On our own at 6am, squatting out among the tarpaulins, we met these three strange boys. Charlie threw me a look from behind her shades that from her twisted-up mouth I knew meant the end of our peace. I don’t remember where we’d been the night before-some dive up the hill in our stretchy velvet dresses with matching pink streaks in our hair.

We were perched up on this canvas stuff; it was covering stacks of deck-chairs waiting for the day to begin. We’d climbed up the ropes that bound them together. The smell from the beach was rank, so we made a pact never to set foot on it. Dog mess and chips and raw sewage. Still, the council seemed to clean the sand with its plough every morning. This is what we were watching when the boys turned up from nowhere.
‘Alright?’ they shouted when they were beside us.
They seemed to find it more difficult than we had to climb up the awnings.’Aye,’ Charlie said, imitating their accents-sprawling Lancashire, thick as mud.
‘What you two lasses doing in a place like this then?’
“Appen we’re takin’ in the sunrise like,’ Charlie drawled without looking back at them.
‘Ey-you takin’ the piss or what?’ The first boy had a face like an arrow, huge dilated pupils and veins bulging from his forehead.
‘Nah, mate, you’re giving it away.’ She used to throw that line around all the time. I never saw anyone hit her back.
‘Eh?’
‘Exactly.’
She was amused though, I could tell. Otherwise she’d have ignored it. She turned around to face them and took the fag from the second boy’s hand.
‘Ey you! I was just about to light that.’
‘So was I.’ She lit the fag and blew smoke around their heads.
‘You might have asked like.’
‘You might have offered like.’
He was older, less shaky than the other two. His hair had been shaved into oblivion and he was watching the beach-combing rather than us.
‘Bin out dubbin’ then?’
‘What’s it look like?’
‘Where ’bouts?’
‘Can’t remember.’
‘That good, eh?’
‘That bad more like.’
They sat down and shifted the deck-chair mountain.
‘Watch it, soft lads!’ the Shaved Boy shouted at the other two. There was silence for a few moments and for a bit I thought we had them on our side and we could all sit there and just chill.
‘Why you both wearin’ shades then?’
‘Daylight.’
‘Take ’em off for us.’
‘No.’
‘Go on.’
‘She will,’ Charlie pointed at me,’she’s got great eyes.’ I could have killed her.
‘Go on then.’
I had nothing to say. I tipped the glasses to the e!ld of my nose and looked over them.
‘There, what’d I tell you?’ Charlie looked triumphantly at me. Shaved Boy was unimpressed.
‘Piss-holes in the snow,’ he said, a!ld I laughed to cover the insult. Charlie put her arm around me.
‘Should see the state of your eyes. Looks like someone used them for target practice. And a bull’s-eye every time.’ She kissed my cheek. ‘What are you three doing here anyway?’ They weren’t leaving. The first looked sheepish.
‘We work here.’
‘What, in Blackpool!’
‘No here. On the prom. We rent out these deck-chairs.’
Charlie guffawed.
‘Coo-ull.’ She was asking for it-always.
‘S’alright…’
‘It’s only for the summer though. Saro and me got a good thing going up at Landed.’
‘Don’t tell me. You’re DJs?’ She did a massive fake yawn.
‘Gettin’ there.’
‘Aren’t we all.’
‘Depends on where there is, dunnit?’

The third one in the group, who like me said nothing, rolled onto his back, his eyes shut, hugging his green quilted jacket around him. We all stared at him, wanted him to stop breathing. Or something. Shaved Boy’s second in command, wearing a red beanie hat, raised a finger to his lips and lifted his trainer boot up parallel with his mate’s side. He struck out a hard, mean kick.
‘Agghhh … you fucker!’
Shaved Boy just watched the other two begin to hit one another and eventually fall down onto the sand in their scramble.
‘After you.’
He pointed to the sand. I caught the scars on his arm and so did Charlie. There was a horrible moment where I saw her shrug and I knew she was going to go down there with them for what. We’d made up our minds not to touch the sand. She could go down to that pit if she wanted to but I had to stay.

I watched the four of them for a while. The two boys still wrestling. Red Hat seemed to be winning. Charlie and Shaved Boy walking towards the sea. They all got smaller and smaller and a wind came up between me and them. I saw them, larking about underneath the wall, as if they’d never been anywhere the night before, as if they were all brothers and cousins and our parents were about to open the car for sandwiches and stuff that tasted of nothing much.

I was swinging my legs and thinking of real piss-holes in the snow. Charlie was the first one I did that with, outside her boyfriend’s house in Dollis Hill. Nice street. We’d travelled down for the weekend, her not wanting to be alone because he was a lot older. Anyway, he wasn’t home when we arrived at that nice front gate, concrete garden with mini-trees every three squares. We’re bursting to go. I remember it hurting on the tube, undoing the buttons on my cords for relief and then a fifteen-minute walk and all the time Charlie saying, ‘It’ll be OK, chuck, he’s got this great house he told me about,’ and the thought of sitting on a real clean, even wooden, seat spurs me on and on. So we stand there and look at each other and the empty windows look back and laugh; the bell keeps going and going as Charlie hits it harder and harder with her thumb, then with her feet. Champion, aerobic leg-kicks. I couldn’t move. There were people carrying home their shopping when Charlie giggled and pulled her pants down. There in front of only a small brick wall, it gushed out and I couldn’t bear it either except I ran between two cars where at least two sides were blocked. It was harder than I thought to keep it in the right place and off clothes. I kept moving which made it worse but still worth it. The deflated feeling when it’s, over like that when you’ve been stretched too far and suddenly it’s too empty and cold inside you. Then pulling jeans up, comparing the splashes on our boots, watching mine slide into the drain and hers sink into the concrete, while the street lights made it orange like the blobs when you close your eyes.
‘That’s for him,’ she said, and I knew then that nobody lived there that we’d ever met or ever would.

 

They had stopped walking and I knew I didn’t have to go down there and could at least keep my part of the pact. I’d get her about it later when we were curled back in our sleeping-bags on the floor of her aunt’s pub.

I watched the insides of my sunglasses as, sometimes, if the sun wasn’t too bright, I could see behind me with them. It was still too dark and electrified to see much. Screaming arcade games and their doodly tunes going on and on and that horrible chicken cluck they have outside every arcade that lays eggs for fifty pence but only gives you plastic rings and key fobs inside. I listened to them for a while and sat up cross-legged in a lotus position with my hands on my knees like the collection of Chinese Buddhas Charlie’s mum had in their front lounge. I had to pull the skirt of my dress up around my waist to sit like this but nobody could see and it felt so good not to have to have my legs pulled together like a penguin.

The wind blew my hair back and I wished only for them to shut up that racket from the beach. Beyond it was all the lovely rhythm of the tide deciding to come in for the day, pulling you on and on. You wouldn’t hear that during the day and I would be sure to tell Charlie everything she was missing. I heard her laugh-a clipped, bark, ing sound-and the following cheer from Shaved Boy, joining her at the arm now. I closed my eyes and let the sand blow onto me. It was going to be a day for sunburn and ice creams. Long licks and babies’ cries when they fell to the ground with a slop. Mess and disappointment; some mothers picking them up again because why waste two pound? Like my cousin all my family laughs at at Christmas because she used to pick chewing-gum off the street and put it back in her gob. It used to make me feel sick but I’ve seen worse things since then.

My head clearing at the front now and I needed orange juice so much I almost left the deck-chairs to wander back to the pub. Everything there was free. Auntie Sandra poured Tia Maria into our morning coffee and winked as though it was an accident. I drank so much the first night we were there that my sick was black. Charlie laughed and called me The Omen or whatever that girl was who spewed feathers. I told her it was the Guinness but we’d been on lager that time. It hasn’t happened since. Charlie only so cross as well because some of it went on her sleeping-bag and she had to get up while I cleaned it under the taps.

 

I was hearing less of the palaver from down the front—Charlie probably copping off with Shaved Boy. Too dangerous. He could have anything with those scars.

When people tell you we weren’t taught anything at that school it is a lie. What we learned is another thing altogether. We were told those facts of life three different times. Two girls in the class were swollen to balloon size and proud of it. Their belly buttons looked like saucers. They had something we didn’t—all their own. Other people would later have so much more than they would ever have—they knew it and pushed their stomachs out further. It made no difference how much free stuff they gave us. Why believe someone who shouts you all the rest of the day?The only thing we took any notice of was the school nurse telling us to stop using crisp packets behind the school disco. And that was because it hurt, not because she said so.

Anyway, I couldn’t hear the boys scrapping anymore and because of the quiet I couldn’t enjoy the sea either. I started to have this bad feeling about there being only one of her and three of them. Still, I was reluctant to put my feet on the beach so I shouted her name—a bit stupid really, I’ll admit, because if she was having a good time she wouldn’t have answered and if it was a nightmare then the chances are she wouldn’t be let open her mouth.
‘Charleeee!
I did it three or four times before I thought it was a bit weird the way the noise had suddenly disappeared. The wind was rising and although it was getting brighter there was no sign of any tourists. The beach-plough had gone over to the other section of sands a good mile away. There was nothing to tell me where they had gone.
Then I heard her shout.
‘Kaaaaath!’ It came from straight out ahead. I still saw nothing.
‘Kaaa … ‘ It was shut off by something. Where the hell were they? A cloud of birds flew up from around one of the pier posts.

They ran past me on their way out—Red Hat and the pink head of Shaved Boy in front. They galloped over the sand, up the prom and disappeared on back into the shops and houses. I never thought about running after them. I was just glad they’d gone. I was about to jump down when I saw her, struggling to pull down her soaking dress-it sticking to her and darkened with more than sea water. The state of her. The cheapest dye we could find, bleeding down from her hair all over her arms and dripping off her hands. She leant against me on the way back to the pub, kept repeating the fact that she’d lost my knickers and she was sorry and then she was laughing because we both knew how much she hated my cheap, nasty pants and had only borrowed them because she ran out. We went into the pub through the back door and I made her open her eyes at last.
‘He seemed alright though, didn’t he?’ the first thing she said.
‘You what?’
‘He was alright. It was his mates that went too far.’
l just stared. She had this round, Chinesey face, always looked sort of surprised. Until then I used to tell her she had the face of a blow-up doll, the Oriental Speciality Edition, and the boys we’ve met together have always been the blokes we’d pull when we were out too late and needed to sleep on some floor.
Alright?
‘Alright?’ I said eventually.
‘Yeah, I’m fine.’
She fumbled behind the kegs for her sleeping-bag, shoved off her special dress and put it under her head. She pretended to sleep for ages and I sat there and smoked her last cigarette right in front of her face and she still didn’t open her eyes.