her up and down, appraising her clothes – admiring her curves? – and Cassie flushes a little under the scrutiny.
She still tips her hips to one side, a playful pose that makes the most of every attribute.
"At the moment? A cross between Miss Moneypenny and Miss Marple."
Cassie gasps, mock-offended. "I thought you liked the way I looked..."
"I do," Thelma says instantly.
"Well, that makes two of us then." She looks down at herself and frowns, wondering what's so wrong with a pencil skirt and matching sweater. "I'm not trying to make statements, Thelma. I'm just trying to..."
She trails off and doesn't finish, because she knows no amount of words will make Thelma understand. Thelma has never understood. She has a unique sense of style, and it typifies her refusal to conform. Nothing about her is normal, or average, or socially acceptable still in some ways, in some places: and she doesn't even care.
Cassie may long to shed the label of misfit – but Thelma wears it as a badge of honour.
"It's too expensive," she tells her, later on, over a cappuccino that Thelma is grumbling about, claiming to prefer cheap cider; although her face is alight with the thrill of them doing something so civilised together as taking a break from their shopping to sip coffee and scoff cake.
Shopping, she thinks: this is normal. It's what Roxanne does, what all women do.
And she feels suddenly uncomfortable, and wonders what Thelma might be reading into this trip that isn't really there.
"It's too expensive," Cassie repeats, refusing to buy the beret, even though she desperately wants it – and not just because Roxanne might make fun of her for it.
There's a subtext to all of Thelma's appeals for her to buy it, to give in to her innermost desires. It's a subtext she dallies with, toys with when it suits her – and shies away from at the same time.
She wants to change, because then Roxanne might like her. But she resents Thelma trying to change her, because she thinks she knows what it is she's trying to change her into. She ignores the little voice, deeply buried in the back of her mind, that suggests Thelma wouldn't be making the effort if she hadn't given her reason to believe it would pay off.
So she steers the conversation away from the beret, with the skill acquired from all those other awkward moments between them that she's manoeuvred her way out of. But still they end up on the subject of hats, laughing about how many of them she's got, joking that she's like the Queen, or maybe that man with the silly name who was on Big Brother the year after the lesbian nun.
"They keep me warm," she tells Thelma; who, as ever, thinks differently.
"They help you hide," she says, sadly.
"You might want to wear a hat tomorrow," Jo Watkins advises, an odd mix of motherly concern and teacherly clout, when they bump into each other on the dimly lit staircase.
She smiles at Cassie fondly, her eyes big brown wells, overflowing with concern. Cassie's eyes are dry, as they've been ever since the shock wore off, and she finds herself recoiling from the empathy that is flooding towards her. She wonders if this is what it's going to be like from now on: everyone being kind, considerate, tiptoeing around her as if she's wired to explode. Not sure what Thelma might have been to her – as if that is a measure of how sad she should be – and too timid to try to find out.
There is nothing normal about this kind of attention, and she curls her lip and decides she preferred being invisible.
Jo opens her mouth, seeming to want to say something more. But instead she falls back on logic.
"It's cold out there."
"It's cold in here," Cassie says curtly, hugging her arms across her chest, not sure whether she's talking about the building or the heart that feels hollow and frozen inside her.
Medenham Hall is too vast and too old to be heated properly, even by the modern pipework that snakes across it like a network of veins. So she snuggles up under extra blankets, trying to thaw the numbness, in the room that's now too big for its only occupant.
She looks over at Thelma's empty bed and wonders if there's really a heaven, since fallen angels have turned out to be real and there must be a place for them to have fallen from. And if there is, if Thelma is looking down on her from it and wishing with equal fervour that they hadn't wasted the last real conversation they'd had on an argument; wishing the last moments they'd had together had been ones to treasure, and not a nightmare Cassie is trying hard to forget.
It had seemed like a dream.
It still seems like a dream.
So far Azazeal has kept his distance. She finds her gaze drawn irresistibly to the lead-lined window: to the trees beyond, bathed in the ghostly glow of the moonlight. Something of him lingers there, a presence that's at once dangerous and inviting. But if he's there, if he's watching, he never allows her to see it.
He murdered her best friend, and she hates him for it, feels every cell in her body shaking with fury when she thinks of him. But a part of her longs to see him again, feels compelled to learn what lies behind the deep eyes that speak of so many sorrows. She knows he deserves whatever it is he's suffered. She should be glad he has suffered, the way he's making her suffer now.
But somehow she's not.
Alone in the dark, Cassie feels a presence in the room too, hears a whisper that's just too low, just too far away, to understand. Her skin prickling, she throws back the covers and sits up in bed trying to catch whatever it is that's there, just out of her vision, and just out of her reach.
She's not sure if it's a result of her grief, making her imagine things that aren't really there, or part of the strange powers she's discovered she has and still knows so little about; the ones she's taken to more easily, and with more abandon, than Thelma had felt comfortable with.
She's finally decided to stick with wearing black tomorrow, because it's the done thing, a mark of respect that no one can be offended by or read too much into. But she thinks a better mark of respect, one more personal, more true to Thelma, would be if she didn't use her powers again.
Except she likes using them too much to stop.
She thinks it would be a mark of respect too if she flees as far from Medenham, and from Azazeal, as she can.
Except he might follow her – and she's not so sure she wouldn't enjoy being chased.
Unable to sleep, she gets up and lays out her clothes for tomorrow with careful hands. Black trousers and top, black coat, a scarf that isn't black at all but is still dark enough to look respectable; the black felt hat she wears when winds bite and frost sparkles in the air.
"If you must wear a hat," Thelma says as they set off back to school and Cassie pulls a crocheted lilac skull cap out from her pocket and over her head, "at least buy the beret."
"I don't want the bloody beret."
"Well, I suppose if you'd rather walk around in a tea cosy..."
Cassie scowls at her and tugs it down further.
"It looked good. You can't say it didn't make you feel good..."
"I think it did more for you in that department than it did for me," Cassie snaps.
"That's not why I want you to buy it," Thelma says, evenly; and she is ashamed of herself for being conceited enough to think it might have been.
Thelma just shrugs, but Cassie can see in her eyes what she's too offended to say. That she wants her to buy something, to do something, to want something, because it's what she wants – and not because it will meet Roxanne's approval or, more likely, fly so low under her radar that it won't get any reaction at all.
But she has spent so long worrying about what the popular crowd will think that she is too scared to make the break.
"Anyway," she says, with an airy certainty she doesn't quite feel, "no one wears berets anymore."
"You mean Roxanne doesn't," Thelma mutters jealously.
"I don't care about Roxanne," she pretends.
Thelma says nothing.
After falling into a fitful sleep, fractured by distorted dreams of Thelma and of Azazeal, Cassie gets up the next morning and forces herself to get ready. Wisps of wintry sunlight filter through the window, but every movement is like wading through treacle: slow and deliberate, as if her limbs were encased in ice.
She twirls the black hat on one hand as she brushes her hair with the other, and recalls that she last wore it when she saw her mother. On one of the visits that are becoming ever rarer as the months go by and her ability to cope with them crumbles, in line with Lilith and her fading faculties.
It's a psychiatric hospital, but the patients that shuffle along the corridors, no signs of life in their vacant eyes, make it feel more like a funeral home.
That's unfair, because they can't help it, and her mother can't help it either. But then there's nothing fair about any of it. Lilith might not be dead, but she barely qualifies as alive; all that remains of her is a shell of what was. In some ways Cassie has been mourning her since the day her illness first manifested itself, and she's lived with it for so long now she's no longer sure when exactly that day was.
She's lost her, just as she's lost Thelma. They've abandoned her, the same way her father has. They have left her all by herself in a world that only notices she's still in it when it's wondering which way she swings.
Thelma's death invited a variety of different reactions. David Tyrel danced around the details, called it 'the unfortunate incident'. Leon gossiped about kinky lesbian sex games and tried to persuade Roxanne and Gemma to reconstruct them, while Troy tried to persuade him to give it a rest for a while. Jo wrote a tame but touching tribute for a special assembly, and struggled to read it out because her voice was shaking so much.
Cassie hid in her room, staring out at the trees, and said nothing at all.
As a result, rumours – about how Thelma died, about how she's reacting to it – are swirling across the school like a toxic mist.
Have you heard?
Cassie's upset because she's lost her roommate...
Cassie's upset because she's lost her best friend...
Cassie's upset because she's lost her lesbian lover...
Cassie's upset because she's lost the woman she loves...
Thelma had been upset: and hurt, and angry. And now she was dead, dead, dead – and all because of Cassie, who'd known full well she loved her, but couldn't love her back.
Or couldn't admit to it?
"So it must be love," Azazeal had said, and maybe he was right. She had tilted her chin in that dark cellar, felt the cold curve of that blade against her neck and declared that she was willing to die for Thelma, the same way Thelma had ended up dying for her – and she'd meant it. And if that wasn't love...what was?
But it's too little, too late. And even if it wasn't: it wouldn't have changed anything.
Because Thelma had wanted a different kind of love to the one Cassie was prepared to give.
She stares at herself in the mirror and silently admits what she would never have dreamed of admitting to Thelma, what she would never have admitted to herself without the grief to guide her: that she had enjoyed having control, even if there hadn't been a conscious attempt to take it. She'd known exactly how Thelma felt about her, and while sometimes it had made her uncomfortable, made her stop to wonder what signals she was giving off in return, most of the time she'd revelled in it: this proof of her attractiveness, of her worth, that she wasn't getting from anyone else.
Cassie had played with Thelma's hopes. She had scattered their conversations with careless innuendo. She had flirted with her, because it was fun, and because there was no risk of rejection like there would have been if it was Troy she was trading the teasing banter with.
She had taken her for granted; never imagining that soon she would be gone.
Selfish Thelma, she rages, hating her for throwing a tantrum, going off and getting herself killed, just because she couldn't have what she wanted.
Manipulative Cassie, she remembers, hating herself for dangling in front of her, so enticingly, the prospect that she might get it.
She drags the brush with ruthless strokes through the rest of her hair, too lost in the tumult of her thoughts to register any pain.
Have you heard?
Thelma stabbed herself and fell into the lake...
Thelma stabbed herself and jumped into the lake...
It was a cry for attention...
It was a lovers' quarrel...
It was Cassie who killed her...
"You look like you've got a dead animal on your head," Leon tells Roxanne as she preens in front of the mirror, all Babushkan beauty, perfecting the look with a glitzy earring and glossy lipstick. Troy sniggers as he buttons up his black jacket nearby, and the sound is like a dagger to Cassie's heart as she pauses outside, en route to the bathroom. It cuts her to the quick to see him: the Adonis she's adored from afar, surrounded by his shallow friends, as oblivious to the occasion as they seem to be.
"You look like an undertaker," Roxanne retorts.
Troy and Leon guffaw, considering this a below-par putdown in the circumstances. As they high-five each other to celebrate the victory, Roxanne's pretty face twists into an ugly scowl.
"It's not real fur," Gemma says patronisingly.
"God, no," Roxanne assures her, eyes wide with fake sincerity.
Leon breaks off from flicking two fingers at Gemma to recall that some people get off on having sex with corpses. He wonders what exactly that would feel like. Troy tells him he ought to try it some time and find out, since he can't seem to attract anyone who's still breathing.
Roxanne breaks into uproarious laughter. Leon slips on a smile to hide the flicker of hurt on his face, and laughs with her.
Then they all laugh together, proud of the pain they're inflicting on each other, and on everyone around them.
Out in the cold, Cassie just wants to cry. And as hot needles of water thunder down onto her in the shower, drowning out everything except her misery and her memories, her grief and her guilt; finally, endlessly, she does.
A few days later, Cassie comes back to her room on the verge of tears, fed up of being the butt of Roxanne and Leon's jokes when she's done nothing but try to please them. Fed up that she can't do anything right, because they make the rules, and they're ones that keep shifting under her like desert sands.
It's despair at that, and at her fledgling feelings for Troy – someone who will never notice her, and never prefer her to the spoiled princess stuck to him like a limpet – that makes her want to hide away for a while and shut it all out. She throws herself on her bed, intending to curl into a ball and make herself even more small and insignificant than she already is.
But as she flops down on the mattress she hits something; something that crinkles invitingly beneath her bare legs. And so she sits up and pulls it towards her: a tissue-wrapped package that she shakes and pokes and frowns at before finally tearing into it.
As she pulls out the beret, the door opens and Thelma walks in.
"Thank you," Cassie says, and smiles at her.
Thelma turns as red as the beret and mutters something about seeing it in the sale.
"Even if I had bought it," Cassie tells her, awkwardly attempting to explain, "I wouldn't have worn it."
She's about to add that Roxanne might not have liked it. But it seems so obvious, and suddenly so stupid, that she doesn't.
Thelma grins mischievously. "But now you'll have to. Because I'll be very offended if you don't."
"Wouldn't want that," Cassie agrees, furious with herself for being so cowardly, so eager to curry favour, that she needs an excuse – and desperately grateful to Thelma for giving it to her; for knowing, if never quite understanding.
So maybe Thelma doesn't want to change her after all. Maybe she is the only person who accepts her – unfashionable, unpopular, far too often unpleasant – just the way she is.
If only that was enough to stop her wanting to be something else entirely.
"Well," she says, holding up the beret so it blazes above her like a midsummer sun, "you're certainly going to see me coming in this."
Thelma beams delightedly at the prospect. "Just one condition, scarlet woman."
"There's a condition now?"
"I get to choose when you wear it. And..."
"Thelma, that's two conditions."
"...what you wear it with."
"And what's that?" Cassie asks, arching an eyebrow.
Thelma doesn't say 'nothing'.
But in the tradition of the tense line between friendship and desire that their relationship straddles, sometimes easily, sometimes not – they both know she's thinking it.
As the guests gather in the courtyard below her, Cassie fastens up her coat and stands in front of the long mirror by the window to check her appearance. She flicks flecks of dust off the fabric discontentedly, thinking that there's still something missing; a final touch that would enliven the ocean of boring black, brighten this day that is all about Thelma, and yet contains nothing of her.
As Jo raps on the door and calls out, ready to usher her downstairs, she picks up the black hat and slips it on, smoothing out her blonde hair beneath it.
Then she tosses it to the floor, goes over to her closet and removes the red beret instead. The beret both of them forgot about completely amidst the craziness of Cassie finding the Canari and having everything around her change forever. She never got the chance to wear it – will never get the chance to wear it the way it was intended, because Thelma is no longer around to lay down the law, and no longer able to appreciate the end result.
She tugs it on her head anyway, proudly, defiantly; and then turns and smiles at her reflection, enjoying it enough for both of them.
With her head held high and her body filled with warmth, she steps out of the room, and into whatever the day ahead might hold.