It’s dark outside, they’ve been here all afternoon: it must be nearly time to leave. But miraculously, it’s only 6 o’clock, and they’re being called for dinner. She’s relieved. No one had said anything about eating, and she hadn’t dared to ask. It seemed somehow greedy or childish.
They traipse down to the kitchen. The others are in what her mother would call ‘skimpy’ things like hot pants and crop tops, not what they’ll ultimately wear, but a kind of transitional apparel in which to perfect hair and make-up. She’s still in her school uniform, slightly overheating. Not knowing about this hot pants phase, she has only brought her outfit for later, stuffed inside a plastic River Island bag.
Around the table, they talk about who’ll be there: Ollie, Ben, the two Chrises, James. The names conjure one vague, composite person: puffa jacket, trainers, thickly gelled hair. Braces? She knows these boys are highly regarded, but doesn’t fully understand why, and feels she must be lacking a sense, one of the key ones like touch or taste.
Dinner is pasta with pesto (pesto—new to her, and delicious) and there’s salad and garlic bread, not the supermarket kind she has at home, but made by her friend’s mother, with fresh baguette. She goes at her plate in a steady, hungry rhythm before realising she’s nearly finished, while some of the others have barely started. They’re picking: leaves, a slice of tomato waving on a fork to punctuate some gossip, and at some point her friend (the host, whose house it is) says, ‘Don’t go near the garlic bread if you’re planning to get any action!’ and they all laugh, the mother does too, in a kind of rueful way, as though she should have known better.
Back upstairs, they resume getting ready; what they’ve supposedly been doing since four o’clock though the first hour, the best bit, was just paging through magazines and bitching about whoever’s lately fallen out of favour. The bedroom is bright and cosy, there’s music playing, the sweet fug of intermingling body sprays not quite masking the harsher profiles of Immac and fake tan.
She’s on the bed painting her nails, the only thing she can think of to take up enough time before everyone starts getting into their outfits. She’s mystified by how involved the process of applying make-up seems to be for everyone else. Hers (a few strokes of mascara, two sweeps of eyeshadow, slick of lip gloss) is done in under a minute; two if she’s trying to string it out. Not that anyone’s paying attention, they’re all running in and out to other mirrors, since the prime location, the full-length one, has been strictly demarcated for hair straightening.
Her nail varnish is pale blue and iridescent. She got it from Miss Selfridge at the weekend when they all went into town. She couldn’t face the scrutiny of trying anything on and left the others to it, drifting instead around the shop, running her fingertips along the clothes before retreating to the accessory carousels to examine the earrings and make up. Her mother let her try red nail polish once for a family wedding, but she was disappointed by how it looked on her small bitten nails. She keeps this new bottle on the windowsill by her bed, hidden by the curtains, and she lies there in the mornings, shaking it up, watching the little metal ball swirl galactic patterns through the blue.
‘What are you wearing?’ someone asks.
Her face burns as she gestures, fingers spread so as not to smudge her nails.
‘Just… this like, black, skirt, and pink, kind of V-neck, top?’
‘Can I try the top on?’
She nods, thrilled, as her friend tugs it down around her, rerigging her bra to optimise her cleavage.
‘That looks soooo good.’
The others chorus in agreement.
‘It looks way better on you than on me.’
‘D’you wanna swap?’
The friend holds up her offering: a gold, lurex halter-neck. She’s hesitant; she doesn’t have a strapless bra.
‘Just wear your normal one and tuck the straps down the sides.’
Kneeling, hunched over on the bed, she manoeuvres herself out of her uniform jumper and shirt and into the lurex, momentarily confounded by its structure. Her friend has wandered off in search of eyelash curlers, and she plucks the fabric doubtfully, hoping both that no one is looking, and for enthusiastic affirmation.
There’s a knock.
‘Everyone decent?’ The friend’s father sticks his head round the door. ‘Still okay to leave in five?’
‘Oh my God, no, we’re nowhere near ready!’
At last they are, swaying slightly on their high heels. In the living room the host’s mother says, ‘We have to get a photo,’ shooing her husband to go and find the camera. Carefully, she props her school bag and the River Island one—now bulging with her school shoes, uniform and coat—against the wall, and takes her place in the line-up. They slot themselves together, arms around waists and shoulders. She smiles widely, braced for the flash.
Her teeth chatter as they stalk across the gravel. They won’t all fit in one car so they’re taking two, and there’s a furtive scrum in the driveway about who should travel in which. She keeps quiet but positions herself strategically, and is pleased to end up in the one with the host. She clambers into the back, getting tangled with her bags in one of the seatbelts, and her friend’s father says, ‘Sure you don’t want those in the boot?’ She shakes her head, cuddling the bags to her. None of the others have brought theirs, and now she thinks she might have made a mistake in asking her mother to collect her directly from the disco.
Their friend in the front keeps twisting around and kneeling up in her seat to talk to them over the headrest. Her father scolds her mildly and only occasionally. He almost seems to enjoy it, his daughter’s ebullience and disregard for rules.
The heating is on full, but she can feel the nervous energy coursing through the car; in their laughter and the hum of the bare skin pressed to hers.
‘Who’s gonna pull tonight?’ the friend up front says, cheekbones shining with bronzer. ‘I bet Elly will, in her sexy gold halter!’
The others screech their approval.
She winces, laughs, ducks behind the bags. ‘No way.’
The friend gasps—she’s spotted one of the Chrises on the street—and urgently winds down the window, letting the cold blast in.
‘Dad, Dad, slow down! I’m gonna shout something. What shall I say—oh no, we’ve missed him, do a U-ey!’
‘But we’re here now.’
‘Just do it!’
‘I’m not going to ‘do a U-ey’ but I will go around the block.’
He swings the car in a smooth, wide turn. They go past school where everyone’s trickling in; boys in their big larval coats and girls not even in cardis. She rubs the condensation on her window: against the darkness, the lobby is stark and unromantic under fluorescent strip lights. In the car they debate what to shout:
‘Hayley thinks you’re fit!’
‘Don’t you dare say my name!’
‘Just: you’re fit?’
‘Gemma Pinder’s a slag?’
They all fall about laughing. Gemma Pinder, who goes to another school, is this Chris’s girlfriend.
‘We’re only kidding Dad! We never would. God!’
The friend jabs on the radio and they all start singing—really, it’s more like shouting, a boisterous, joyful anthem at the very tops of their lungs: ‘So baby if you want me, you’ve got to show me love! Words are so easy to say, alright, you’ve got to show me lo-o-ove!’ They go around the block, dancing in their seats, screaming the lyrics at the bewildered Chris, and she finds herself wishing that they’ll never get there—that they could keep driving around and around like this forever.
They pile out at the front entrance, where the other carload stands shivering, asking what took them so long. Her friend’s father says, ‘So meet you here at ten? You’re all staying over?’
Quickly—lightly—her friend says: ‘Yeah, except Elly.’
Just for a moment she can’t breathe. Then she hears her own voice, somehow steady and cheerful saying, ‘Yes, my mum’s picking me up.’
‘Alright girls, have fun!’ the host’s father says. ‘Be good! And if you can’t be good…’
They head towards the lobby. It’s weird seeing boys here, and the air is different too, turbo-charged with Lynx and CK One. Under different circumstances, she would relish a big arrival like this; knows that en masse, dressed up, they’re quite the spectacle, even if her own personal contribution is negligible. The boys are casting appraising glances in their direction, while the girls affect perfect obliviousness, debating whether to do a last-minute mirror check, or if they should just head straight in.
‘I have to put my bags in the cloakroom,’ she says, gesturing at the area outside the library, manned by one of the PE teachers.
‘So we’ll see you in there?’
The others hold hands and advance as one towards the hall.
The PE teacher, young and until now only ever seen in a tracksuit, is wearing jeans and a checked shirt, sleeves pushed to the elbow. Her thick, curly hair, normally tightly contained in a bun, is out around her shoulders.
‘Hey Elly,’ the teacher says, taking her bags and handing over a raffle ticket. ‘Ready to throw some funky shapes in there?’
She blushes and laughs; not sure if the irony is for her benefit, or at her expense.
‘Er,’ she says. ‘I don’t know about that.’
‘Yeah,’ the teacher says, ‘not really my thing either. Don’t tell anyone,’ she adds, ‘my Year 10s would lose all respect for me.’
She stands there, trying to think of something else to say, something funny and conspiratorial, but there’s too much going on. Anyway, one of the history teachers is approaching, also in jeans, and a ribbed zip-up jumper, shimmying his shoulders at the PE teacher, who raises an eyebrow and grins past him, at her.
She heads to the toilets where she sits in a cubicle with her elbows on her knees, grinding her palms in her eye sockets. Why wouldn’t she have been invited to the sleepover? Perhaps she had been, but somehow misunderstood? Could they have made the plan when she hadn’t been there, and they’d simply… forgotten to tell her? But this scenario gives rise to another disturbing question: where had she been during that conversation? Had they orchestrated a summit without her? Which brings her back to… why? Another dreadful possibility: she must have committed some faux pas at a past sleepover. Done something unforgivable, so deeply shameful… but what, and when… in her sleep? Or worse, awake, but without knowing it was bad, something so embarrassing no one could bring themselves to tell her? Was it her nightwear? Something hygiene related? Were they actually being kind to associate with her at all?
Washing her hands, she sees her mascara has smudged under her eyes. It’s waterproof: if she’d cried there wouldn’t have been an issue, but instead she’s managed to work it into stubborn shadows that only seem to get more entrenched as she rubs. She wets some toilet paper and dabs it on her skin: the sodden clump disintegrates in pills. She flings it in the bin as someone else comes in, a girl in her year; not a friend, nor an enemy, just a neutral peer.
‘Are you okay?’ the girl asks, looking around as though trying to locate an explanation for the state of her. ‘Are you crying?’
‘No, I’m actually not!’ she says. ‘I think I’m just allergic to this make-up.’
‘Right… by the way, your thingies are showing.’
This is quickly confirmed in the mirror: her bra straps have risen up, are snaking around beneath her armpits.
‘Oh. Yeah. Thanks,’ she says, shoving them back down.
The music is unbelievably loud, the smoke machine’s blasting a chalky haze over everything, and though the hall is filled with bodies, she can’t identify any of them. It feels like an emergency, or a dream—actually, what it most reminds her of is Laser Quest where everyone had their birthdays last year, skulking close to the walls in the dark, trying not to get shot.
She hangs by the back where all the chairs are stacked. Was it really only this morning that she was in this very hall, setting out the chairs with the others for assembly? Racing to finish their rows, calling each other ‘slow-ass biatch’, being overheard by the Deputy Head, the more lenient one struggling to conceal a smile, saying he knew it was Friday and they were in high spirits, excited about the disco no doubt, but please, girls, could you put a lid on the language? Then they’d sat through assembly, and she’d passed her roll of Polos down the back row, desperately trying to stifle her laughter at their progressively more outrageous alibis to cover the sound of the tearing wrapper—fake cough, ostentatious sniff, prolonged throat clear, luxurious yawn, high-pitched sneeze—causing just enough disturbance to attract disapproving looks from their form teacher, but not quite enough to prompt investigation. And yet! All the while, eating her Polos, Polos she had happily, freely shared, in spite of the greatly increased risk of being caught, they’d been harbouring something against her, reservations about some unknowable part of herself that’s dodged even her own merciless radar. She wants to confront them, march up and demand to know why, what she can possibly have gotten so wrong, but she’s also certain the very act of asking would only confirm that they were in fact right to exclude her. Keeping quiet, therefore, is in some way winning—but in what way could she really be said to be winning?
She can see them all now by the folded trampolines, intently focussed on the few boys in their midst. It’s unclear who approached who, and too loud to hear what anyone’s saying, but she can see several of her friends straining up to shout in the boys’ ears, repeatedly, almost compulsively sliding their hands down long, silky shafts of their own hair. The boys (their hands are in their pockets) seem mostly unmoved, though occasionally one will draw back in a show of surprise or maybe scepticism, looking at another of the girls in their group. She knows her friends are working on each other’s behalf, planting seeds of interest; she knows too from occasional hang outs in the park that these interactions can double as a smokescreen for pursuing personal agendas, talking up someone else, all the while creeping closer to the target yourself. It’s obvious that this is the critical part of the night, though it’s painfully clear that she is not considered by anyone, herself included, to even be a contender.
She can sense a few of the other girls, aware their chances are quickly depleting, starting to scan the hall in search of backup options. One of them tugs her away, and she feels grateful to be wanted, and then pathetic for being so pliable. They do a few fruitless circuits, and she’s about to ask if they can sit down—her feet are almost numb with pain from her shoes—when her friend seizes her arm.
‘What about him!’
She squints at the boy drinking a Coke by the stage. He has the same oversized Ralph Lauren shirt as all the other boys, the same heavily gelled hair.
‘For you or for me!’
Her friend laughs. ‘Me! You have to find your own!’
‘He looks nice!’
‘Do you think he’s fit though!’ Now her friend is openly scrutinising. The boy, suddenly aware he’s being watched, starts flicking the ring-pull of his can.
‘… Yeah! Definitely!’
As she moves towards him, he visibly tenses.
‘Don’t worry, it’s not me, it’s her, in the purple dress!’
Though she meant the ‘don’t worry’ part as a joke, it does seem, insultingly, to have appeased him. He nods gravely and sets his Coke on the stage, wiping his hands on his shirt as he goes. Her friend crosses one leg in front of the other and nibbles at her thumbnail, staring at the floor; he, frowning, stares at the floor too. She hovers, unsure if she’s required to intervene, to—what, bellow some kind of formal introduction?—but then suddenly her friend has her arms round his neck, and he has boldly gone and planted both of his hands directly onto her behind.
Returning to the trampolines, things have progressed: three of the girls have split off with three of the boys into discrete couples. The rest of her friends are dancing in a circle and she joins them, but no matter whose eye she tries to catch, however enthusiastically she mirrors a shoulder dip or arm raise, she can’t seem to penetrate whatever energy’s happening here. It doesn’t feel malicious or deliberate, it’s so subtle she couldn’t even begin to communicate it—anyway, she herself would despise anyone who admitted to feeling so pitiful and paranoid, and encountering this new depth of self-loathing brings on the very real threat of tears. She tips her head back, staring at the ceiling in what she hopes might pass for euphoric abandon. Danger averted, she throws a desperate glance at the clock above the stage: still a whole hour before pick up, and her feet feel as though they’re on fire.
There’s no one on cloakroom duty. The staff must all be in the hall, policing breaches of decency, and she considers just going through the bags herself. She could easily explain if someone came along: she isn’t feeling well, needs her purse to get some change to use the payphone to ring her mother and ask her to come sooner. But the fear of being even momentarily misunderstood is deterrent enough, so she heads to the canteen, with the idea of sitting down for a few minutes in peace.
‘Can I interest you in a bevvy?’
The PE teacher, now behind the refreshments table, is holding up a cup of juice, one of the ridged plastic ones she remembers from kids’ parties, with the film lids you pierce with a straw.
‘Important to stay hydrated!’
She wishes she could turn around and go straight back out, embarrassed to be witnessed alone once again.
‘I don’t have any money. Well—I do, but it’s in my bag, and that’s in the cloakroom so…’
‘Catch,’ the PE teacher says, tossing her the cup. ‘It’s on the house.’
She doesn’t really want it, but feels she can’t refuse this kindness, so accepts, making several unsuccessful stabs with the straw.
‘Not like that,’ the PE teacher says. ‘You have to—’ she demonstrates, plunging her fist decisively onto her open palm, ‘dead straight.’
This time she succeeds, though not without juice spurting over her wrist.
‘How’s it going in there?’
She hesitates. Maybe she could tell her—about the sleepover, yes, but also everything else, how tiring it is, how hard she works the whole time, how futile and bleak it all sometimes feels.
‘It’s alright,’ she says, and sucks hard on her straw.
The juice, sweet and watery, tastes of being five years old.
The music has slowed and the disco ball’s turning; the smoke machine’s finally stopped. Everyone seems to be either swaying in pairs, or wandering forlornly among them. She thinks about waiting out the home stretch in the lobby, but it feels too exposing, like publicly admitting defeat. She’s on her way to the corner furthest from the speakers when she feels a tap on her shoulder. It’s a boy: she’s never seen him before, and he’s shrugging at her in a resigned, sullen way, which she takes to be an invitation to dance. She picks up his clammy hands, and they begin to shift their weight from foot to foot, struggling to synchronise even this very basic step. Already, she can’t remember what he looks like, and risks a glance: eyes downcast, lightly furred top lip beading with sweat. He’s wearing the ubiquitous shirt, the first one she’s ever seen up close, and unable to help herself, she extricates a hand and runs her finger over the embroidered logo; then, afraid this might come across as weird or intense, quickly returns to his lacklustre grip. She knows things can’t stay like this, that some form of escalation is inevitable—but when, how, and to what degree?
The boy is beginning to bear down on her: it’s hard to predict exactly what he’s after. Certainly, he’s seeking to reduce the space between them, and she obliges by clamping her arms around his middle. But that doesn’t seem to be enough; he’s pulling her to him with a hunger she isn’t at all sure she can sate. Squeezing her ear hard against his chest to buy some time to strategise, she is astonished to hear a heart beating away in there, so essential and intimate it feels like she’s trespassing.
Aware of some peripheral disturbance, she pulls back slightly to see two of her friends manically grinning and pantomiming thumbs up. She screws her eyes shut and shakes her head, then peeks up at the boy apologetically. In response to this sudden, unbridled access, he crushes his face in, flattening her nose, as his mouth forms a seal around hers. Then his tongue—she’s read about this, and knows she’s supposed to engage hers, but is it meant to be so… combative? Instinctively she adopts a circular motion, trying to establish some kind of rhythm, but his random thrashing proves impossible to quell. She realises with surprise that she can breathe through her nose—the magazines mentioned ‘coming up for air’ though now it appears this might not have been literal; more a question of pacing than avoiding suffocation. How then, and when, to break away? For what justifiable reason? One of his hands has moved to the back of her head to gain extra purchase, while his tongue continues to probe, and she’s increasingly perplexed as to what he’s looking for, and increasingly desolate about her chances of helping him find it.
She releases her arms from his waist and lightly, then more insistently, pushes back against his chest—at last he disengages, startled and disgruntled, as though disturbed from a deep, contented sleep. She quickly hides her face in his shoulder, clinging to his shirt, surreptitiously mopping her saliva-drenched chin, and as the song finishes, he starts to withdraw: a natural point, she supposes, for them to part ways. She finds she’s humiliated, as well as relieved that it’s at his instigation—but in fact, he’s gearing up for another bout and launches upon her once more.
When the lights come up, he doesn’t seem to notice; he shows no signs of slowing down. Eventually, using her elbows to lever herself away, she says, ‘Sorry, I have to go, my mum’s waiting.’ She’s not sure if she’s supposed to ask for his number, at the very least his name, but in response to the news of her departure he barely manages another shrug, a gesture so comically at odds with the imbroglio of seconds before, that she wonders if perhaps she imagined the whole thing. ‘So—bye,’ she says, and flees the emptying hall.
From the lobby she can see her friends outside all wrapped around each other, and this reminds her to put on her coat, not because of the cold, but to cover the borrowed top her mother will comment on, or worse, wordlessly take in. She loiters inside as the two cars arrive to collect them all—minus her. The taillights blur as she watches them leave.
She’s shooed out by the head of geography who is striding up and down, bellowing, ‘Don’t you all have homes to go to?’ and ‘Take it from me, you do not want to spend a moment longer here than you need to’. Waiting on the concourse, clutching her bags, it suddenly strikes her, with such force it almost knocks the wind out of her, that she has just had her first kiss.
…Has she? Was that really what that was? That frantic, wet vortex, a world away from the hushed, chaste, tentative joy the same words so recently evoked? Standing in the headlights of her mother’s oncoming Micra, she can feel despair seeping in, despair that what just happened is definitive, absolute—has overwritten any other potential meanings it might have, that ‘first kiss’ will only ever be that for her, now and for the rest of her whole entire life.
Her mother leans across in her seatbelt to unlock the passenger door, smiling encouragingly. Driving home, the long, skinny shadows of the streetlights lurch across them as she stares at her nails, the varnish smudged and already chipped. Did she have a good time? Meet anyone interesting? Anyone… nice? And the bit before—did they eat? What was for dinner? Did her friends have fun? She didn’t see them in the car park, had they already gone? What, all of them? Together? Was she the last to be picked up?
She goes straight up to her bedroom, still in her coat, dumps her bags on the floor and lies on the bed. She can’t imagine ever getting up again. But then her mother knocks gently: phone for her, it’s the friend whose house she got ready at. She thinks she must have left something there, and wants to ask her mother to take a message, but that would raise concerns she can’t bear to have to placate, so she heaves herself up and says she’ll take it in the living room.
‘Hi?’ she says, waving away her mother who’s lingering at the foot of the stairs. She has to hold the receiver at arm’s length for a moment, because of the force of what erupts through the earpiece: whoops and cheers and piercing screams. She’s on speakerphone, her friend says, they’re all dying to hear, they looked everywhere for her after but couldn’t find her, they have to know everything that happened. She closes the door, and settles down against the radiator; warmth spreading all across her back.