From the third issue of The Read Horse. The topics were Love, Balloons and Communism.
See it on the website at http://readhorse.morekasia.co.uk/?p=308
The Shadowy Waters
In the rolling fields of Kent lie several exquisitely wealthy commuter towns. White-tipped with picturesque Oast-houses, brimming with deer, overflowing with trailing flowers and riven with cobbled streets, they are what English Nationalists get hard-ons for. The houses are listed buildings. The fields are lush and verdant. People go for Sunday walks, with golden retriever, green wellies, and a blue rosette. Alright, so they don’t actually wear the blue rosette. But to eyes such as mine, or my fifteen-year-old self’s, it was there, clear as day.
I was an anarcho-syndicalist Marxist who went to a girls’ grammar school in a leafy Georgian spa-town. The small flash of red in my parent’s window (signifying a doomed intention to vote Labour in the local election) was echoed by the huge red Che Guevara flag that adorned my woodchip walls upstairs. I’d created a socialist republic in my bedroom. I hated the Tories that surrounded me, and everything they stood for…or stood on, I would have added with feeling.
Passionate beliefs. But I had no experience of anything. It was like I’d grown up looking out at the world, through not just rose-tinted, but red-tinted glass. The world’s poor looked to me like the cast of Les Miserables, and the bloody, muddy struggle for a decent wage was beautiful to me. I was a hopeless romantic.
Love was a huge, looming presence in my life. Like my political beliefs, it was idealised, and I had no real experience of it. I longed to fall in love. But as Forgael bemoaned in my well-thumbed and ornately annotated copy of W.B Yeats’ poems, “…it is love that I am seeking for/ But of a beautiful, unheard-of kind/ That is not in the world”. The boys at the local grammar school were good for brief encounters, on benches and the bathroom floors of parties. But kissing them, even in the hazy early nudgings of desire, never felt like love. They either licked you wetly, like dogs, or thrust their tongues so far you felt you’d choke. Their probing fingers were exciting, but they did not feel like love. Their conversation was immature, flippant. I enjoyed being with them, but nothing felt like love. Not love in the grand narratives of my imagination. Railway platforms and hands pulled apart. Desperate kisses of adulterous impossibility. A dream, that life could never live up to. And nor could fifteen year old boys.
But when I finally fell, the world changed irrevocably. The red panes shattered and the great glass palace came tumbling down.
It was the street party that started it.
We lived at the edges of the town, on an estate where the houses were little boxy ones. Small parades of shops, little patches of grass, with generous smatterings of dogshit. Most people had bought their boxes from the Council, but the stigma remained. I was proud of our house because it gave me a ridiculous sense that I was on one side of the barricades, lobbing Molotov cocktails over to the Tory pigs on the other side. There was, as rich people always like to say when making themselves feel better about poverty, a sense of community. At the centre of this community was a grocery shop- metal baskets, and cards in the window. Ageing veg and dusty tins. The little grocery shop on the hill worked 365 days a year, going beyond the call of duty- visiting the homes of the isolated elderly, letting you put food ‘in the book’ until payday. It was decided by my mother and a small committee of women that we should hold a street party in honour of the couple who owned the shop, to say thank you.
One day she came bustling in from the shop. “I’ve just met the man who’s moved into Dave and Julie’s,” she breezed, putting tins into the cupboard. “He seems lovely. And he’s really excited about the street party and wants to help.” Her eyes glittered with the prospect of a new recruit. As I started to slope off upstairs, her sudden “ooh!” called me back. “AND!” she said, “he’s got a daughter your age. She’s at St. Dunstan’s”.
St Dunstan’s was the bad school. Most places have a bad school, but where I lived, and the 11 plus persisted, the bad schools were even more blighted with failure. The very nature of their existence meant they were full of the not-good-enoughs, who never got to do the test (or worse, took it and failed).
I thought no more about this daughter until I was suddenly confronted with her one afternoon. “Leila‘s coming round” my mother notified me as she tended to my brother. “I thought you could do the banners and balloons. Don’t kick, Tom.”
My brother hated having his laces tied. He hated being dressed generally, and was given to tearing off clothing in public. I was always torn between glowering protectively at anyone who dared stare, and reddening in shame ten paces behind. Everyone has ways of coping. Mum’s was to throw herself into everything, so there were the parent support groups, the fundraisers, the lobbying of the local education authority. As a result, everything felt like it was done in a mad whirlwind. Before I had time to ask for more details about this girl, she was at the door.
“Can you get it? I’ve left the balloons and materials in the shed” Mum said over her shoulder. I opened the door to her face. Straight away what struck me was not her beauty but her sullenness. The attitude like a stinging forcefield all around her. Her black eyeliner was barbed wire. Her folded arms were brick walls.
“Hi, you must be Leila” I said, smiling. She did not exactly return the smile, but raised her eyebrows as a sort of acknowledgement. I made some remark about our parents roping us into things, and this seemed to thaw her a little. She walked down the path with me to the shed, answering all my questions defensively. St. Dunstan’s was shit, she said, but she wouldn’t want to go to the grammar school. Full of bitches. She looked me in the eye, daring me to contradict her.
They say teenage girls are the most likely group of people to see ghosts. You can venture your own explanation, according to your beliefs, but the way I see it is this: teenage girls are tuned into life at a frequency few others are. They can be arch manipulators because they pick up on the tiniest signs. Not always consciously, but instinctively, and that is what makes them so dangerous. As Leila and I sat in the shed, reluctantly blowing up balloons, I knew that although all she did suggested she wanted to keep me out, what she really wanted- no, needed- was to let me in. I say I knew this, but it’s more that I felt it, keenly. We knotted the balloons, stretching the rubber tightly round trapped pink fingers. I unknotted her, bit by bit, as she started to laugh at my impressions of fusty old teachers, and share confidences. We laid out the banner; a blank canvas onto which we could make our design. Chatter filled the dusty shed, each conversation a little trellis of friendship, waiting for time to grow over it. The afternoon turned twilight, and we tied the banner to an apple tree to dry.
By the time of the street party one week later we had become inseparable. I knew she was vulnerable. I knew her teenage rebellion was in-your-face obvious, right down to her shiny new tongue stud. I knew she was beautiful, but that didn’t mean much to me until it happened.
The street looked great, bright with bunting. Crowds of people listened to speeches and music. Leila nudged me. “Look”. I followed her eyebrows to a table where people were setting down bottles of wine. I watched as people went and topped-up, helped themselves. We looked at one another in a silent agreement before going over to the table. I picked up a plastic cup. She picked up a bottle.
“Come on!” she breathed excitedly. I grabbed another before running in the same direction.
One hour later the room was spinning. Her room was so different from mine. No black and white postcards of Tony Benn smoking his pipe. No silky Che Guevara frowning out from under his hat. No cluttered mess of adidas gazelles and corduroy flares. Her room was female, glassy. Three dressing-tables swam before my eyes. Her pictures were in frames. I squinted to make them out. We were talking, but what about? It was nonsense. My throat stang and I was hiccupping vinegar. Then she was closer to me. She felt hot, her breath in my ear.
“Have you ever kissed a girl?”
I whispered no.
She said she had. Then she kissed me.
Every part of me sang with desire. My lips on her lips were the centre of the universe, and whole worlds pivoted from this, this connection. This was the only thing in existence. This was it. The railway platform and the hands pulled apart. This was strong enough to batten down the riot shields. Big enough to topple the palaces of Tsars. This would rise up and free us from our chains, and I held her face and kissed her again and again and again.
What happened that next week was puzzling. She carried on as usual. Like nothing had happened. In fact, worse than that, she seemed frosty. Brisk, a little business-like. She didn’t use our in-jokes, or poke me in the ribs, or do any of her usual teasing. Many would not notice it, but I was scrutinising every look, word and touch. I felt I would go mad. Had she not felt it? Did she not know? I burnt to be next to her. I shivered when she passed me. Every single atom of me felt like it was pulling towards her, and I didn’t know how I stopped myself from kissing her every second that I was with her.
Eventually I burst.
“Leila, can I talk to you about something?”
She looked at me. Her face was hard to read. It was open and approachable, but in a way that someone might do an open and approachable face for a job interview. There was something false about it.
“You know what happened… after the street party?”
She seemed to wince, a tiny amount, almost imperceptibly.
“What- I mean- why do you think that… that that happened?”
“It was just experimentation” she said, all airily dismissive, before changing the subject and sweeping me along in a new conversation. I was crushed. Confused. That night I wept into my pillow under the black-browed gaze of Che.
Over the months I spent more and more time at her and her father’s. I knew that mum would be busy with Tom, and although I felt guilty for not being around to help with bath-time or read Percy the Small Engine for the fifteen millionth time, it felt good to escape. I had a new family. A grown-up, adult family. We drank wine and watched gameshows, and time grew over the trellis. I loved her, even though the comments she made about contestants were undeniably cruel, and the stories she told changed and shifted until I was sure they were thick webs of lies. I felt that would never get tired of her face. I would never be disloyal, never leave her. Not like her mother had. Her face darkened when she spoke of this evil, callous woman.
She only had her Dad. We’d joke that he and I were husband and wife. “Would you like to wash or dry, wife?” he’d enquire. I knew he looked at me with more than fatherly affection. It didn’t alarm me. I felt so grown up that it seemed natural for him to be attracted to me. He’d pat my behind as I went upstairs to bed. I was a child, but I felt like an adult, and didn’t see the wolfish hunger.
One day I called for her after school and she wasn’t there. He invited me in. I stepped into the living room with a strange empty feeling in my stomach. He stood in front of me, and then suddenly he was leaning in to hug me. He felt stifling, and his jumper bristled like horsehair. I moved and he pressed his mouth on to mine. His lips were dry, but his tongue slithered through. I recoiled; backed away.
“I’m the same age as Leila” I said.
“I know. I’m sorry.” He looked pathetic. Not the big bad wolf but a sad old man. I felt a sudden desire to be at home. To be a little girl again, safe in my mother’s embrace. When I got there I burst open. No longer could I be the stoical older sibling. Thomas was sent to the living room to play with his namesake whilst I told the story calmly, and my Mum called the police.
She was found three days later. It wasn’t clear in the newspaper, but the rumours flew around like leaves. I heard them talking in the shop, punctuated by the rattling of the price gun. Face down in Horbury Lake- taken a load of pills- what pills?- anti-depressants- terrible, isn’t it?- they’ve taken him off- really? Why…? Then they saw me and fell into guilty silence.
I dreamt of her, in the shadowy waters, with leaves collecting round her poor limp body. Slowly, over the next few months, life returned to some kind of normality. I buried myself in lessons and assemblies. Sometimes I’d have to give another statement to a social worker. See a counsellor. But on the whole she disappeared as fast as she had come. Kissing her had been the most alive I’d ever felt. Now she was faded. A ghost in the photograph. One by one the posters came down. Che was folded and slipped in a drawer. For political rhetoric felt empty now. The struggle of the workers seemed abstracted, now that I had tasted the everyday struggle of being human- the everyday struggle of loving.
See the whole issue at http://readhorse.morekasia.co.uk/?cat=26