No 14 - May 2001
The day I turned fourteen I swear the sun shone from April to September. Fourteen was grown up; old enough for fun anyway. Or as much fun as you can have in a small town hole like this. School was a drag of course, but everyone says that; even the clever ones who should’ve enjoyed it. The teachers said I was clever. What’s the point in being clever? It never gets you anything except disappointment. When school was out though, well, we had a few laughs.
Cara was my best friend. She used to help me think of slogans to write on my jeans. We were really close, especially in the days when the sun was so bright it could blind you if you stared too long.
There was a park near us, and that’s where our socialising took place, you could say. There were always gangs of lads in the park, looking for a scrap or a quick one in the bushes. Me and Cara knew most of them by names and faces. But we didn’t have much to do with them once we’d met Gavin, Bob, Steve and Mush. They went to a school near ours and were in the park as often as Cara and me. It didn’t take long before we’d arrange to meet in the hut by the bowling green.
I thought the park was paradise. I couldn’t wait to sit on the dirty bench in the graffiti-scarred hut. I’d breathe in cigarette smoke and I knew there was no better place to be. We’d watch the old biddies and grandads straining to roll bowls across the short-back-and-sides grass, and collapse into hysterics if they missed a shot. Sometimes, they bent over to pick up a bowl and couldn’t return to a normal standing position. That was funniest of all.
The lads brought cans of lager. If they looked too young to be served, like Bob who was twelve, older brothers would be persuaded to go to the off-licence. They thought the booze would impress us. It did. They gave us cigarettes for the same reason. Cara and I would try and inhale deeply on our Silk Cuts, hoping we appeared sophisticated and worldly-wise.
Time passed, seemingly endlessly long and gold, like honey dripping down a jar. Steve and Cara used to sneak off together sometimes, but I didn’t mind; Bob stayed with me. Of all the lads, he was my favourite. When he told me I wasn’t like a girl, I knew he meant it as a compliment. I got on with the others too: Gavin stole Mars bars and magazines for us from the newsagents and said he didn’t care if he was caught. Mush was sweet. The others teased him for being soft. That’s how he got his name. I liked him. I liked them all. The sun was as solid and yellow as a lemon. We sweated and our hair bleached blonde and our skin turned brown.
We were hot and happy until one day.
One evening, late on, because the sky was streaked with grey, Cara and I lay on the grass, waiting for stars to appear, and the lads to return from the off-licence. We heard giggling. Two girls were standing behind us with their high heels close enough to touch our hair. We knew who they were: Gemma and Debbie; tarts from the estate.
I don’t know why Gemma hated Cara so much. Maybe it was because of Steve and the ring he had given her. Gemma’s face leering over us reminded me of a pretty rat with too white hair and narrow eyes.
“I’ve been after you for ages,” Gemma said, not bothering to conceal her joy. I felt guilty with relief that her words weren’t directed at me.
“Up!” Debbie commanded. Her hair was long, like Rapunzel’s in picture books, but I could see her roots were starting to show.
Standing unsteadily, like the old people who played bowls and had long since gone home, our clothes were damp and creased. I shivered; prayed silently for Steve and the others to hurry. A man wandered past obliviously.
“You think you’re the Queen, don’t you?” Gemma said to Cara. “You think no one can touch you.”
“No she doesn’t.” My voice sounded unnaturally high.
“You can shut it!” Debbie snapped at me, eager to offer Gemma her support. “Unless you want smackin’.” Her face was hard, emphasised by the clumsy application of blusher and purple eyeshadow.
“She should have been a man,” I thought, and then, “bet that’s her mum’s eyeshadow.”
“You’re not getting out of here without a scrap,” Gemma said. Cara gawped. I was aware of her helplessness, but I was afraid to defend her again.
“I’m not fighting you,” Cara replied quietly.
“You’ll have to, Cara,” I hissed, “or they’ll get us when we’re going home.”
Gemma smiled, understanding my weakness. “You’ll have to, Cara,” she repeated.
“Over there.” Debbie nodded at a stretch of grass hidden by shrubs. Gemma and Debbie walked towards it, not bothering to turn around; knowing we’d follow.
“I can’t,” Cara whined, clutching my sleeve.
“Course you can.” I shook her off.
Cara and Gemma eyed each other, three feet apart as shadows darkened the grass. I had Cara’s yellow anorak tucked neatly over my left arm. I felt like one of those mothers who wait patiently for their child to come off the swings.
“Don’t interfere,” Debbie warned me, as Gemma started towards Cara, “or I’ll flatten you.
Gemma’s hand grabbed Cara’s hair, forcing her head back and forth like a rocking horse. Cara, immediately Gemma’s grasp slackened, slapped Gemma’s thin cheeks. She received a punch in the stomach for her effort, which left her gasping. The two girls clinched together, like lovers embracing, before, arms flaying, they collapsed heavily on the ground. Gemma clambered breathlessly to her feet. Cara curled into an embryonic position, ready for the inevitable kicking. I ran forward.
“Leave her,” I said. I had meant to scream, shout hysterically, but my voice was surprisingly calm. Debbie didn’t attempt to stop me. Gemma edged away when I dropped down beside Cara, arranging the yellow anorak over her back.
“Are you okay?” I asked.
Cara turned her face towards me. I could see the beginnings of a black bruise stretching from one of her eyes over the bridge of her nose.
“I bet I look a right mess.” She smiled ruefully.
“You look fine.” She didn’t hate or blame me. Glancing about I realised Gemma and Debbie had gone.
“Let’s go home,” I said. Cara slid her arm through mine. The sky was dark and spitting rain.
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- Modern Poetry in Translation
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