Maxine saw him first through the viewfinder of her Snapchat. His face was far-off, turned in the opposite direction to the rest of the crowd, so the strobes picked him out like a full moon. She zoomed in, pulled him into focus, watched for a while. His hair was longer. He’d shaved three slits into his left eyebrow. He was turned to talk to a girl, tall, dancing slightly behind him. They were sharing a Red Stripe.
Maxine put her phone in her bra and shouldered her way outside. The sky was all foamy blues and pinks. Sunrise had come around fast. She found a corner of the smoking area to roll a cigarette, her ears ringing out into the cold.
His name was George. Maxine had met him in Primark, the last day of summer before the first day of secondary school. Their mums had got chatting while shopping for uniforms, last minute and on the cheap.
school shop sixteen pound a polo
the cheeky bastard fuckers
So they’d stood side by side in silence, their eyes on the floor, as trousers were held up to their narrow hips, shirt sleeves pulled tight along the lengths of their arms. Maxine could hear George’s iPod Shuffle, very faint, left going in his jacket.
changing rooms jesus have you seen that queue
size up Georgie we’re not doing this next year
Afterwards, outside, while their mums smoked cigarettes and laughed like they’d known each other for years, George had pressed one of his headphones into Maxine’s palm, and together they’d listened to Sean Kingston’s ‘Beautiful Girls,’ peering out from under their hoods as the low autumn light made stripes on the pavement.
alright love let’s get this bus
you’ll look out for each other you two won’t you
Maxine had only been at the club a few hours. They’d stumbled across it on their way back from a house party shut down by noise complaints. Jos, the friend Maxine had come with, had disappeared a while back. Maxine had assumed that Jos had sloped off home, but she noticed her now through the haze of the smoking area, crouched low and crawling across the black concrete.
you ok down there
yep all good just lost an earring
oh right when
fucking ages no idea
Maxine helped Jos to her feet, waited as she rubbed her palms hard up and down her jeans. The dirt was thick as tar, almost glossy in the new daylight.
you got any wipes or anything
there’s sinks inside
you know what Max I’ll just have one more look they’ll be here somewhere
Maxine dropped her cigarette to the ground and stepped on it. There was nothing for her to do now but go back inside. On the dance floor, George had turned back to face the DJ. His head bobbed gently to the music, a buoy on a calm sea. Maxine leant against the far wall at the opposite end of the room, next to the door she’d come in by. The crowd had cleared a little while she’d been smoking, so that if George were to turn around he would see her. She stood very still, knowing this, her body reeled in like a kite, waiting.
Maxine was thirteen when her dad moved out. It was then that she’d ended up spending a lot more time with George. Although in school George and Maxine rarely even passed nods in the corridors, their mums had stayed in touch, and long Saturdays spent knocking around each others’ bedrooms had made George’s flat a familiar second base. The lift up to his floor smelt of piss and he was three bus stops further down the route, but anywhere was better than home in those days, where Maxine’s mum shredded up the evenings with her shouting and crying.
stop calling him now please stop
he won’t pick up you know he won’t
it’s not that it’s the answer machine I like to listen to his voice
let me hear his voice
At George’s, Maxine would sit collecting the grime condensed in the grooves of the kitchen table with her fingernail, while George played on his Nintendo DS. At around six, his mum would come home in her leopard coat with polystyrene kebab boxes, and the three of them would sit at the table, eating meat in ribbons and laughing. George didn’t have a dad either. After they’d eaten, his mum would pull the cushions off the sofa and make a bed on the floor for Maxine, where she’d sleep in her uniform, a hot water bottle pulled up beneath her sweatshirt. In the middle of the night, she was often woken by George climbing in beside her.
can’t sleep again
don’t know but it helps sometimes the sound of your breathing
Jos followed Maxine inside after five minutes or so and began working her way around the edges of the room, using the torch on her phone to light up the floor. Maxine didn’t move from her place against the wall, where she watched Jos scurry around like an oversized rat, the back of George’s head nodding incessantly in the background, slightly faster now to keep in time to the beat.
Maxine thought back to the last place she’d seen George. Two Christmases ago, out of the window of her mum’s car. He was walking out a Sainsbury’s, something long and white in his mouth that Maxine took for a cigarette, then realised was a lollipop.
was that George back there Max
no no don’t think so
you sure looked just like him
The DJ let the last song run out to nothing. The overhead lights were turned on abruptly, so the whole room lit up filthy and stale. Maxine watched as everyone began slowly to file out of the club, except Jos, who hadn’t seemed to notice. Some people went to the bar for more drinks but were turned away. The girl that George was with spent a long time untying her jacket from around her waist and pulling it on. George stood waiting, holding her bag out for her to take when she was ready. They were amongst the last people left on the dance floor. Maxine took a step forward, out of the shadow cast by the far wall. George turned finally to face her. He looked up, let his eyes settle on Maxine for a moment, then flick across to the door on her right. Maxine would have questioned if he’d seen her, but she could tell by the way his ears stung red. She let her head swivel, almost of its own accord, so that her eyes could follow George all the way out of the room. He watched the door, unblinking, until he was through it. At one point, he passed so close that she could see the fine, soft hairs on the back of his neck.
Afterwards, when she was sure he had gone, she sunk down into the floor, and sat with her eyes closed, her chin resting on her knees.
It was the summer between year nine and ten, when all the boys smelt of Lynx Africa and Subway. Maxine was a few months from turning fifteen. Her mum had a new boyfriend and a set of boy-girl twins. She seemed very happy and very tired, a map folded back against its creases. Maxine spent most days at home helping; she’d slice cucumbers into sticks that the babies carried off in their mouths to stash behind the couch, where later she’d fish the pieces out again, sogged and linty.
This was also the summer of drinking. George, whose mum stayed out late at weekends, would host small gatherings when the park was rained off. Maxine didn’t show at most, but to one she did.
This one. Everyone sitting in a circle with the rain pounding out against the windows. The drink mostly cheap vodka mixed with rip-off Fanta, or that blue WKD. Someone with wine stolen from their parents, finally got open by pushing the cork down into the bottle with the blunt end of a lighter. A box of straights, found in a drawer in the kitchen and shared about the room. Two people being sick by eleven, one in the toilet and the other in the shower. Maxine and George sharing an armchair, his hand moving up and down her thigh.
you never come around any more
stop touching me like that
have another drink
is there vodka still
And then the next morning, suddenly. Maxine woke with a taste in her mouth like an ashtray, George’s shapes under the sheets, the sound of a fly dying against the window, a thick bruise across her left hip, and blood, on the tissue after the toilet.
what have you done
what do you mean
His face blank but for a light smirk, his head shaking slowly from side to side, his palms turned upwards in front of him. So she left, walked home through the park, with an image in her head that wouldn’t shift: her body as a nut cracked open.
come on girls we’re closing up shop
Maxine raised her head to find the club almost completely deserted. She was alone other than Jos, searching through a pile of beer cans in the corner, and the bouncer who was kicking them out.
been a big night has it
no I’m fine
Maxine lifted herself to standing and walked slowly outside, through the smoking area, onto the street and down to the bus stop. Commuters sat lined up neat in their cars. Birds tweeted. Jos caught up, swung her arm around Maxine’s shoulders.
sorry I wasn’t around much tonight
they weren’t even pricey
some things are hard to let go of
On the bus, they sat top deck at the very front so that it felt like they were driving. The sky bloomed huge and blue above them. Maxine picked at the crust of mascara hanging onto her eyelashes and looked out across the park, where thousands of new daisies had sprung up without warning, overnight.