Chapter 4

Classmates
Chapter 4

 

‘Hi handsome,’ breathed the girl before me in the queue, batting brittly mascarad lashes and swooning against the wall to let a sixteen-year-old hunk pass by.  The poor lad blushed and virtually ran into the sixth form common room, leaving the girl and her pair of mates to giggle mercilessly at his discomfort.

I couldn’t help laughing too – an incredulous laugh.  Why was I not born brazen and daring, like my new friend Tina?  Most of us were as timid as rabbits on this, our first day at high school, but not her.  She started as she quite evidently meant to go on.

I had noticed this vision of bird’s nest hair and garish pout as we Capewell newcomers bustled into the lecture theatre at nine, where the headmaster, Mr Moss, divided us off into forms. 

I was glad to be allotted to Mr Spencer (nickname, predictably, Frank); I liked the look of this shy young art teacher.  ‘Frank’ was by far the youngest in a staff predominantly middle-aged, fond of dun corduroy and dreaming of retirement, and it is soberingly bizarre to think that my form tutor was in fact younger than I am now.

I was thankful to be in the same class as Nas and Karl, and harboured no envy for Felix and Gareth, assigned to the fearsome-looking Mrs Slattery – who, I was not delighted to hear, taught PE, my least favourite subject in the world ever.  Her new charges scuttled after her like particularly terrified lambs to a particularly brutal slaughter.

We Spencerites trooped to the art room which was to be our form’s home for the next five years, jostled en route by gigantic fourteen- and fifteen-year-olds, with their angry zits, skinny ties and sports bags the size of cars.  I had never felt so little and intimidated, and glued myself to Karl’s side for protection.  These upper-school giants jeered at our voluminous black blazers and unfeasibly neat blue jumpers – the branding that advertised us as first years.

Bird’s Nest and her cohorts, however, managed to sport their uniforms with a cool, Grange Hill air more befitting to the fourth year.  Whilst the rest of us tottered mutely, imbibing our convoluted surroundings, she strutted without care, alternately blowing huge strawberry gum bubbles and singing tuneless snatches of Five Star’s new single, Rain or Shine.

There was the usual scramble for tables, and then Mr Spencer called the register.  All but she trilled a courteous ‘Yes.’  Her response to the call of ‘Tina Skidmore’ was an impudent ‘Ar,’ the Black Country version of the affirmative.  Amid nervous snickers at her audacity, Tina basked in clearly familiar attention, and Frank’s grimace showed he knew full well he was in for nothing but trouble from this particular pupil.

Our timetables, dimly daisywheeled on to computer paper thinner than bog roll, announced English to be our first lesson in this new school.  Ah, my best subject.  A favourable omen.  So I thought.

Nasreen and I, tussled to the back of the crocodile, found ourselves losers in the great table scramble.

‘Oops, we seem to have run out of chairs,’ trilled Miss Joyce, a fun-looking muddle of zany waistcoat, cobalt eyeshadow and green-framed glasses, ‘would you two like to go and grab a couple of spare ones from the library.  It’s just down there – that’s it, my dears, down the corridor, turn left, by the sick room.’

Locating it was straightforward enough.  We slunk in, helped ourselves to a plastic chair apiece and slunk back out, ignoring the sardonic stares of the aged A-level students hunched over their Shakespeare texts.  At least the library’s compulsory hush precluded them shooting any teasing comments in our direction.

But the route back, like the homeward car journey after a holiday, looked completely different.  Somewhere in the web of corridors, we took the wrong junction.  Laden with our chairs, and thus looking tremendously silly and clumsy, we tramped the entire length of the second floor in our increasingly flustered quest for our class.

‘I’m sure it was this way,’ Nas said optimistically – and promptly steered us into a warren of science labs.  ‘Oh, Zo, we’re gonna get a right bollocking for this!’

‘Are you young ladies a little lost, perchance?’

The voice came from the doorway of one such laboratory – CHEMISTRY, according to the stencilled sign.  Its owner was all anarchic hair, white coat, fey smile and manic verve, like a camp version of Rik Mayall.

‘We’re looking for Miss Joyce’s room,’ I peeped, relief at encountering a teacher – albeit a wacky one – lending a helpless pitch to my already wobbly voice.

‘Then that’s this-a-way!’  He led us on a long-limbed stride to the arms – metaphorical ones – of our waiting English mistress.

‘A couple of your young scholars, who came adrift from the party, I fear – but now delivered safely unto you, Miss Joyce.’  And with that, ‘Rik’ bowed, in a fashion that was very in keeping with his peculiar, hey-nonnny-no vocabulary, and swept back on his way. 

‘Thank you, Mr Sullivan.  Don’t worry, girls.  It happens to us all on our first day.  This building must be at least twice the size of your old school.  At least you’ve got something to sit on now.  That’s it – if you park your chairs there, we can make a start.’

‘Yer saft buggers!’ Tina hissed at us, grinning.

I found myself grinning back, aflame though I was from both the exertion of heaving a chair through miles of maze, and the shame of having done something so pitifully first-yearish as get lost.  There was no explicit malice in her manner.  Nas and I were ‘the girls who got lost’ for the rest of term – but the tag didn’t irk me.  The girl was laughing with rather than at me at that stage.

I knew I was honoured to be so much as addressed by the great Tina Skidmore.  To go unnoticed by her altogether identified you as a Nobody.

******

Virtually every teacher – including such incongruous ones as maths and music – set us the classic icebreaker ‘write an essay about yourself’ task.  Miss Joyce at least lent a vaguely inventive slant to the idea.

‘I’d like you to each list five facts about yourself, and then read them out to the class.’

I don’t even remember my five – banal as they doubtlessly were: ‘I’m an only child’; ‘I like cooking’ – but distinctly recall that one of Tina’s was ‘I’m brilliant.’  And judging by her expression, which was just too self-satisfied to be ironic, she clearly believed it.  Cue more nervous laughter; more conjecture at what this funny, unpredictable daredevil would do next.

On that first day alone, Tina sat in the back row, swore, chewed gum in class, even wore make-up – all hallmarks of A Rebel.  And now, in the lunch queue, here she was flirting with a sixth form god, showing airy disregard for her lowly first year status.  No ‘big kids’ were ever going to dare push in front of her.

It is difficult to appreciate in this contemporary climate quite how outrageous Tina seemed to our callow sensibilities.  She would probably be deemed tame by today’s pubescents – if the harpies who eff and blind outside my local Dillons are anything to go by.  The pursuit of my Sunday paper has of late become an obstacle course through their upturned bikes, dog-ends and kohl-framed glares.

Stop me now, please, before I turn into my mother!  They say it’s a sign of growing old when you disgorge tirades of the ‘kids today…’ variety that so infuriated you when you were a kid.

Anyway, Tina paid for her chips, flourishing a fiver between fingers fettered with gaudy rings, and at last it was my turn at the hatch.  What a revelation – could this really be a school canteen?  The array of meals and snacks actually looked, well – nice.  And gorgeously stodge-drenched.

Accustomed to a primary school menu uniformly steak and kidney- and mash potato-based, the combination of a mouthwatering spread, and the knowledge I had a pound in my skirt pocket to purchase whichever bit of it I desired, was a heady one.

‘Beefburger and chips, please,’ I heard myself request, ‘and a piece of chocolate cornflake cake.’ 

Well of course I wasn’t going to opt for one of the limp and limited fruit or salad offerings that sagged against the jugs of beans.  I was only human after all.  Nowadays I’d go for the salad every time, but eleven-year-olds do not exactly worry themselves about eventualities like weight gain and heartburn.

We zigzagged through the swarming canteen to Karl and Felix’s table.

‘What d’you think of it so far then?’

‘S’all right.’

‘I bloody hate that Slattery,’ Felix whinged, ferociously stabbing the little straw into his blackcurrant juice carton, ‘why did I have to end up with her?  Our Gary told me she was a right old troll when he was here.’

‘Mr Spencer’s nice, though.’  I chomped back a hunk of burger.  ‘I think he looks like Phillip Schofield.’

‘Gordon the Gopher, more like!’ Karl chuckled.  He paused mid-chip, to stare at Tina’s triumvirate, cussing and belching on the next table.  He nodded subtly towards its peachy-faced, blonde member – Hayley Jasper, her name was.  ‘She’s not bad, though.’ 

I observed an extraordinary light in Karl’s ocean-green eyes, and my self-esteem promptly took a plummet through the floorboards.  The delectable fried junk I had been devouring with immense ease found its progress obstructed through a suddenly dry, lump-choked throat.

What was this all about then?  I’d really thought I was over this silliness.  No more shark-themed dreams had plagued my sleep since February – and I had put that one down to illness.  I’d been back to normal since my birthday.  Back to my old tree-climbing, tracksuit-wearing, Barbie-gunging self. 

But those disconcerting feelings I imagined were vanquished had been merely lying dormant, waiting for such a moment as this when, like blackheads, they might rudely surface.

I looked across at Hayley with hatred – but then at my ungainly reflection in the window behind her with even greater hatred.  It was small wonder, I thought with a sigh, that he preferred her – any boy would.  I was whey and goofy; she looked like one of those girls who always got picked to be carnival princess.

Hayley was the only beauty in the trio.  Her fellow Tina-worshipper, Jodie Glover, half concealed her malevolent smiles and eyes behind heavy, luggy hair and librarian-ish glasses, and Tina herself had presence rather than true good looks.

‘Hey, look who we’ve got next.’  Nas, uncrumpling her timetable, was nudging me out of my maudlin reverie.  ‘That Mr Sullivan, for science.’

‘No trouble finding your way this time, ladies?’ our rangy rescuer asked – predictably, perhaps, but not with the irksome sarcasm I learned to expect from certain other teachers.

‘Sully’ Sullivan was to become one of my favourites – even though I never achieved more than fair to middling results in his subject.  (Karl, on the other hand, was his star scholar.)  Sully was bonkers, there were no two ways about it, but got away with it because of the kindly, Willy Wonka quality he also possessed in vat-loads.  Sympathetic and witty, he was unique in enjoying almost universal hero-worship.

That reminds me: I actually bumped into Sully in Rackhams in Birmingham about three years ago.  He had lately retired but was as gangly and manic as ever, if somewhat balder.  We were both Christmas shopping: I for Neil; he for an unspecified somebody of unspecified gender – his debatable sexuality having been the subject of much wicked playground innuendo.

He remembered me, which was a flattering surprise after such a long time – but rather marred the effect by adding, ‘You were Karl Corbett’s pal, weren’t you?’

I must have answered ‘That’s right’ in a particularly taut, telling way, for he smoothly changed the subject and began bemoaning the price of Christmas cards.

I wished on that excruciating September afternoon in his lab that I could have changed subjects.  Even double PE would be preferable to this crash course in the features and functions of the Bunsen burner.

For though Sully’s humour elevated my spirits initially, I nose-dived back into wretchedness when he paired us off to boil a beaker of water.  Karl, to his undisguised delight, was partnered with Hayley.  It pained to watch him getting so famously along with the class princess while I was lumped with this awful dork called Simon Floyd, a pale, thin, intelligent, sensible boy who took the experiment priggishly seriously.

Poor Simon.  He ill deserved all these scathing adjectives, but then young girls are cruel, particularly to lads whom they consider more wet and square than a swimming pool.

I watched the water simmering away over the Bunsen, and knew how it felt – my emotions were similarly bubbling and raging in the beaker that was my body.  Hey, just call me Pyrex Girl!

******

I was soon acclimatised to Capewell life – though at some point since leaving Holly Lane I had progressed from quite liking school to considering it a necessary evil and living for the holidays. A reason could have been that while junior school was effectively a continuation of playtime, comp was a tough place; a microcosm of the so-called big, bad world.

I adored my bed and sullenly begrudged having to heave myself out of it on perishing mornings – especially perishing mornings when I had hockey first period.  When the Pink Panther blared to life at the cruel hour of eight o’clock (an hour I would be only too grateful to spend in bed nowadays), I rebelliously buried myself even deeper into the sandwich of sheets and fell back to sleep.  Mom nearly always had to wake me, with a swift shake that was greeted by growls of protest.

‘Come on, our Zo – you never used to be like this.’

After a cursory catlick (that’s Black Country for a hasty, lacklustre wash) I would sling my uniform on, devour my breakfast and be out the door.  With such inattention to my appearance, it was hardly extraordinary that no boys fancied me.

In raw weather, my huge anorak was scant armour as I tramped the short school route.  I used to imagine my body was outlined by a red halo like the kid in the Ready Brek commercial.  I knew I would never acquire such luminescence, though – I detested Ready Brek. 

I adored the weekends and holidays, when I would hibernate until mid-afternoon, and see daylight so rarely it was a wonder the effect did not transform me into a werewolf or something.

The school day tired me out more now, and my leisure time was condensed, which gave rise to many martyr-ish bleatings about my loss of freedom.  Evenings were taken up less with playing and more with that vile novelty, homework, or tasks such as covering my many textbooks with wrapping paper and posters.

School reports were another novelty.  My parents were now walloped with termly spiels from each teacher, appraising my effort and progress in their particular subject.  Elusive A grades earned me rewards – of the monetary or chocolate variety – and cheesy praise from Dad.

‘We’re that proud of you, bab,’ he would beam, squeezing my hand, ‘no-one in our family has ever got an A before.’

I cringed at the time, horribly self-conscious and gruffly unsentimental, but now hold dear these snapshots of unconditional parental love.  My marks, while respectable, were rarely stunning – but this mattered not to Dad.  He couldn’t have been any prouder if I was one of the class eggheads; the kids whose parents berated them if they ‘only’ managed a B.  My parents even clemently overlooked my vindictive string of Ds from Mrs Slattery, and celebrated my every small accomplishment.

The sporadic As I amassed were invariably for English and home economics – (save for one I scraped in art, when my pastel sketch of a Marathon – as they were then called, before all this ‘Snickers’ baloney – particularly impressed Frank).  I discovered a latent forte for writing, which the feisty Miss Joyce encouraged.  English at Holly Lane was all dry comprehension and tuition in how to use a dictionary, but she taught me to love words; to animate them.  I found a blissful escapism through whimsical stories.  One or two even showed up in the Capewell Journal.  I would read these school mags a thousand times, thrilling at the sight of my name in print.  Naïve little pieces though they may have been, it was a start. 

Under the exuberant tutelage of one Mrs Longman, I also blossomed in home economics (‘which used to be called cookery in my day,’ as Mom was annoyingly fond of tutting).  I adored the Wednesday ritual of stomping to school bearing a basket of ingredients and stomping back at half-past three with the same basket weighed down by the Taylor family’s tea.  Wednesday was the only day I gladly vacated my bed without maternal assistance.

Soups, risottos, coleslaws…all manner of lavish fare graced our kitchen table in consequent years – besides the plainer, Dad-pleasing dishes like apple crumble.

I have never lost the rewarding glow that comes from buying raw provisions and whisking them into something wonderful.  I pity the lazy workmates I have who claim to virtually survive on oven-ready crap.  I have had appalling experiences with frozen fish pies that required blowtorch treatment to heat evenly through.  When they were finally ready, I could smell and taste the E-numbers in every latexy mouthful.  Yuck!

Call me old-fashioned, but home cooking just does it for me every time!

My tone is strong here because I speak with familiarity of an overindulgence in processed food – which, for all my culinary leanings, I possessed an unhealthy love for at twelve.

School dinners and Mrs Longman’s lessons were my only motivations through the school week.  I dined in the canteen every day, eschewing Mom’s offers of packed lunches.  Who wanted egg and cress rolls when there were hot dogs and pizzas going begging?  Besides, it was more mature, I told her airily, to queue and purchase one’s own lunch.  Only the dweeby kids who nobody wanted to be like – the Simon Floyds of this world – sat nibbling on little crustless sandwiches and satsumas.

I was not so much a kid in a sweet shop as a kid in a chip shop.  Foods which once were luxuries were now daily available, and I hedonistically indulged.

The tummy briefly shrivelled by illness bulged again with cholesterol overload, my skin erupted into pimples and my boobs swelled to more fleshy, slatternly proportions than ever.

Defeated by gravity, and taunted by boys about my jiggling ‘melons,’ I finally bowed to the inevitable.

******

‘I need a bra, Granny.’

Granny Danks nodded knowingly.  It was the Easter holidays of 1987.  We were shopping together for the first time in months, our once weekly ritual having long lapsed like so many other childhood practices. 

Granny and her shopping trolley had by now defected from Dudley Market Place to the new Merry Hill Centre three miles away.  Merry Hill, built on land in Brierley Hill once occupied by a steelworks, mushroomed colossally over the ensuing decade – divesting Dudley of big-name retailers in the process.

I am old enough to remember the town boasting a Marks and Spencer, a Sainsbury’s, a BHS…and the outcry when they progressively shut down and relocated to Merry Hill.

In our teenage years, this vast mall became a hub where my friends and I would congregate with blasé regularity to spend our parents’ money, slurp fizzy drinks and partake in our new hobby, ‘chap-hunting’ – but in 1987 the place was still a mesmeric novelty.

My first visit was on this day with Granny Danks.  It was a treat, she said, ‘to tog yer out with some new clobber.’  I rather suspect Mom primed her as to my pathetic lack of clothes now that I was ‘getting a big girl’ – knowing full well I would never, as a matter of stubborn principle, sport any of the cutesy dresses and blouses Mom herself chose for me.

Granny, despite being a further generation removed, was more attuned to my fashion tastes (which still extended little further than jogging suits and leggings).  I accepted advice more graciously from Granny than from Mom, whose vain efforts to ‘dress me like a girl’ merely rubbed me up the wrong way.

Discussing undergarments with my mother – who had taken to teasing me about ‘turning into Samantha Fox’ – was far too squirmy to contemplate.  Granny’s approach was, in this as in everything else, swiftly practical.  No song and dance scenes or digs about Page Three wenches.  She merely guided me to the racks of training bras and watched from a diplomatic distance while I selected my first two sexless white boulder-holders.  They would match the thousands of identical, windsock-sized pants I possessed.

I put one on back at her house in Netherton.  My fingers shook as I wedged my pasty udders into the nylon cones and swivelled before the bathroom mirror.  Instead of lolloping in opposite directions as they usually did, they travelled with me, immobile in their scratchy harness.  They felt horribly tight and pulled in.  Ooh, I didn’t like this at all!

I then pulled on my sweater and was absolutely freaked by the mountainous, grown-up shape beneath it.  Those brazen projectiles seemed so poignantly, pervily incongruous with such a cosy, childish garment.  It was like dressing a teddy bear in suspenders, or seeing strippers on children’s BBC.  I detested the way I looked and felt in this nasty bra, and longed to tear it from my body and burst out sobbing…

‘Tea’s ready, love!’

But Granny’s friendly yell thwarted any such tantrum.  Awaiting me downstairs was the reassuring tableau of croquette potatoes on a formica table.  Granny tactfully made no mention of my distended chest (though she can’t have failed to notice it), but just switched on her museum-piece TV, like I was still eight.

‘That new Australian programme everyone’s raving about is on.’  She clouted the decrepit set, demisting the grainy screen enough to reveal a tender scene between a good-looking boy with shuttlecock-shaped hair and a pretty, dungaree-clad girl with a leonine perm.  ‘Her’s that wench with the funny name – Highly Sinogue, or summat.’

‘Oh right.’

‘How’s that young Karl these days?’ Granny, apropos of nothing, enquired.  ‘Haven’t seen him about lately.’

Nor have I, was the wounded rejoinder I bit back, loath to advertise just how sorely I missed his droll company, or how the mere mention of his name stung me in places I never knew were stingable.  I prayed that the blush I felt searing my face was not giving the game away entirely.

‘He’s OK,’ was all I said, in as light and evasive a tone as I was capable of.

Oh, Karl was more than OK, I was sure!

I wished I could blot out yesterday’s distressing call to the Corbett door.

Faye had taken an unfeasibly long time to answer the bell – and did so wearing an inside-out nightie, her titian perm witchily tousled.  A skinny youth sporting a footballer’s bouffant, presumably Dean the mechanic’s replacement, hovered behind her in Hong Kong Phooey boxer shorts.

‘No, Karl’s not in, love,’ Faye replied in a peculiar, languid sort of pant, ‘no-one’s here at the moment.’  (Well that was evident!)  ‘Karl said something about going round Hayley’s, helping her with her homework.’

‘Oh.  Right.  Tell him I called.  Won’t you?’

But the door was already clanking to, shutting me out of the adult world that lay beyond it.

I shambled blindly home, feeling like a hobnail boot-clad foot had just delivered a sharp kick to the area of my chest that housed my heart.  I had a mountain of homework myself – French verbs and a history essay on Dudley Castle – could I expect any help from Karl with that? I wondered. 

No chance, I thought rancorously, kicking away a pebble that had dared appear in my path.  He wasn’t interested in assisting his loyal, pudgy friends anymore.  One flash of baby blue eyes and svelte calves and he was off.

I only hoped his ideas about what ‘homework’ constituted were not quite the same as his sister’s.

******

Boys were lined up on one wall of the gym; girls on the other, cherryade cans clasped for protection against low-flying testosterone.  Gyrating lights cast rainbow streaks across the high ceiling.  Deflating balloons flopped around the doorframes.  Pork pie wedges and ham sandwiches drooped neglected on a trestle table. 

Yup, the Capewell summer disco was in full swing!

‘Let’s get boogying,’ Frank cluelessly encouraged from his corner alcove.  He was officiating as DJ – the only teacher young enough to avoid looking granddadishly laughable behind a turntable.  He was patently uncomfortable in the role, though – I’m sure he would rather have been tucked up with a mug of hot chocolate and Blackadder.

One or two girls were actually motivated enough to brave the dancefloor – but not Nasreen, Debbie and me, who tapped our toes self-consciously, drippily promising to ‘get up for the next song.’

Debbie was a shaggy-permed redhead whom Nas had recently taken up with.  As a trio, we got along ostensibly well, though in truth my nose was pushed increasingly out of joint by their cliquey twitterings.  They had – unconsciously, I think – adopted a kind of patronising, ‘I suppose we’ll let you tag along with us’ attitude, which made me feel more like an interloper with each day that passed in this miserable school.

What was it with my friends lately?  I’d started wearing deodorant months ago, but was beginning to wonder if it was working, such was the rate with which I appeared to be repelling people.  Slouching with these two now was painfully awkward.  I just let them talk.

‘Look at that stupid Samantha – fancy wearing dungarees to a disco!’

‘And she’s got foundation on – she’s all orange, look’

‘So do you think Sean fancies me then?’

‘Dunno, Deb.  What about Marcus?  He keeps lookin’ over at me.  Is he doing it now?  Don’t look, don’t look!  I’m trynna play hard to get.’

‘Who’ve yow got your eye on tonight, Zo?’

I gazed sadly at Karl, a pre-teen Don Johnson in jeans and a turquoise jacket with those curious elbow-length sleeves that were then in fashion.  He caught my eye and gave me a half-grin so civil and distant that I felt snubbed rather than acknowledged. 

‘Oh, no-one.’

Be like that then, Karl!  I swished my head away from him in what I imagined was a haughty, indifferent fashion.  I was wearing my straw-like hair up, for once, in a side ponytail tied with a bobble shaped like a fried egg.  It was a very swishy style.  I liked the feel of it, bobbing against my neck.

It was hard to be haughty in a bogey-green boiler suit, though.  Self-conscious as ever, I had hidden my burgeoning body inside a garment which caused Dad to comment, ten years later when hooting over a photo album, ‘Yow look like a mechanic there, me wench’ – and was now rather regretting my choice on such a muggy night.

Eventually, the torment of standing in close proximity to an untouched buffet could be borne no longer.

‘Come on, let’s go grab some eats.’

Food cheered me up – that was the reason my weight was in double figures.  As I loaded my plate with crinkle-cut crisps, I felt happy and giddy and mad.  I was afflicted by what I now recognise to be an addiction; a fixation.  Food was my drug.

‘Hey, look – it’s the Incredible Hulk!’

I laughed, in an ‘I might have expected that’ kind of way – my stock response whenever Tina made one of her ‘cracks.’  She rarely meant anything by them.  The girl just happened to possess a stinging wit, an artless lack of tact and a big, dirty mouth. 

Not a sole was immune.  Tina simply had to have something to say about everything and everybody.  I was large, I was wearing green – inevitably, tonight, Matthew, I was going to be the Incredible Hulk.  (I had certainly evolved a long way from Medusa.)

I turned from the crisp bowl, expecting to be grinned at, but instead found myself flinching from six eyes luminous with eyeshadow and malice.  Tina, Jodie and Hayley could have been triplets, with their co-ordinating puffball dresses, hair sprayed to candyfloss consistency, sneering lips painted brothel pink and legs as thin as crayons.
They assumed the scowling, akimbo posture they reserved for real enemies, as opposed to those individuals they merely took the piss out of. 

I was in trouble.

Tina, leader and mouthpiece, stood her traditional two paces in front of the girls, her glare loaded with a thousand curses.

‘I seen yer gawpin’ at Karl.’

Only grave offences against the posse warranted this kind of revulsion.  And gawping at a posse member’s would-be boyfriend was about as offensive as it got.

‘I ain’t been.’  Casual denial was the instinctive, if not the best, approach.  But I was far too flushed and defensive to convince as a liar.

‘Yeah you have.  And you’d best keep yer dirty maulers off him, ’cos he’s Hayley’s now.’

‘Ar, that’s right, he is,’ Hayley piped up.  She and Jodie seldom fought their own battles.  Their role was to dispense glares and the odd interjection into Tina’s tirade.

‘He’d never go out with a fat cow like yow anyway.  You look like Dolly Parton with them tits.  Workin’ nine to fiiive…’  Tina mimicked, in an exaggerated country whinny, jostling past me, pouting and shimmying her own spiky chest in a manner I would have found hilarious had her prey been anyone but me.

The sniggering melted into the music behind me, and now I was quite alone.  Deb and Nas had disloyally backed away at the first sign of peril, but I couldn’t care less about them now.  I found their spinelessness strangely empowering.  An incentive to seek out other girls, fresh companions, whose friendship would not be of the fair-weather variety.

‘Come on, Hayls, it’s the Beastie Boys!’

It was hard to say what winded me more: the sight of Karl hooking his arm around Hayley’s twiggy waist as he led her off to dance, or the knowledge he had just listened impassively as she and her bloody friends ripped me to rags.  He was close enough to have heard every vile word – yet had done nothing.

Eighteen months ago, in a slate mine somewhere beneath Wales, Karl Corbett had defended me against a bully.  Boldly, nobly, loyally.  Our friendship was all to him then.

But then Darren Fisher did not have tits.

Boys could square up to one another, but they stayed well out of catfights.  Everyone knew girl bullies were a more fearsome force than their male counterparts – and ones who looked like Hayley Jasper always got away with murder.  I knew I had never been A Girl to Karl, not in the leggy, eyelashy, saucy, teasy way she was.

To boys, ‘bullying’ meant scrapping and menace – but a girl could insult or cut you dead and it would wound as badly as a punch.  The lads’ way of resolving discord struck me, if anything, as healthier.  Two antagonists might vent their rage with a quick scuffle in the playground and be mates again by the end of lunch.

Female grudges, conversely, could be borne for years, fuelled by two-faced gossip and hissy insults about dress sense.  Chaps could never hate girls half as much as girls often hated one another.

Wary of being caught ‘gawping’ again, I averted my eyes back to the plate I was still inelegantly balancing in my greasy palm.  I no longer had any appetite for its contents, but picked at a few crisps to keep my hands active.  It was like munching on glass shards.

It’s funny, even in my wretched state it occurred that none of my fellow discoers appeared to have availed themselves of the refreshments.  This made me feel guilty, like a child caught robbing a larder.

I was a child really, stooping there all apologetic in my oversized romper suit.  Biologically, I was now a woman – those scary periods I’d read about in Mizz having become a lumpy, crampy reality in May – but I felt too blundering and unsophisticated to class myself as one.  Stuffing oneself was clearly a terribly gauche thing to do at a party – that’s why the buffet was rebuffed.  One was supposed to admire the food but not actually eat it.  Eating was for the weak and hideous. Everyone but me was in on this secret. 

‘Take your partners, boys and girls, it’s time for Starship!’

A slowie.  Great. 

I had heard of, though not actually seen Mannequin, and was aware Nothing’s Gonna Stop us Now was its big finale, happy-ever-after power ballad.  Treacly lyrics and bash-the-dashboard guitar solos were king in the 80s.

I have hated that song ever since.  I associate it with rejection; with confirmation of my wallflower status; with trying to dissolve into the wall, pretending I was so riveted by a chicken leg that I didn’t even notice dancers coupling around me.  Smitten kids who would go home happy after a smooch and a three-minute bum grope.  No boy had arms long enough to even encircle my bum.

I will not look at Karl and Hayley.

I.  Will.  Not.  Look.  At.  Karl.  And.  Hayley.

I will NOT look at – oh God, I looked!

Like a car crash or Trisha, I couldn’t help it.

The first verse barely done, and there they were – lips locked in a manoeuvre apparently known as a Frenchie; her arms laced round his neck, his fingers drumming up and down her polka dotted back.  Others were voyeuristically cheering them on.

It was too much for me.

I slapped my still laden plate on to the table, sloped out of the gym and ran home, brushing furious tears away with my fists. 

I was twelve and a half, and my heart was broken.

Chapter 3

Classmates
Chapter 3

 

‘Who’s that girl?’ I asked, prophetically enough, my dilated ten-year-old eyes captivated by the wavy-haired singer whirling a tambourine around the Philadelphia stage. 

Darren Fisher glanced up from Connect 4 long enough to answer, ‘It’s Madonna,’ in a sneering tone which made it clear I was piteously ignorant.  I disliked Darren Fisher.  He had appended himself to Karl’s gang of late: an oiky boy with a large mole below his left eye, and a dark, swotty prettiness that verged on girlish and beguiled teachers.

‘She’s terrific!  I love this song – dance into the groove, boy you’ve gotta prove….’

‘She’s a prat,’ Darren snorted, pulling a rancorous little face as Stefan clunked another yellow disc down to make it four in a row.  I have never encountered a less gracious loser.  ‘Girls can’t sing anyhow.  Queen were the best today.’

‘Not as good as Wham!’

‘My dad says Wham are a couple of jessies!’

‘Look, Daz, she’s got a big black spot just like yours!’ Karl lampooned, jabbing at the screen.

We all joyously giggled at this observation, yet my participation alone appeared to pique Darren.

‘Stop laughing, Taylor.  I hope you choke on your jam tart, you greedy fart!’

His insipid, unintentionally rhyming gibe provoked no effect besides further hilarity at his own expense.  I defiantly bit into Avril’s glorious jam tart, which had remained poised in my fingers midway between duvet and mouth as I knelt on Faye’s bed agog at Madonna.

We kids spent this historic July day bunched around the telly in Faye’s usually off-limits bedroom.  Karl swore he glimpsed his big sister on said telly, during a fleeting pan across the Wembley multitude, but I was unconvinced.

Boyfriends were Soppy, of course, but when Faye announced that her present one – a mechanic from Wolverhampton called Dean – had bagged a pair of Live Aid tickets, it occurred that they possibly had uses after all.

I’d idolised Faye since she chaperoned her brothers and me to see Frankie Goes to Hollywood at the Birmingham Odeon a few months back – but she had forgotten us today, which I considered decidedly unfair.

Nasreen and I spent the bulk of the day cross-legged on the bed, singing along with the stars in London and Philly; infected by the joyful atmosphere of a truly global party.  The lads, less riveted as the long afternoon segued into evening, were variously playing board games or sniggering over the problem pages in Faye’s Just Seventeen heap and yelling questions like ‘What’s an applicator?’

‘Hey, Taylor,’ Darren mocked at one point, nastily throwing a magazine at me, ‘there’s an article in here about diets – you ought to read it!’

I was now officially Fat, you see – because, while pop star love was ephemeral, food was my constant passion.  Chocolate, potatoes, fruit, cheese, yogurt, cereals, salads, bread, ice cream, eggs, roasts – there was virtually nothing I shunned, and I possessed a wolflike appetite.

There was more to me than gluttony, though.  I was an enthusiastic chef; I loved eating, so loving cooking seemed a natural consequence.  I spent hours in the kitchen attempting replicas of luscious recipes I pestered Avril for.  Mom heedfully supervised, and both she and Dad made suitably appreciative sounds when I dished up cup cakes or casseroles to their table.

My favourites to make were simple classics.  Good old British comfort food.  Sausage baps oozing brown sauce, or beans on toast with streaky bacon striped across the top.  My dad loved them.  Cowboy breakfasts, he called them.  ‘You gunna make us another cowboy breakfast this morning, our kid?  And I tell you what – I couldn’t half bost a cup o’ tay!’

(The latter part of his order was Black Country for ‘I would really rather like a cup of tea.’)

‘So strong yer could stand the spoon up in it?’ 

‘Ar!  Now you’m talking!’

I loved these little routines.  My dad was ace.

Our class once made bread – my favourite lesson in thirteen years of schooling.  Some kids found this exercise dreary beyond belief – they whined how they would rather be doing PE – but I was euphoric, wrist-deep in dough and bound into a flour-spattered apron.

I can still taste that brown loaf – all crusty and rustic, fresh-from-the-oven warm and smeared with silken butter.  I still do taste similar ones from time to time.  Neil’s final birthday present to me was a breadmaker, and the thick sliced supermarket alternative, I am afraid, just doesn’t come close!

Unfortunately, I learned too late that there existed a direct, merciless correlation between magnitude of meal and magnitude of belly.  By fourth-year juniors, acres of tummy protruded grotesquely beneath my T-shirts, my chest had sprouted what looked like a pair of water balloons, and Mom had begun making alarming remarks about ‘needing a bra.’

By while her observations were well intentioned, a certain Darren Fisher’s were decidedly not.  Following Live Aid, this pin-nosed prig became a kind of one-boy Blubber Patrol.  His mission: to punish me for being a ‘pig,’ by stamping on my toes in country dancing, stealing my pens (oh, my precious stationery), flicking up my skirt or hiding my lunch. 

He had subtler, but no less cutting, methods of conveying his distaste – such as his glares across the classroom or playground which suggested I was a leper encrusted with a particularly abhorrent crop of boils.  If I greeted or addressed him in company, he rudely looked away or cut me down to size with the curtest possible reply.

What began as innocuous teasing had escalated to major bullying.  Being a sly sort, Darren was careful to hiss and torment well outside the view and earshot of his greatest fans – the teachers. 

Little prick!  I’m sorry – just picturing that priggish, moley face makes me want to kick things even now.  Wherever he works these days, I bet he’s the company toady: the one whose head is jammed so far up the MD’s bum as to be tickling his liver; the one upon whom his colleagues joke that The Office’s Gareth must have been based.

I pinpoint 1985 as the year I first hated school.  I was in an alien situation: Victim was not a role in which I had ever been cast during my hitherto painless life.  I make no claims to be invincible, but neither was I one of the mousy kids upon whom Holly Lane’s bully population traditionally preyed.

Darren soon widened the scope of his scorn to include my looks as a whole rather than my weight specifically.

One Greek Mythology lesson, our textbooks were propped open at a page bearing Medusa’s petrifying likeness.  I sat up sharply as something serrated lanced me in the spine.  It was him, prodding me with his protractor.

‘She looks like you,’ he jeered, ‘only not quite so ugly!’

Laugh it off, that was what Dad advised.  But why did woundingly witty replies have a habit of eluding me at crucial moments?

A falsely offhand ‘I don’t reckon she does – I ain’t got snakes for hair!’ was the best I could do.

Now Darren had learned the name Medusa, it became his new nickname for me.  A nickname devised to not only cause maximum hurt but also demonstrate what an erudite swot he was.  He was clever like that, was our Darren.  (Though I had to admit ‘Medusa’ was a vague improvement on ‘pig.’)

I became wretchedly conscious of my looks; conscious that mirrors served other purposes than aiding my meticulous mimicry of Madonna’s dance routines.  I started using the one on my dressing table to daily inspect every square centimetre of face and body for vestiges of resemblance to mythological harridans.

I had never even regarded myself as plump or plain, let alone the Gorgon of Darren’s vision – yet now I felt repugnant.  I was once such a sociable little thing, but playing held dwindling interest for me now Darren had encroached the sacred posse.  The wild scurry out of my uniform to congregate in Andrew Street straight from school was replaced by a dawdle out of my uniform to read on my bed, or practice my cooking, or merely sit with Mom and Dad in the lounge.

My parents – who were mystified by this atypical clinginess – represented something so dependable in this suddenly unfriendly world.

Loved as I was at home, outside it my self-esteem shrivelled like a dying daffodil.  I like to think I was never an arrogant kid, rather that I possessed the kind of buoyant self-assurance inherent in childhood.  This now suffered its first dents – and seldom had ebbs been lower than in North Wales three weeks before my eleventh birthday.

 

 

 

‘You’ve lost your torch?’ Mr Bateman yapped, dousing my face in halitosis.  ‘Now that was a really intelligent thing to do before a trip underground, wasn’t it!’

I wagged my head, my smarting eyes resolutely averted from Darren, who I knew would be glaring smugly, daring me to grass him up. 

‘Well, was it?’

‘No, sir.’

‘No siree!  Honestly, you are getting yourself into rather a pickle this week, aren’t you!  Well there aren’t any spare ones, so you’ll just have to share with one of your less absent-minded classmates.  Karl Corbett – you can partner Miss Taylor and light her merry way.’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘Good.  Now slate, as I was saying, has been mined in this region since 18….’

‘Are you OK?’ Karl whispered, through Bateman’s droning narration.  

I nodded ambiguously, flushing from his caring gaze, and thinking with an indignant pang of the smart torch jangling about in Darren Fisher’s cagoule pocket.  My dad bought it from Milletts especially – he knew how keen I was about this annual fourth year Residential. 

The Resi!  The winter week that made younger Holly Laners impatient to reach the top class.  Five whole days free of parental intervention.  Canoeing, cycling, orienteering, midnight feasting in the dormitories….

‘I can’t wait for this,’ Karl had grinned, rubbing his hands with boy scout-like glee as, accoutred with packed lunches and sleeping bags, we loaded up the coach on that bracing February Monday, ‘we’re gunna have some bostin’ fun!’

It was ages since we had conversed to any great depth; Karl’s overture now restored a flash of my old confidence.  I was utterly dismayed, though, to find myself blushing.

‘Yeah!  I feel like one of the Famous Five.’

‘Which one – Timmy the dog?’ Darren heckled.

‘Where’s Nas got to?’ I wondered, ignoring him.  ‘She’s gunna miss the coach if she’s not careful.’

‘Miss Uppal has flu.’  A Yorkshire-accented snap announced the arrival of our dear Mr Bateman.  ‘Her mother has just telephoned to say she is too unwell to be joining us in Wales.  Come on – chop chop!  We should have left by now.’

‘Aw, what a shame.  I won’t have a partner,’ I pouted with real disappointment.  Not only was Nasreen was my sole true girl-friend, but there were few school stigmas worse than being On Your Own when everyone else was paired up.  ‘I hope she’ll be OK.’

‘Come on, Miss Taylor, and stop your chuntering!’

‘Sorry, sir.’

With a very dejected air, I deposited my ruck-sack in the boot, clambered aboard the bus and slunk into a lonely seat near the back.

‘Ah, poor fat Medusa’ll be all on her lickle lonesome.’

I feigned indifferent deafness to Darren’s taunt – whilst at the same time recognising the bleak truth of it.

I’d entertained this perception of myself as popular and boisterous, but in fact being so matey with lads was going to be little use in the unavoidably single-sex environment of a dormitory. 

Save for Nas and Faye, I never at that stage had much time for female peers – and I could tell by their private giggles and occasional pitying glances across the aisle that the feeling was mutual.  I may as well have sported a T-shirt imprinted ‘Norma No-Mates.’  I was actually shy around them; unable to be myself.  For the first time, I regretted my lack of affinity with own gender.  I wished I could bond with these girls, even to say hello would have been a start – but I, shamefully, had no idea how to.

There was one person here today whom I held in lofty esteem – and he was in the hallowed back seat, reciting jokes to a rapt bunch of boys, our brief discourse of moments ago forgotten.  I knew without looking that nasty little Darren would be part of the audience: all enraptured and sycophantic, ready to wet himself when Karl delivered the punchline.  I tried not to listen, unbearably jealous as I was of Darren and the others who were being thus lavished.

Why did his attention uniquely make me so strong and joyous inside?  As though nobody else mattered and nothing could wound me?  And why did I wither without it?

I slumped back in the coach seat, wishing it could camouflage me like a chameleon.  After months of looking forward to a sensational adventure, I would now have cheerfully swapped places with Nasreen, all swaddled and snotty in her sick bed.

 

The outdoor education centre was a purgatory of spider-riddled dormitories, shiny bog roll, temperamental showers, and food Granny wouldn’t have put down for Buster without risking a visit from the RSPCA.  The weather was vile also, even by February standards.  Sleety rain fell in bathloads virtually all week, accompanied by a vicious wind that seemed to slice at my body. 

None of these factors perturbed me in isolation; I would have laughed them off, had Nas been with me and had Darren’s clandestine hate campaign not curdled my sense of humour.

As it was, they merely aggravated my homesickness.  I longed for the nights, when I could coil up on the top bunk that should have been Nasreen’s, and sob yearningly into the clammy, anorakish material of my sleeping bag.  The yearning was for Mom’s homely smile; my snug bed; a tonic for my aching throat….

Whilst hill-walking on the Tuesday, my tormentor tripped me with his spiky boot, sending me spattering into a mud puddle.  Bateman, hiking on ahead in cosy conversation with Miss Evans, the jolly-hockey-sticks centre instructor, for whom he quite obviously had the hots, conveniently saw nothing.  He deigned, however, to halt upon hearing my yelp as I belly-flopped.

‘Tripped over our shoelaces, have we, Miss Taylor?’ he barked, seizing my fingers in his steak-sized hand and hoicking me upright.  ‘About time your mother taught you to how tie them, methinks!’

‘But – ’

‘No buts!  Your classmates and I would prefer to enjoy the remainder of this walk in peace.  All you have to do is place one foot in front of the other.  You sure you can manage that now?  Honestly!’  He stomped tutting back to Miss Evans at the head of the crocodile, no doubt pissed off by the interruption in their wax-jacketed tête à tête.  The woman clearly possessed no sense of smell, if she could stand being breathed over by his rancid maw.

I continued the ramble in fuming muteness: gloved fists clenching themselves into discreet V-signs at my sides; body stinging with both the force of the fall and acrid hatred towards Darren and Bateman.  Rage at the injustice of it all washed over me in torrents.  All this ‘your classmates’ business galled me – he loved to play us off against one another: me versus the form.

‘Bit of a clumsy cow, aren’t you?’ came a simper at my shoulder.

‘Why don’t you just sod off, Fisher?’

‘Ooh – naughty words!’

With a surreptitious kick to my already grazed shin, he galloped to catch up with Karl and the rest of the gang in which he had supplanted me.  Maudlin desperation to sob gnawed as I watched them all together.  Only visions of charging at Darren and smearing his smug pixie face in sludge whilst hollering from this Welsh hilltop about what a bullying little shit the class creep really was curbed my sobs.

A curious unwillingness to disillusion Karl was all that stood between me and doing just that.  To try and turn him against a friend would be unfair and underhand.

Moreover, it might backfire; Karl might disbelieve me and turn against me instead.  Which was too, too distressing to envisage. 

But why was it?  At what point had I turned into this martyr who readily placed a boy’s happiness above my own?

 

Thursday was our penultimate, most punishing day.  A disused slate mine was today’s destination – hence the need for torches.  Except Darren half-inched mine on the coach when all eyes were diverted.  I dropped it as I rose to dismount the vehicle.  The little lamp went trundling across the aisle; before I could retrieve it, his pin-like fingers snatched it and zipped it away.

‘Oy, that’s mine!’

‘You can have it back for a fiver, butterfingers,’ he spat, knowing I had no such fortune to my name, ‘and you’d better not tell old Bateman about this.  He’d never believe you anyway.’

This, I was wretchedly aware, was true.  Not that I’d have ever told in any event.  Telling was Not The Done Thing.  Such an action condemned one to a lifetime of being labelled a Grasser.  Thus when Bateman, inspecting us, queried my torchless status, I muttered evasively that I had ‘lost it, sir.’

What was happening to me?  The old Zoe could hold her own against any lad, but now there were all these inhibitions and limp stories.  My heart drooped with excruciating sadness as I imagined Dad; his poor disappointed face when I confessed his gift was gone.

Entry to the mud-mired mine was via a minuscule orifice, the size, shape and dampness of which invited crude comparisons I was too naive to make then.  The roof of this entrance was so low as to render even crouching impossible; there was no option but to slither in prone through the clotted sludge.  It was like sliding into a nose.

Once inside the pit, a labyrinthine tunnel complex was our thoroughfare across it.  One such tunnel was dubbed the ‘Corkscrew.’  Its structure resembled one of those tube slides found at water parks, only it was as narrow and fetid as a gutter, with a balaclava blackness that seemed to drown me.

This was not the most pleasant way of discovering I was claustrophobic.  I baulk now, just visualising how I wriggled, crying, down that interminable spiral.

‘Mind you don’t get your gut stuck in there, Medusa,’ came a hiss behind as we queued as though for a theme park ride, awaiting our turn – as it were – through the Corkscrew, ‘miners have died down here – maybe you will too!  You won’t be able to see without your precious torch, and you’ll sink in a massive mud pool!  That’ll teach you to be so clums– ’

Darren’s threat tapered feebly off.  A sinewy hand was pinching his skinny shoulder.  On the end of this hand was, as you might expect, an arm.  On the end of this arm was Karl Corbett.

‘Leave my friend alone, Fisher.’

‘You what?’

‘Leave her alone.  You’re always mythering her.’

‘I was only joking around.  She knows I don’t mean it, don’t you, Med– I mean, Zoe?’  His soft, girl’s lips formed a contrite, sham smile, but his disdain had vanished.

I couldn’t even reply intelligibly.  I was jibbering with colliding emotions – the dominant one of which was in fact joy.  I was Karl’s friend!  He said so.  The likes of Darren mattered not.  Darren was pathetic; beyond disdain.  With Karl on my side, I was as powerful as She-Ra.

‘Where’s her torch, Fisher?’

‘She lost it,’ he sulked, ‘you heard her.  Oooww!  OK, it’s in my pocket.  I nicked it.  Now can you let go, Corbett – you’re hurting me!’

‘He blackmailed me,’ I sniffed, impressing Karl with a new word I’d heard, ‘he told me I could only have me torch back if I paid him five pounds.’

‘Give it her back now, or I’ll flush yer head down the bog when we get back to our dormitory!’

Darren unzipped his waterproof pocket and tossed the torch to me in a defeated, babyish gesture. 

 

‘Why didn’t you tell me he was picking on yer?’ Karl asked on the coach back to the West Midlands next day. 

‘I thought he was your mate – Aatchoo!

‘No way!  You got a cold?’

‘Mmmfh.’  It was my fifth sneeze of the journey – and we were only in Llangollen.  I was gloriously happy, though, reinstated to the back row.  Darren, relieved of his position as the gang’s new prince, was relegated to a front seat, near Bateman and his tuna sandwich breath.

I sneezed again, and clamped a sodden hanky over my raw nose.  ‘Oh Karl, I feel proper poorly.  I think I’ve caught Nasreen’s bug.’

 

Karl Corbett might be the most powerful swimmer in our class, but he was no match for either the squally current that was flushing me progressively further out to sea, or the shark whose gargantuan mantrap jaws were snatching ravenously at my ankles.

I bobbed through the merciless ocean, my flaxen head barely breaking the surface as tide and then jaws sucked me down.

Kaaarl!

My feeble scream was swallowed by the wind, but his stricken wail of ‘No, Zo – you can’t die!’ was extraordinarily audible.

The beast opened wide to devour me.  The world turned black and I became aware of a heavy feeling, pinning me down…but it was just the duvet, and Mom’s soft palm brushing across my damp forehead.  She smelt of hand cream; her smile was just as soothing.

‘You’ve been zonked out for hours, sweetheart.  You’re ever so hot.’

I blinked dozy eyes at the Pink Panther alarm clock.  His scrawny feline arms were contorted in the nine o’clock position. 

‘Is it morning or night?’

Ooh – where was my voice?  This phlegmy rasp didn’t sound a bit like me.

‘Morning.  You’ve been asleep since seven last night, my little Rip van Winkle.  You dropped off straight after your tea.  Mind, you looked dead beat when you got home from Wales yesterday.’

‘I was having a nightmare,’ I wheezed.

‘Try not to speak just yet.  Drink this – I’ve made you a Lemsip.’

She gently levered the pillow behind me so I could sit up against it.  I found this simple movement shockingly strenuous.  Not only was I full of cold, there was now a feeble sensation in my bones. 

‘Fancy a bit of breakfast?’

Between snivels, and warming blackcurrant sips, I shook my head.

‘You sure?’  She sounded as surprised as I felt.  ‘I can boil you an egg, or make you a bowl of porridge.  Something nice and easy to eat.’

‘No thanks, Mom.’  For possibly the first time in my life, my appetite had deserted me.  ‘I had a nightmare,’ I continued, ‘about being eaten by a shark.’

Karl’s role in this dream was secret – I couldn’t explain why, it just was – so I made no mention of his ill-fated rescue endeavours.

I couldn’t have even if I wanted to, for I at that moment dissolved into a coughing fit.  The dynamic barks forced themselves up through my scratchy throat, leaving my little body pummelled and exhausted.

Mom swiftly relieved me of the jerking mug and administered a couple of neat pats to my back.

‘I expect going down that mine sent all kinds of bugs whizzing round your system,’ she said, ‘I don’t know what them teachers were thinking of, making you go through all that.  Come on, bab, let’s tuck you in.  I’ll get Dr Dunn out.  You know, when you were a tot you used to have nightmares about the man from the R. Whites advert hiding in our fridge, stealing all the lemonade.’

Despite feeling limp, I giggled.  Mom’s fussing could grate, but a week away from it had taught me just how wonderful it was to be petted.  During that gruelling Welsh odyssey, I’d made several mental notes never to take my parents for granted again.

‘I don’t remember that.’

‘You did.  You could never go to the fridge on your own in case the secret lemonade drinker jumped out in his pyjamas and started singing.’

‘How odd!’  I was startled by the lofty tone I adopted, as though it was years and years since I’d been ‘a tot.’  Whilst part of me was babyishly loving the nuzzly warmth of my soft little bed, the other part felt so terribly grown-up all of a sudden.  No doubt my week of challenges and independence was accountable – but I also sensed it had an awful lot to do with that dream featuring Karl and a shark.

‘You get some rest now,’ Mom clucked, jolting me back into childhood, ‘just shout if you need any more drinks, or books or anything.  Do you want the telly on?’

(So now I was genuinely poorly, she was encouraging me to watch the ‘idiot box.’  Adults could be most fickle!)

‘As long as that advert doesn’t come on!’ 

‘You can always turn it over if it does,’ she chuckled, laying the remote control on top of my blanket and dropping a kiss on to my chapped cheek.  ‘I’ll look in on you later, OK?’

All through Wacaday, I thought of Karl.  My eyes were focused on Timmy Mallett whacking kids with a giant foam mallet while being very raucous in a Hawaiian shirt, but my mind was on him, and the bizarre emotions he was starting to induce.

Dreams enthral me.  My shark epic was what I now recognise as my first vaguely sexual fantasy (quite literally, a wet dream).  Though I had not the vocabulary to express this at the time, it represented not – as might be expected from me – a tomboyish hunger for adventure in lethal seas, but a peculiarly feminine need to be rescued and protected.

After standing up to Darren for me in the mine (‘standing’ not being the operative word in that narrow chasm), Karl, my partner in crime, fellow tree-climber and gunge-mixer, took on a new, heroic mantle.  I relived that rather ludicrous underground scene a thousand times, until his masterfulness reached Greek god proportions in my mind.  Karl was just four months older than me, yet the manner in which he’d threatened to flush Darren’s pretty head down the loo was so dauntlessly adult.  Like a man – or a teenager at the very least.

To think I’d suffered in silence all those months, under the misapprehension that the Fisher dork was his new best friend!  When it came to the proverbial crunch, Karl took my side without question.  How could I help but admire and be grateful to him?

But was gratitude all I felt?

Had gratitude bred the flock of butterflies that appeared to have set up home inside my stomach?

Was gratitude the reason my face was blazing from merely thinking about him?  Even accounting for my current fluey temperature, I was disturbingly crimson.

A handful of the more mature girls in my year were ‘going out’ with boys: a practice which appeared to involve a good deal of hand-holding and sporadic, most unsavoury-looking kissing.  The girls who had yet to attain this worldly status spent their time mooning over lads and pop stars. 

I remained stubbornly immune to this Soppy epidemic that seemed to have struck down every other eleven-year-old in Sedgley.  Boys, as I explained previously, were playmates to me – nothing more.  I was never going to snog, or have boyfriends, or get married.  Neither was I ever going to wear skirts – except for school, where they were a compulsory component of our evil uniform.  Skirts and dresses were the preserve of the ‘pretty’ – and as the girls who were thus labelled tended to be the ones with boyfriends, I never wanted to be pretty either.

So there!

But beneath lurked a suspicion I might be developing – what was that awful term I heard Mom use…a squash?  No – a crush!  When she was not much older than me, she had one on somebody called Billy Fury. 

A crush!  It sounded like a sickly kind of orange drink.  I didn’t like it one little bit – and every nerve in my obstinate body was going to fight it.

Thus was I resolved as I sank into yet another sleep.  A tranquil, sharkless sleep this time.  I awoke to find Karl sitting on the edge of my bed.

‘Look who’s come to visit you,’ Mom was saying, from somewhere.

I was looking.  To the extent that I saw nothing else, not even Mom.  My flu-gummed eyes were fixed on him.  Perched on the bed in his West Bromwich Albion shirt, balancing a hoard of comics on his knee.  His grin was winningly cheeky, yet his gaze just as winningly kind – in short, all a girl could want in one face.

‘I’ve come to see how you are.  I thought you might like summat to read.  In case you get bored, like.’

I became shamefully conscious of my sexless cotton pyjamas and snotty face.  Things I would never have minded Karl seeing before The Shark Dream changed everything.  I chastely yanked my covers up until nothing below my nose was visible.

‘Ta, Karl,’ I coughed through the sheets.

‘I’ll leave you pair alone for a minute,’ came Mom’s voice from the door, ‘the doc should be here soon.’

All was silent for a stilted eternity.  Not a mutual silence between two mates, but a bashful pause between a Boy and a Girl.

‘Thanks for Thursday, Karl,’ I spluttered, better late than never, ‘you know, Darren and – ’

‘That’s OK.’  Unusually, he seemed embarrassed, modest.  ‘He was gerrin on me nerves.  Ha, did you see his face, though – how terrified he looked?’

‘He went white!’

‘And his little voice went all squeaky.  Oooww, you’re hurting me!  What a wet!  He can’t pick on anyone his own size, can he?’

I was sniggering devilishly along with Karl now.  His humour was more infectious than my germs, and good for thawing tension.

‘But I thought you were mates with him,’ I resumed my earlier theme.

‘He started hanging round with Shane a few months back – they live in the same street, see – then he kind of wormed his way into the gang.  I’ve never really liked him.  He’s a right little creep, always sucking up to the teachers.  But I didn’t know he teased you.  I thought you’d just stopped coming out ’cos you was bored with us, like.’

‘Nah!  It was ’cos of him.’

‘Well from now on, you’ve got to tell us if anyone starts mythering you.  Me and the lads’ll sort ’em out!’

‘Will yer?’  My lips couldn’t help stretching into a grin.  It was undeniably flattering to know a lad would cheerfully duff up a bully on one’s behalf.  ‘You’d do that for me?’

‘You’m one of me best mates, Zo.’

Am I?’

‘Yeh.  You’re a good laugh.  We’ve all missed yer.’

A lovely warmth swelled inside me like a rising cake.

Karl had missed me! 

I was one of his best mates, and he’d missed me!

I knew even then I would remember that moment for the rest of my life.

It was interrupted by Mom, with Dr Dunn the family GP, in tow, sporting his customary uniform of grave face and stethoscope.

‘You don’t have to go yet, Karl.’  There was a faint note of panic in my voice as he stood up.

‘I’ll come back tomorrow, mate.  Dad wants me to help him wash the car in a bit.  For extra pocket money, like.  Hope you enjoy the comics.’

 

I lived in bed for a further fortnight.  Getting up was barely an option.  It was all I could do to hoist my heavy head from the pillow.  After five days of scrambling over rocks and wading through pits, simple missions to the bathroom zapped me of the little energy I possessed. 

The doctor ambiguously diagnosed a ‘viral infection.’  Whatever it was, it knocked me about.  Every cough and sneeze was an effort, and sounded pathetically spluttery, like I was auditioning to be an orphan in Oliver.  I had never been so achy and lethargic – and, touch wood, never have since.

When I slept, which I did virtually continuously, I dreamed of him; when I awoke, I was capable of virtually nothing bar flicking through the TV channels or flipping through the Beanos Karl brought daily.

During the second week, a Mizz of Faye’s inadvertently found its way into this comic stockpile.  Not surprisingly, I had never read one before.  Though tomboyish pride barred me from admitting such a thing, I was fascinated.

Its pastel pages bore jaunty articles about acne, bras, diets, A-Ha and periods.  Ah, periods – they were those things we’d had a talk on last term.  A tall, horsy girl in my class by the name of Philippa Brown was known to have Started, and managed to wag PE once a month by virtue of being On.

This magazine was an education.  I acquired some worthy life skills – for example, that a pencil placed beneath one’s breast could determine whether one required a brassiere.

If the pencil stays in place, yes you do need one.  If it does not, you can go braless for a little bit longer.

Feeling strangely dirty and furtive, I slithered out of bed, stripped off my pyjama top and stood ceremoniously before the mirror to try the experiment.  A purple Berol was employed for the task, in the immediate absence of a pencil.

Despondently guessing my fat young boobs would be prime candidates for a heavy-duty support garment, I was amazed when the pen rolled down my ribs and landed, with a little somersault, on the carpet.

Where had my chest gone?

And where, I wondered, gaping at the withered waif in the mirror, was my tummy?  The potbelly that provided Darren Fisher with so many feeder lines was virtually concave.  Now I didn’t merely sound like an Oliver chorus member.

That reflection couldn’t possibly be me.  That little girl was scraggy and lanky, whereas I was the class colossus; an ungainly lump.

But come to think of it, I had taken virtually nil by mouth for weeks.  The meals in Wales were barely digestible – by turns charred, raw, stringy and pappy – then the illness rendered me too tired and tender to eat.  Only in the last few days had I progressed to the slurping-Complan-through-a-straw stage.  Even Avril’s ‘get well’ present, the bowl of ethereal-looking meringues she sent Karl round with on Monday, had proved an ordeal.

In that case then, it was not amazing at all that I should have so dramatically shed my body lagging.  No wonder either, I thought as I urgently pulled my top back on, that I was freezing.  Darren couldn’t call me pig anymore, that was for sure.

Darren wouldn’t be calling me anything for much longer – as I learned during one of Karl’s daily pilgrimages to my sick bed.

These pilgrimages – sometimes with Shane, or the recently recovered Nasreen, but mostly alone – intensified my secret hero-worship.  It is hardly surprising Karl lives in my heart to this day (albeit a hitherto sealed chamber of my heart) – he really was an absolute poppet. 

‘I’ve got some good news about Daz Fisher,’ he announced.  I was much better by now; still drowsy, but well enough to dress (today in jeans and a Garfield sweatshirt), eat solids and advance from my bed downstairs to the sofa.  ‘He won’t be coming up to Capewell with us lot in September.’

‘No?’

‘He’s going to The Beeches, you know, that snobby school in Wolverhampton.  His mommy wanted to get him away from us rough kids.’

Us rough?  He’s the spiteful little brat, more like!’

‘I know, but mommykins thinks the sun shines out of his…oh well, good riddance to bad rubbish, I say.’

‘Too right!  Er…Karl, it’s me birthday on Wednesday.’  Between all my dozing and sneezing, it had in fact escaped my mind that this was the case until Dad had asked how I might like to celebrate it.  ‘Me, Mom, Dad and Granny are going to a restaurant.  They said I could…er…bring a friend.  Wanna come?’

‘Yeah, all right.  Going for a Big Mac, are we?’

‘No, this is a proper restaurant.  It’s a Little Chef near Bridgnorth.’  Big Macs indeed!  McDonald’s parties were so 1982 – sophisticated eleven-year-olds went to Little Chefs and dined on cherry pancakes with ice cream.

It was a very no-frills meal, but my first for a fortnight that consisted of neither Complan nor soup, and for that reason I remember it as a feast.  My appetite restored, I devoured every last chip and cherry.  Granny Danks, noticeably distraught at the sight of my gaunt body, tipped her leftovers on to my plate also, whispering with a wink that I ‘needed fattening back up.’

School life took a marked upturn after my recovery.  I was the centre of attention on my first day back, with everyone – even girls – showing solicitous concern for my health, and astonishment at my dramatic weight loss.  A gruff ‘Are you better?’ even passed nasty old Bateman’s lips. 

Darren Fisher never so much as spoke to me again – for which I was highly grateful – though I suspected this resulted more from his awe of Karl than my having discarded the lard he’d spent so long deriding.  Since word had got around that Fisher did not exactly live up to his Blue Peter image, the class had ostracised him.  I now pitied rather than feared him, seeing him for what he was: a pathetic milksop who picked fights with girls.  He looked so lonely and shrunken in the front row desk, with his beauty spot and his neat rows of pencils.

My final term at Holly Lane Primary School was as carefree and placid as befitted my youth – all thanks to a certain boy.

He and I remained inseparable through a wonderful summer – at the end of which lay untold fun, games and dangers, as we made the transition to ‘big school.’

Chapter 2

Classmates
Chapter 2

I married Karl on a July afternoon when the sky really was the flawless blue and the sun really the flamboyant orange that my nursery school paintings insistently depicted. 

As I lisped my quivery vows, the crisp, salady scent of freshly mown grass wafted through the open hall doors – a summer aroma that will forever evoke scenes from that day.

Vacuum-packed into an organza frock as stiff and creamy as an Angel Delight, and clutching a posy of pink plastic roses, I bobbed from foot to jellybean sandal-clad foot and grinned with gap-toothed embarrassment behind my net curtain veil.

Fidgeting, I could see Bradley Round, the pageboy, intently picking his nose, whilst my bridesmaid, Samantha Potter, was just as becomingly absorbed, extricating her billowy petticoats from her knickers.

I swiftly pivoted back to Karl: tall, windswept of hair, snub of nose, in his waistcoat and velveteen shirt – as ever, the picture of impish self-confidence.  Nothing fazed Karl Corbett.  Absolutely nothing.

There were murmured ahs and titters from the three-hundred-strong congregation as the vicar, Shane Ashcroft, pronounced us, in broad Black County monotone, ‘mon and woyfe.’  (Although ‘Yow may now kiss the broyde’ was an entreaty mercifully omitted from Rev Ashcroft’s sermon!)

To compound the indignity of it all, one congregation member was a Dudley News photographer.  I know my mom still has his yellowing close-up of ‘the happy couple’ pasted into a dog-eared scrapbook, though I have not seen it for years as I, sadly, can recall my piteous appearance well enough without pictorial aids.  The absent front teeth; the punkish, margarine-coloured hair – so risibly incongruous with frills and posies; the chubby little body hatching a frantic bid for freedom from the chafing dress….

A confirmed tomboy, I harboured a morbid dislike of dresses – being especially averse to ill-fitting ones exhumed from the bottoms of dressing-up boxes.  I remember so sharply the wild longing to tear that cream monstrosity from my back and exchange it for my usual uniform of either dungarees or a velour tracksuit.

LESSONS IN LOVE: [croons the caption beneath our gurning fisogs] Holly Lane Primary School pupils Karl Corbett and Zoe Taylor, both aged six, in costume for their Royal Wedding project.

It was 1981.

With the nuptials of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer days away, Class 1H was in the grips of full-on, joyous, romantic, proud-to-be-British, red-and-blue-streamer, commemorative-mug-and-tea-towel fever.  It was the delightful idea of our teacher, Miss Hayes, that Karl, Shane, Sam, Brad and I should re-enact a wedding in mildewy fancy dress costumes before the whole school (sardonic, comp-bound eleven-year-olds included) on the final day of summer term.

The choice of moi for the bridal role was Miss H’s also – influenced, allegedly, by my blonde pageboy coiffure which entertained vague Diana-like pretensions.  Or rather it did until the week preceding our mock marriage, when I acquired a jagged crop decidedly not the handiwork of Hair by Geoffrey, the Gornal salon to which Mom had been taking me since the day my downy baby wisps first tickled my neck.

In fact, this was a Hair by Zoe composition.  Though it could have passed for a Hair by Worzel Gummidge one.

My poor mother’s innocuous foray to the bathroom that Sunday had yielded the grotesque discovery of me, tottering on precarious tiptoes at the mirror, studiously hewing away with her nail scissors.  A flaxen pond encircled my feet, leaving behind an elfin head crested with anarchic tufts and fronds like a very early Bart Simpson prototype.

A mangled seal-like shriek escaped Mom.

‘What – have – you – done?’

‘I thought it would look nice,’ I whinnied: contrite tears already gurgling up to mirror those dismayingly glazing her kind eyes.

If I thought my ragamuffin image might excuse me from conjugal enactments, I was mistaken – but that hideous newspaper snap proved a fantastic deterrent against DIY hairdressing.  I have never so much as lopped off a split end since.

******

‘Coming round ours after, Zo?’  My youthful groom and I, finally having shed our wedding regalia, were loping across the playground towards our moms, carefree and elated by the onset of summer holidays.

This was more like it!  Playing at Karl’s house – gambolling in his sandpit, swapping comics or just watching cartoons – was preferable any day to donning a soppy frock and marrying him.

‘Mom’s made cakes,’ he added as compelling inducement.

‘Yeah?  What sort?’

‘Chocolate cornflake.  And a lemon sponge.  With hundreds and thousands on an’ all.’

‘Bostin’!’

My tummy was already growling with yearning.  Avril Corbett was the Delia Smith of the Black Country.  My own mom, and even my dear Granny Danks, could only dream about achieving such sweetness of pastry; such dainty butteriness of sponge cake; such glorious squelchiness of jelly.

‘When d’you think yer hair’ll grow back, Zo?’

‘Dunno.’

‘Where you gooin’ on holiday this year?’

‘Weymouth again.  How about you?’

‘Tenerife.’

I scowled jealously.  My parents’ only ever voyages ‘abroad’ were to the Isle of Wight; their idea of ‘foreign food’ was French bread.  Karl’s family were so adventurous and worldly.

They resided around the corner from us, in Andrew Street.  Parents Avril and Roger, brother Stefan, aged nine, and sister Faye – at thirteen, so vastly sophisticated and glamorous to my infant mind. 

As an only child, I latched on to this vivacious tribe with mingled fascination and resentment, unkindly ashamed of my own mini unit.  How it grated when my lovely, well-meaning dad made cosy references to ‘the three of us!’  Why couldn’t we have been five, like the Corbetts?  Or six, or eight?  ‘Cliff, Val and Zoe’ sounded like a sixties folk trio.  The Taylor Trio.

Ladies and gentlemen – live at the Trumpet in Bilston…The Taylor Trio!!!

The mahogany drinks cabinet in our lounge had a glass door, with six rhomboid panes that not only exposed the whisky within but were also – if you stood at a favourable angle – dustily reflective.  In lonely moments, I would gaze raptly at my row of mirror images and pretend I was sextuplets.

I had fun ascribing a distinct personality trait to each mystical sister: one was bossy, one shy, and so on.  We would play together and sing songs: identical pigtailed heads wagging in glassy unison.  Never even to my closest friends, though, did I admit having imaginary siblings – perhaps, like alcoholics, I was ashamed that I sought succour and companionship via a drinks cabinet?

(Whatever prompted me to write about this?  I had hitherto forgotten all about my clandestine play-acting – like a deleted movie scene lost in the vaults for years but now digitally remastered and available on DVD.  This reunion invitation has kindled some unbelievable memories, suppressed in my head for decades, awaiting an occasion when they might aptly be turned into anecdotes.)

******

On days when I sought mortal playmates, I could commonly be found chez Corbett, which functioned as a kind of unofficial recreation centre for the neighbourhood kids.  The core gang comprised Karl’s cohorts Shane (alias the vicar), Gareth, Nathan and Felix, my mate Nasreen and me.  Predominantly lads, you will notice, but as I said I was a tomboy, and even at that callow age had started to perceive – and despise – the fickle cattiness inherent in many girls.

Females are pitilessly competitive creatures.  Acerbic, capricious, jealous, unforgiving, petty and ferociously territorial – I ought to know, having sporadically lapsed into such behaviour myself.  Name a woman who has not!

Don’t get me wrong: I have been gifted with some fabulously supportive, indispensable female friends – Heather and Denise topping that list.  There just happen to be traits I hate about my sex.  There are times when I have tired of the backbiting and inane gossip that pervades offices and nightclub toilets, and felt more comfortable and unguarded with men.  They can provide a gloriously uncomplicated antidote to all that miaowing.

Obviously, at six I could never have articulated such observations – all I knew was that I favoured the company of boys.  They were not yet of an age to discriminate.  I was just Zo to them.  One of the posse.  I climbed trees, did headstands and played war with the best of them.

******

Karl and I had been pals since our first day at Holly Lane a year ago.

To this day, my mother’s eyes crinkle and mist at the recollection of her bottle green-clad ‘babby’ marching off to school, satchel in hand.  Her favourite photograph, which still smiles gauchely from her dressing table, depicts me in our back garden that historic morning: all shy and ironed in my impeccable uniform; the blonde pageboy still safely unhacked.

Not being so romantically disposed, my sole abiding memory from that day is of sitting opposite a tousle-haired boy and being brazenly agog at the magnitude of his lunchbox.

Do not even think of sniggering!  The word ‘lunchbox’ had yet to acquire phallic connotations; the target of my lust was nothing more improper than my companion’s food parcel (though that doesn’t sound a fat lot better).

School canteens can be battlefields, and Nasreen and I must have looked as vulnerable as munchkins to all the ‘big children’ belching and hustling in the chip queue.

I had known Nasreen Uppal since playgroup.  We were giggling away, contented enough together amid the bedlam, when the weird thought dawned that a kind of tacit competition was unfolding between this boy and me.  We could have set it to music in parody of the old Annie Get Your Gun number – rewording it, ‘Anything you can eat, I can eat bigger.’  For as I nibbled a demure Dairylea sandwich, Brush-Head was simultaneously gnawing on a cheese cob that virtually obscured his face.  And when I unzipped my chocolate finger biscuits, he, as if in response, dipped a felt tip-daubed hand behind the lid of his Spiderman sandwich box and fished out a rock bun the size of a toilet seat.

Being schooled in basic etiquette, I knew it was rude to stare, but my eyes were jealously riveted to this mountainous cake, which my classmate – K. CORBETT, according to the marker pen inscription beneath Spiderman’s feet – was joyously devouring.

‘Are you gunna eat all that?’  The incredulous question leaked out of my mouth before I could staunch it.  I cringed, because it was one my Aunty Irene came out with on every one of her mercifully sporadic visits – followed invariably by: ‘Your eyes are bigger than your tummy.’

Rather than retort with the defensive ‘Yeh’ that I used on Aunty, the boy lavished me with a grin as wide as a banana and answered, ‘Why?  D’you want a bit?’ 

‘OK,’ I said boldly, and he broke off a sugary boulder for me.

Zoe!’  Nasreen nudged me, coyly scandalised by my audacity – then fell mute when our new friend handed her a chunk also.

‘Me mom makes ’em,’ he was explaining.  All I could do was nod, through an eruption of crumbs and currants.

As the rich, cosy, unmistakably home-made flavours filled my mouth, I was conscious of a love affair budding.  Weaned as I was on cottage pies and Arctic Roll, it was a revelation that food could be such a joy; such an adventure. 

My mom’s cuisine, though delicious, was resolutely basic and tame.  This morsel of bun gave a taste – literally – of an undiscovered kingdom.  It was magical how a few commonplace ingredients could fuse in a bowl with such an exquisite result.

My enduring passion for all things edible – and my resultant weight flux – stem directly from Avril Corbett’s rock cake on that September noon in 1980.

******

We were A Posse after that.  And didn’t Nas and I think we were It, congregating with the lads at breaktimes!  Careering about the playground impersonating superheroes: duffel coats draped around us like capes; top toggle done up, arms outstretched, free of sleeves. 

The Beano was our bible; we conversed in Dennis the Menace speak.  ‘Menacing’ was the ultimate compliment – it was our precursor to the ‘wicked’ that would resonate in playgrounds of the future – whilst ‘soppy’ (the tag Dennis levelled at his nemesis, Walter Softie) the ultimate affront.  I even cajoled my granny into knitting me a black and red striped jumper like the one sported by the comic book Menace for more than fifty years.  I adored that jumper.  I wore it until I grew so big it fitted like a threadbare bra top.

The majority of Class 1H’s female members fell into the Soppy category: playing mommy to their newborn baby dolls.  Not that I disliked dolls altogether.  Barbie and Sindy made perfect stooges for Crackerjack-inspired stunts. 

The gang were all devotees of this madcap teatime show, fronted by Stu Francis – catchphrase: ‘Ooh, I could crush a grape!’ – in which contestants little older than us competed in slapstick games, the losers being punished (or rewarded) by having buckets of neon, viscous gunge emptied over their heads.  Lucky pigs!  You could keep your Blue Peter badges; I dreamed of appearing on Crackerjack and winning a pencil.

Karl and I once amassed an illicit cache of flour, milk, tomato puree, food colouring and washing-up liquid from our respective families’ kitchens.  We tipped the lot into the first receptacle we could find (which happened to be a purple plastic jelly mould) and, utilising the handle of Dad’s toothbrush, whisked it to a soup-like texture.

Then we sadistically lined up my bevy of Barbie dolls in the sink and staged our own, low budget version of Crackerjack, cackling as we poured the gloriously revolting swill over their plastic blonde heads.  The Barbies showed no signs of objection to their mucky plight; they just went on beaming vacuously away.  Mom and Avril were livid, however, when they next visited their depleted cupboards.

‘You naughty girl!  Have you any idea how much washing-up liquid costs me?’

Well no, I hadn’t.  It is one of the blessings of childhood: to be supremely ignorant of the value of money; to have no concept of ‘wastage.’

So when parents and other moral watchdogs bemoan the pernicious power of television over youngsters’ pliant minds, I hark back to my Crackerjack phase and have no choice but to agree.

I was a true telly addict.  I simply loved to be entertained.  The ‘idiot box,’ as our sanctimonious headmaster Mr Tucker (a name with some convenient rhymes) dubbed it, enthralled me – and still does, though I am peculiarly ashamed about admitting this.  It could be that TV-viewing is perceived as a pastime of the ‘sad,’ the jobless, the housebound, or those who for some other reason enjoy no life beyond their living room.  Or perhaps it is the sense of being ‘caught out’ which has never truly left me since the day I feigned a sore throat to avoid school, and later padded out of bed to watch the kids’ programmes.

‘You can’t be very poorly if you’re sitting up glued to that thing,’ Mom commented sagely.  Whilst not quite fathoming why being unwell ought to render one incapable of operating a remote control, I felt an uncomfortable nugget of guilt forming in my stomach.  It sat there for the rest of the day, heavy and cold like an ice cube, totally expunging the fun of bunking off.

Even now, this ‘ice cube’ resurfaces if I so much as peek at Bargain Hunt during my infrequent (and legitimate, I might add) spells of sick leave.  How silly it is, the way we never quite shed the paranoia of our youth.

Stationery was another ‘thing’ of mine.  I spent hours fussily colour-coding my crayons – and, like many of my contemporaries, collected novelty rubbers (the erasing kind, you understand).

This would be an unthinkable hobby to twenty-first century kids, deleting their spidery misspellings with nice, politically correct, odourless rubbers.  All the ice cream, flower and chocolate shaped ones, which smelled so gorgeously authentic, were outlawed years ago: too many duped kiddies having choked in attempts to eat them.  It is hard to believe they were once all the rage, and the subject of some serious bartering in the Holly Lane playground.

My own favourite was a hamburger – with detachable layers of bun, onion, meat and lettuce that for some reason utterly fascinated me – which I coaxed from Felix Bennett in exchange for a car-shaped one.  I coveted this burger because its uncanny beefy reek reminded me of the best birthday party ever: Karl’s eighth, on the seventeenth of October 1982.

‘What’s McDonald’s, Karl?’ I had queried, scanning my invitation.

‘Oh, this new restaurant Stef’s been on about.  He went with the scouts.  It sounds totally menacing!  They do burgers and chips – ’cept they call ’em ‘french fries’….’

‘French fries?’

‘Yeh.  And you get ’em straight away, you don’t have to wait or anything!  An’ they do this great big massive hamburger called a Big Mac, that’s this tall – ‘  His hand hovered a good eighteen inches above the table to demonstrate.  No wonder my eyes had turned to glitterballs and my mouth was frozen in the ‘OW’ of a silent Wow.

It is years since I had a hamburger, and the only fast food I now bother with is liable to come from Pret À Manger, but I can never forget the early magic of the now ubiquitous ‘Macky D’s.’  A vivacious, slick, red and yellow slice of Stateside culture which had landed in a Black Country littered with hot pork sandwich shops.  Uninitiated Dudley kids were presented with a plethora of new choices: Eat in or takeaway?  Small or regular fries?

My birthday, four months later, was marked with a new experience too – my first outing to a cinema.  My parents escorted my knot of mates and me to the Dudley Odeon (which is now a Gala bingo hall) to see ET – the Extra-Terrestrial, Steven Spielberg’s new epic which was still luring the crowds two months into its release.

I was spellbound – and distraught.  I can remember slurping orange pop at an unladylike volume to disguise my snuffles.  Tomboys – like real boys – did not cry.  It was part of the protocol.

Karl was not hoodwinked, though he gallantly withheld my mortifying secret from the gang.  He could have easily reaped a few cheap sniggers out of a soppy sobbing girl, but chose not to.  It was an attribute I esteemed in him – he was never a bully; never a piss-taker.

Not that he didn’t land me in a scrape or two.

I was ambling through Dudley Market Place one summer Saturday in 1983, tracksuit-clad as usual, my pudgy hand clasped by the most wonderful person in the world – Mrs Marjorie Danks.

Ah, Granny Danks!  Mother to my mom and Aunty Irene, fount of innumerable sweets and owner of a fluffed-up ginger pompom of a cat called Buster.

I was her first – and, I strongly suspected, favourite – grandchild, three years older than my cousin Sasha, who lived in Gloucester.

Marge was widowed – having nursed Granddad Syd through cancer when I was regrettably too young to appreciate either his presence or her self-sacrifice – and doggedly buoyant, capable and practical.  She told jokes, wore trousers and, best of all, was not one of those kissy grandmas who clamp you in talc-scented hugs while burbling about how much you have purportedly grown since your last encounter.  She was full of humour, and singularly understanding of my dress and skirt phobia.

‘Leave the wench be, our Valerie,’ I overheard her retort to one of Mom’s hand-wringing laments on the subject of her ‘boyish’ daughter, ‘it’s a phase.  She’ll grow out of it, in time.’

It became tradition that I would spend Saturdays with Granny Danks, either at her little terrace in Netherton or trawling around the shops of Dudley.  I found the latter activity tedious, but gamely bore it because it involved catching a bus, and public transport was another thrill to die for.  Yes, really!  Despite the vomit-coloured seats, cigarette butts and obligatory wild-eyed, anoraked man muttering to himself in the back row, I felt like a princess being chauffeured around at an elevation that afforded me views into people’s gardens.

There was always edible recompense for my patience, be it a bag of Teddy Gray’s herbals or, in summer, an ice cream from the Mr Whippy van that tinkled up Granny’s road.  Then she would invariably frizzle up some fish fingers while I played with Buster in front of Jim’ll Fix It

It was under her influence that I fell in love with cats.  Their selfishness, their disdain, the way they succeed in being cuddly and adorable despite maintaining an air of classy aloofness.  Dogs are such riffy, messy, licky beasts.  Ugh!  I can’t stand them; never have.

Anyway, this was a particularly interminable shop-trawl.  Granny scrutinised every window, intermittently tempted enough to actually venture through a door.  It was a good eight years before I acquired any fervour for fashion, so the rails of clothes were mere nylon blurs to me.  When I grew up, I haughtily vowed, I would never be like these silly women clucking around me, pawing every sleeve and hem as though it were spun of gold.  What was the attraction?  Clothes, in my book, were Soppy.

I stifled a sigh and blotted a clammy palm down my velour leg, hopeful that today might be an ice cream van day.  We paused – again – outside Littlewoods, and as Granny stood riveted to a display of vests, I was sidetracked by the funky pumping beats of a ghetto blaster a little distance away.  A swelling crowd was applauding and gasping as three black kids threshed about on crash mats, with acrobatic disregard for gravity.  A head-spin here, a back-flip there.  They were amazing.

Karl and Stef Corbett evidently agreed.  There was no mistaking those rangy, tow-headed forms at the front of the pack, each astride a bike.  Karl waved.  This unforeseen diversion ousted all thoughts of Granny and her thermals from my mind, and I marched over to join them.

‘All right, Zo.  Look – it’s Felix.  Bostin’ dancer, isn’t he?’

To my astonishment, the tiniest, smiliest member of this agile trio was indeed Felix Bennett.  While the bigger lads concentrated on the more convoluted routines, he was charming the old ladies with an exaggerated cuteness very reminiscent of Michael Jackson in his Jackson Five days.  It was working.  Penny after penny clinked into the red baseball cap strategically upturned on the flagstones.

I felt poor and juvenile having no coppers of my own to donate.  This act was a colossal improvement on the doleful buskers who usually weaved about the Market Place with their squeaky fiddles and inharmonious harmonicas – often accompanied by equally sad-eyed dogs, whose roles were doubtlessly to deflect attention from their masters’ scant talent.  I could have watched these boys all day.

‘Are them his brothers?’

‘Ar.  Delroy and Gary.  I’m going to ask me mom for a pair of trainers like theirs – they’re just brill!  Who are you here with, Zo?’

‘My gran – oh God, Granny!’

My eyes and mouth dilated in alarm.  Granny didn’t know where I was!

How many times had I rolled my eyes during a parental sermon about the perils of ‘wandering off’?  How bored and patronised I used to feel, because of course I would never do anything so thoughtless!  What did Mom and Dad think I was – a kindergarten kid?

But now the sight of some breakdancers had divested my fickle young head of wisdom, with the result that I had reneged on all those sincere promises.

The old ice cube was back!  Like a spasm of indigestion, it lodged itself painfully in my abdomen.

Dad’s oft-repeated legends about his own boyhood larks, and the ‘good hidings’ they earned him, seemed suddenly less comical.  I was none too sure quite what constituted a ‘hiding’ – good or otherwise – but was certain I had just become a candidate for one.

That was supposing Granny ever found me.  For I was Lost now.  A Missing Child.  I was going to be captured in one of those enormous nets I had seen in cartoons and carted off to the human equivalent of a dog pound.  My parents would make a frantic appearance on Midlands Today, offering a bounteous reward for the safe return of their beloved only daughter.

Through the thud of music, I distinguished a sob some way behind me, followed by croaky snatches of narrative.  ‘Granddaughter – just there – I turned round – disappeared –’

Whipping around, I was aghast to witness my lovely gran being consoled and proffered tissues by a kindly looking woman with a net shopping bag.  The only adult I had seen even on the brink of tears was Mom, when I hacked my hair off.  It was unheard-of for the robust Marjorie Danks to crumple – and the recognition that I was responsible for this aberration was too much for me.  Tears of pure distress dribbled unhindered down my grubby cheeks, despite the presence of lads.

‘I’m here, Granny!’  I bowled myself at her, binding my arms around her comfortably tubby waist.  ‘I’m sorry.’

She returned my hug with passionate gratitude, dropping kiss after kiss on to my hair (for once, I took no exception to this) and muttering, ‘Oh love, oh love, thank God.’

And then, as if ashamed of her lapse into emotion, she thrust me out to arm’s length and assumed her familiar brisk tone.  ‘Don’t you ever take off like that again, Zoe Taylor, d’you hear me?  You frit me to jeth there.  There’ll be no ice cream for you today, my girl!’  Having expected a smack, I was thankful for the relative clemency of my punishment – but still involuntarily grimaced at this news.  ‘You can stop pulling faces an’ all!  Going without might teach you a lesson.  Oh hello – it’s young Karl.’

Granny was fond of Karl, who had been an enthusiastic guest at many a fish finger feast.  Now he stood flashing one of his famously winning grins at her.  Even before he opened his mouth, she was thawing.  I could tell.

‘I’m sorry, Mrs D, it was all my fault.  You mustn’t blame Zoe.  I called her over to see the breakdancers, yer see.  One of them’s in our class.’

Butter wouldn’t melt!

Granny’s shrewd but clearly amused eyes darted between his face and mine, as if to determine whether she was being made fun of.  Then she laughed. An irresistible, joyous chortle that quelled the tension.

‘You won’t tell Mom and Dad about this, will you?’ I implored cheekily, taking advantage of her augmented spirits.
‘Well I ought to, bab, but I won’t.  It’ll only worry them – and it’s not like there’s any harm done.  Just don’t yer go doin’ it again, OK?’

Karl and I exchanged conspiratorial smirks.

I got my ice cream after all.  And an extra croquette potato at dinner.

‘You kids crease me, and no mistake,’ Granny chuckled as she slid it on to my bean-laden plate.  ‘That lad hasn’t half got the gift of the gab.  He’d reduce anyone to putty in his little hands.  He’ll go far – mark my words!’

Chapter 1

Classmates
Chapter 1

 

‘Well I think you ought to dig out your ra-ra skirt for your little trip back to the past,’ Denise teased, wringing a Hellmann’s sachet over her rocket salad, ‘bet he’d love you in polka dots!’

‘Ooh, kinky,’ Heather giggled, through a splutter of Reef, ‘very Bananarama!’

‘How about a FRANKIE SAYS T-shirt?’ I actually possessed such a garment, an iconic memento from my first ever concert. ‘Might be a wee bit tight now, though. I got it when I was ten.’

‘You could wear it as a crop top.’

‘Why not team it with a pair of fluorescent legwarmers?’

‘Hey, Zoe, do your pixie boots still fit?’

I groaned in affected dismay and avoided answering by shovelling a forkful of prawns into my mouth.

Most people do not form vivacious friendships with their colleagues, or even socialise comfortably with them at all, so I count myself fortunate to have these girls.

The Tunney works nestles on the outskirts of Lichfield, and at least once a week the three of us pour out of it and directly into one of the ambrosial cathedral city’s many eateries for our tea. This particular Tuesday was jacket-potato-in-Lloyds-Cafe night.

‘Why did I ever agree to do this mad thing anyway?’ I wailed, hurling the fork down and clutching my head melodramatically. ‘Just think – I could be spending this Friday getting trolleyed in O’Neill’s with you pair. Or snuggling up in front of V. Graham Norton with Jerry and a nice bottle of red! Instead – ‘

‘You’ll be doing something that sounds a hell of a lot more exciting,’ said Denise firmly. ‘Terrifying, more like.’

‘Think positive, girl! You’ve got plenty of nights when you can tuck yourself up all nice and safe with your Jerry. It’s fun to live dangerously once in a while. And this is a very special night.’

‘But Jerry might miss me,’ I mock-simpered, veiling my excitement behind a very silly excuse.

‘I bet he won’t! He’ll be glad to have the place to himself.’

‘Well you two had better be thinking of me on Friday!’

‘Thinking of you? We’ll be dead jealous won’t we, Heath?’

‘Sneak out to the toilet, won’t you,’ begged Heather, ‘and send us a text? Let us know how it’s going. We want all the juice!’

‘I should imagine I’ll be spending most of the night in the toilet. Cowering!’

‘Going back to clothes, though, Zo,’ Denise set her empty Metz bottle down with a typically decisive air, ‘you should knock his eyes out! Put something sexy on, make him see what he’s been missing out on all these years.’

Heather, biting into a stalk of cress, pulled a sceptical face. ‘Nothing too slutty, though.’

‘No, don’t want to look desperate, do I?’

‘You wanna show him how you’ve moved on. Show him what a gorgeous and sophisticated PR babe you’ve become. Be smart, but don’t go OTT.’

‘Smart-casual, you mean?’

‘Yeah. Understated. Less is more, and all that.’

******

Musing on the girls’ scrambled pointers, I plundered my wardrobe and chests, attaining an eventual shortlist of cerise skirt versus scarlet trousers.

The skirt was a recent purchase, and I adored its slimming flow and sensual feel against my thighs – but when the momentous Friday came, I felt all wrong and formal in it. My mood was more trousery.

The trousers were of a florid satin, with an Oriental flower pattern twining prettily up each leg in gold thread. They had a happy colour; a casual, though feminine, texture. Skirts were what I wore to the office; these seemed to say more about what I was.

‘Now I need a top, Jerry!’

Jerry responded with one of his slanted, adoring gazes that made my eyes and smile involuntarily crinkle up with fondness. How empowering, to know I had someone who loved me in anything.

But of no particular help to me now. Granted, many a young girl these days hit the town attired in bra and trousers – but I was no exhibitionist; moreover, I thought wryly, tonight was about being retro and not concerning myself with the fashion practices of ‘these days’.

‘What am I doing, sweetheart?’ I half sang in a demented, Shakespearean heroine sort of way, squeezing Jerry’s face between my hands. ‘Oh sod this – let’s stick some sounds on, get us in the mood!’

My Birmingham home is served by Heart FM, a station with a Friday evening music policy of ‘great memories from the 70s right the way through to the 90s.’ I twizzled with the radio in my kitchen until Kylie Minogue’s Step Back in Time – appropriately enough – bounced groovily around the wall units. Who’d have thought she’d still be going strong?

Padding back to the bedroom past my bookcase, my eyes zoomed in on a royal blue spine bearing the legend ‘Capewell 91.’ Heaving up the box of Tunney’s Double Bubbles – samples from work – that I illogically filed atop this book, I stroked dust from its jacket and carried it through to my room, brooding. The Capewell High School yearbook! Published during our fifth year, our final in uniform.

I perched on a corner of the bed, wistfully and gratefully sidetracked from my bewildering wardrobe. I soon found my class: a jumble of awry ties, Jesus Jones hair and the kind of elaborately bored expressions no-one but teenagers seem capable of pulling. I traced a finger along the tiers of monochrome faces, speculating upon which ones I might re-encounter this evening.

Tina Skidmarks (a soubriquet I never used to her face, funnily enough): defiant pout, a perm that would not look out of place in Whitesnake – I grimaced at the idea of attempting small talk over a vol-au-vent with a sharper, brasher, twenty-eight-year-old mutation of that.

Janine Parrott, my one-time best friend – wouldn’t mind seeing her, though. Wonder what she was up to these days?

Simon Floyd; Nasreen Uppal; Bradley ‘nose-picker’ Round – and, oh Christ, there was me! The obligatory Zitty Pig on End of Row. I looked like the ‘BEFORE’ shot from a Weight Watchers commercial (an analogy rooted in truth – since it was shortly after it was taken that I ceased falling back on the old ‘puppy fat’ excuse and decided renouncing my daily hot dog and chocolate cornflake cake fix might be a more constructive approach to slimming).

Claudette Albert; Nathan Dickinson; Karl Corbett.

Karl Corbett!

Towering over the back row; his personality almost tangible through the shiny page. One of those enviably photogenic individuals, whom all cameras captured mid-laugh. I gazed, absorbing and remembering the energetic physique; the gregarious beam; the rascally green eyes, delicately fringed by those oh so tormenting lashes.

******

A colleague acquainted me with Friends Reunited last year. I couldn’t stifle a wow or two the first time those red names unravelled before me, so ‘read-me’ dramatic against the background of hockey pitch green.

My guts did a funny little tumble as I scrolled down and there, nestling in that crimson list, was ‘Karl Corbett.’ I read, with elaborate casualness, how he qualified as a vet (he’d wanted to be one from about fourteen) after 5 years studying in the sunny West Country, where I learnt to drink cider and munch carrots. (Yeah, great.) I work at a practice in Halesowen (Halesowen – woo!) close to where I live with my pet cat, Dog. (Dog! The old Corbett humour never changed.) I am still single.

STILL SINGLE?

Still. Single.

Mmm.

I belonged to the same category, of course, since Neil’s departure – though, seven months on, still cherished independence and sought no urgent successor.

I spent my lunch hour hunched, rapt, over my iBook, and my afternoon enveloped in a sugary fuzz of dormant memories. All those names;all those lives.

Some of my classmates had blossomed dramatically; others seemed yet to evolve from giggly puberty. Some had become teachers, accountants, lawyers, secretaries; others were students. (Still? What did they plan to do – remain in education until retirement age?) A handful had spouses and families; a great many more had what they demurely termed ‘significant others’ one or two were still at home with Mom.

I submitted my own life precis:

After an English degree at the University of Central England, I landed my dream job – doing PR for Tunney’s. What better way to spend my days – writing about chocolate?!! I share a flat in Sutton Coldfield with my cat Jerry.

Call it a premonition, but I actually began imagining how fascinating and bizarre it might be to mill in a room conversing with people I hadn’t so much as thought about since I was eighteen.

But I would never have done anything about it were it not for Karl.

It was his fault I was now sitting in my underwear, poring over an ancient and rather mortifying photograph.

He was the reason I was about to spend my sacred Friday night at a school reunion.

******

It was six weeks ago that, while sifting through an avalanche of e-mails from my mother (a recent night school attendee and devoted Internet convert), an unfamiliar username had blazed across my Inbox. Well, not exactly unfamiliar – there had only ever been one ‘Kcorb’ in my life – but it had been almost a decade….

I was appalled by how clumsily I groped at my mouse and jabbed it at the ‘OPEN’ icon.

Get a grip, wench! You shouldn’t be shaking. Nor should your little heart be leaping away like a space hopper on a trampoline.

His words seemed to spring off the screen as if in 3-D: too alive and feisty to be confined by a fifteen-inch monitor. I read them aloud, but heard his voice rather than my own: reciting in exuberant Black Country, all strident and cheesy, like a DJ.

Hi Zo,
Saw yer name on Friends Reunited. Thought you might be interested in a reunion I’m organising to mark 10 years since our release from the prison that was Capewell High.
I want to see as many Class of 93 members as poss @ the Brewers Wharf, Merry Hill – 8pm, Fri 15th August, to enjoy a drink – or 3 :o) – and swap memories.
Be there or be a triangle!
Your old mate,
Karl

That corny humour of old. The nonchalant matiness that paid no heed to the fact we had exchanged not so much as a Christmas card since?well – since things went wrong.

Unnervingly independent of my brain, my hot fingers double-clicked ‘REPLY’ and clacked out an effusive paragraph notifying Kcorb that yes, I would be delighted to attend.

Whoa! Delighted? Where did that come from?

I vaguely recalled Dad going to a reunion when I was very young, the twenty-fifth anniversary of his grammar school exodus. A quarter of a century was a more curative lapse (middle age having the capacity to mellow the meanest bully, or render bald and jowly the most dangerously attractive heart-throb) than a mere decade. Ten years could turn yawning wounds to scabs?but scabs still bled from time to time.

I indecisively swirled the cursor around the stark screen as I dissected his message, as though it were an A-level English assignment.

The tone was sufficiently impersonal to imply he had posted duplicates to Claudette, Nathan and all the others registered on the website. And look: he actually said he wanted to see as many Class of 93 members as poss. There was safety in numbers (oh, I could always rely on a good cliche) and anyway it would be thrilling to catch up with former peers; reminisce about verruca socks, Bunsen burners and getting pissed on Babycham. That was why I had suddenly gone all thirsty and winded, the way I did after an aerobics class. Yes!

Gulping, I fired the cursor at ‘SEND.’

******

It was well after seven, Kylie had long segued into Snap’s The Power, and I was still trouser- and bra-clad.

Clapping the yearbook shut, I vaulted coltishly upright and began zealously hauling black tops out of my wardrobe. This was easier said than done; it was a veritable sea of black in there. (At precisely what point in my life had I managed to amass all these homogeneous, unwearable garments?)

Crop top – no, far too sexy. String vest – ditto. You ain’t fourteen anymore, girl: off to the youth club disco in your trowled-on lipstick, in blatant quest of a snog! Your goal is sophistication and understatement. Lacy short-sleeved – too flouncy and scratchy. Halterneck – too holiday-ish. Aaarggh! Long-sleeved – forget it, I’d roast on such a sultry night.

The lone contender then was an Oasis spaghetti-strap jobbie: unfussy, with a modest neckline, yet flatteringly clinging.

I smoothed the glossy vest over my hips and nodded with relief at my full-length reflection. Yes, Heather was right – less was definitely more. A squirt or two of Eternity, and I was fit. I flipped the radio off and gathered up my handbag.

‘Be good, Jerry,’ I called, blowing a kiss to my pet, who was now on his haunches in the centre of my bed, his sooty face all gorgeously indignant at being abandoned for the evening. ‘Wish me luck!’

******

My asthmatic Renault Clio (the only car I have ever possessed) knows every pothole between Sutton Coldfield and Sedgley, the Black Country village where I was – to quote my lovely old granny – born, bred and buttered. I have been a happy immigrant in Sutton, an elegant borough north of Brum, since discovering in my uni days how much I liked expedient, anonymous city life. However, my pilgrimages ‘home’ are frequent – particularly when the lure of Mom’s Sunday lunch overpowers. I can virtually smell the Yorkshire pudding down my phone twenty miles away. That cosy, doughy odour of home.

The posters may be long gone, but my teenage bed remains permanently, reassuringly aired, in that sunny den with the mint green wallpaper – my sanctuary for twenty-one years. Where I would entomb myself with The Word on mute, in the midnight company of my homework, diary or Walkman.

Where I dreamed of Karl.

Sedgley perches two miles north-west of the Black Country’s ‘capital,’ Dudley, the historic colliery town famed for siring Lenny Henry, Sue Lawley and Norman Pace, the moustache-free half of Hale and Pace. I can reach it in half-an-hour, via the relentless dual carriageways that slash through the urban clutches known as Great Barr, West Bromwich and Tipton.

I reprised this route tonight – almost – tranquilly enough for the bulk of it: chugging dauntlessly down the familiar roads, drumming the steering wheel to the Heart FM soundtrack. My insides only started to whisk up as I approached Dudley and had to digress south along the new bypass to Merry Hill, the Pluto-sized shopping and leisure complex in the town of Brierley Hill. I was not so much lost now as disorientated, in a landscape dimly recognisable but painted at a distorting angle.

My innate affection for the Black Country had inevitably been diluted, by time away, into the more removed affection one might feel for a childhood seaside haunt. It was aeons since I had socialised round here. My eyes – tourist’s eyes – were like a pair of bifocals: magnifying features they spent twenty years overlooking when I was a blase native.

On the radio, Pass the Dutchie biddly-biddly-bonged to a close, and the slinky intro of Madonna’s Crazy for You oozed from the speakers.

My face smarted, as though from a slap, then just as swiftly lost its blush and turned all waxy and cold.

This was Our Song.

‘This one was requested by Abbie, out there in Willenhall,’ fawned the DJ, ‘she wants to tell Justin she loves him loads.’

I braked, none too smoothly, at the roundabout, wondering pathetically whether Justin and Abbie had had their first snog to this melty, mid-80s ballad. Beneath a lopsided mirrorball in a British Legion hall?

When Abbie heard it now, did pins and needles stab at her skin? Did Madonna’s smoky vocals seem to resonate at her down a tapering, claustrophobic tunnel?

Turn it off, came an urgent screech inside my brain, put a tape in, anything to silence this portentous music – but my fingers remained masochistically gummed to the steering wheel.

Until I became conscious that I was steering no longer, but in fact was in the pub’s car park, levering up the handbrake and deactivating the engine – killing that disturbing song, at last.

How had I arrived here? I had no recollection of my final mile or two. Clio had somehow navigated the A4036 and skimmed into a parking space with no intermediary loss of life. I had been simply dazed, abstracted?as I was on a certain other night when Crazy for You played.

Slumping against the head-rest, I exhaled slowly and deeply, slowly and deeply, a technique acquired from the softly voiced-over relaxation tapes that counselled me through A-levels and finals. I felt like I had been holding my breath for about three hours.

Brewers Wharf clientele poured around me in cliques and duos: uniformly glossy and young, like extras from Hollyoaks. All too youthful to have been members of my class, unless time – or Botox – had been exceptionally kind to them.

This pub had always been colossally popular. I tried to calculate when my last visit was. With him, undoubtedly, so I’d have been a student, and wouldn’t have felt half so incongruous and aged as I did right now amongst all these jewelled navels and Atomic Kitten hair.

Relaxation Tape Man had prescribed a mantra for tremulous moments. I recited it now, as I slithered out of the car and became the tail of the bar-bound pageant.

I am calm and peaceful.

I am calm and peaceful.

Nudging the bar door open, tentatively, I froze on the periphery of the tableau, exploring the waves of faces for flutters of recognition. None came.

I am calm and peaceful.

I struggled to radiate airy, defiant, ‘no, I haven’t been stood up’ vibes, to deflect these kids’ pitying stares.

And then I spotted him.

My body gave an eerie little judder as my eyes honed in on him like telescopic lenses.

Lolling gently on the bar, the quintessence of nonchalance.

Ordering his traditional Fosters. Even in profile, semi-obscured by a posse of on-the-pull Gareth Gates clones, his essential ‘Karlness’ shone through. He was as boyish as ever. I knew he wouldn’t have aged; his was the kind of face that would look the same at seventy.

I seemed to be rooted there like a gormless tree for about forty hours, just staring at him. And then my trusty feet took over, in the same fashion my car had minutes earlier: surreally launching me across the floor independently of brain commands.

I slithered through the crowd, murmuring excuse mes and sorrys as I bustled between couples and trod on toes, until I was within Lynx-smelling distance of him.

‘All right, Karl,’ I cheeped.