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.

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