Authors: Katy Moran
This book is dedicated to those
Divine and Delicious girls
Bubsie, Jules, Rosie and Annabel
So, there was this little festival thing the second weekend in June. It was going to be easy. Sammy’s parents were doing the vegetarian café plus the watermill demonstrations (his mum was also selling Mooncups, and I don’t know what they are but I’ve got this bad feeling they’re something rough). Anyway, Sammy wangled five wristbands off them. Enough for everyone: me, Jono, Sammy – and Bethany. Sammy sold the fifth to some guy in the lower sixth. Our plan was foolproof, absolutely watertight: Mum and Louis were in France till the Wednesday after (some wedding I’d managed to get out of, to Louis’ blatant relief); Jono told his mum he was staying at mine; Bethany’s parents were under the mistaken apprehension that she was on an Art field trip to the coast with her school. Sammy’s mum and dad had got us the wristbands, so they were no bother. Bethany’s cover was by far the most audacious.
I had known her for just under a month. The second time we met, in the playground outside the bowls club, I said, “There’s this festival in a couple of weeks. My mate can get free tickets. Come if you like.”
I had expected her to look at me like I was some kind of freak – after all, she barely knew me. But Bethany smiled and said, “All right.”
She had guts. She was fearless. Most of the time. We stood there looking at each other for what seemed like ages. I felt as if I’d known her before.
It was meant to be simple. What actually happened was this. First of all we couldn’t get a lift with Sammy’s parents because they’d gone down the night before to set up and wouldn’t let him take the Friday off school. So it was the train. We stopped to buy fags on the way to the station and missed the first one, managed to catch the second, but it was a stopper and took two godforsaken hours. Then no one had any money (not to spend on train tickets, anyway – total rip off), so we had to hide in the bogs for the whole time: Jono and Sammy, me and Bethany. We couldn’t smoke and we couldn’t make any noise. The last thing you want is for the ticket collector to figure out you’re in there. They’re not idiots. They know what people do.
So I was trapped in an enclosed space with a beautiful girl, it was obvious what we should have been doing. Well, we didn’t. It stank. I’m not going to romance a girl in a train toilet that reeks of piss. So we played scissors, paper, stone for ages (Bethany won most times, but women are more intuitive, aren’t they?), and when we were sure the ticket inspector wasn’t around, we talked. Quite a lot about her dad.
Bethany could talk about anything, and I never got bored listening to her. She didn’t go on about TV and celebrities like most of the girls at my school. Clearly, though, the first thing I liked about her was the way she looked: long, shiny black hair, dark eyes, weird clothes she’d mashed together on a second-hand sewing machine, fake flowers pinned in her hair that she’d stitched by hand out of bits of silk from old dresses and stuff. Bethany was different. I can still remember, too, what she was wearing that evening we caught the train with Sammy and Jono: black wellingtons (we were going to a festival), old grey school tights, a dress made of flowy pink material that felt cool like water and a bright green coat done up with a brooch in the shape of spider. She was also wearing a woolly hat, even though it was June.
“This is going to sound bad,” Bethany was saying leaning against the sink, “but when Dad first got ill, I was actually angry with him.” She stared down at her hands: she wore a ring with a jewel thing made up of tiny multi-coloured beads and her fingernails were painted blue. “It made Mum so overprotective. I know that’s really selfish of me but it’s true. She wouldn’t even let me cycle to school any more: I had to get a lift in her enormous bloody car.”
I shrugged. “That’s not selfish. You’re just being honest.” Bethany loved her bike; I didn’t know anyone else who rode one except my massively sad stepdad, Louis.
One of the first times I saw Bethany she was riding across the park, black hair everywhere, and I had to stop and watch her go by. Then a couple of hours later there was Bethany at Amanda Blake’s birthday party with bike oil all over her skirt. She was standing in the sitting room with Mands’ cousin from the girls’ school, smoking a roll-up and drinking a bottle of red wine. Everyone else was on the White Lightning. I couldn’t stop staring at her. Mands’ cousin Amelia is a bit of a geek and nothing to look at – weird fluffy hair, shiny face, glasses, played about fourteen different instruments – but Bethany was something else. Really.
“Jack, what are you doing, you loser?” Jono hissed at me. “She’s going to think you’re some kind of psycho.”
“What the fuck are you talking about?” I asked him. He should have known better.
Jono passed me a fag and said, “Look, sorry, mate, but you know what I mean. Anyway, look at her friend for Christ’s sake. She’s obviously a loser.”
Jono was wrong anyway, because Bethany and I ended up doing the washing-up together. Well, she went off to do it and I followed her. If you see a chance, take it. All the other girls were wearing jeans, grandad shirts – Bethany’s oil-streaked skirt was white with a silver pattern. She had a Radiohead T-shirt over a tight long-sleeved top with black and white stripes. Nothing matched. She stood out from the others like a Christmas decoration catching the light. We stood at the sink in Mands’ kitchen. I’d put in too much washing up liquid; my arms were invisible up to the elbow, lost in a mound of bubbles.
“You idiot.” Bethany laughed. Her glittery eye make-up had spread across her face. “Boys are all the same. You only need a tiny bit. I bet you never wash up at home.”
“What, do you think I’m doing it just to impress you?”
I scooped out a handful of soapsuds and blew them into her face. Bethany laughed again. The bubbles were white against her black hair, rainbow-sheened, and I had to catch my breath; I suddenly felt as if the air had been knocked clean out of my lungs.
I wanted to take hold of her; I wanted her to reach for me.
But what if she turned away? I didn’t have the courage, not yet.
I took a long, steadying breath. “Did you see Radiohead on tour last year, then?” I asked her, feeling like a massive idiot.
Bethany just smiled, glancing down at her top. “Yep, been there – got the T-shirt. It was amazing, though.”
“There’s so much crap music around you’ve got to take your chance if something good comes up.”
We talked for a while about the rubbish commercial stuff that gets played everywhere, and Bethany said, “I wish I’d been around in the sixties. Not just the music but everything else – there was so much going on. Now there’s just – nothing.”
I laughed. “Especially here. So why did you move to this shitheap of a town, anyway?” I handed her a pint glass to dry, glancing at the clock on the oven. We’d been talking for over an hour, and I silently thanked God we’d all made such a mess. I’ve never been more glad to take time over the washing-up.
Bethany paused, polishing the glass with her tea towel. “My dad’s job.” She turned away; I just caught sight of her expression – she looked so afraid. She lifted her head, smiling again, but there was something brittle about it, as if she was wearing a glass mask over her true face.
“And you’re right, this place is rubbish,” Bethany said, brightly. “But what can a girl do, eh?”
“Wait,” I said. “Did I say something wrong?”
“Are we washing up, or what?” Bethany held out her tea towel.
“No, hold on. You looked really weirded out. Are you OK?” I shrugged. “You don’t have to tell me or anything. I just thought, well, you know…” I trailed off.
God, she’s going to think I’m a real loser now
, I thought. Why hadn’t I kept my mouth shut?
Bethany reached into the sink, took out the last glass. We were nearly finished. “My dad got a new job but he’s not working at the moment. He’s off. Having treatment. He’s got cancer. Just after we moved. The chemo makes him really sick.”
“Oh,” I said. “That’s shitty luck. I’m really sorry.” The smell of weed drifted in beneath the kitchen door. But by the sound of it, most people had left.
Bethany shrugged, half laughing. “Yep. You could definitely say it was shitty luck. I can’t believe I just told you that. You’re the first person here. I talk to my friends back home all the time, but it’s not the same. And the girls at school – you know. It’s hard. It’s not like I want people to feel sorry for me.”
“Where did you live before?” I wanted to give her an escape route: I hate it when people try and force me to talk about personal things if I don’t want to.
“North London,” Bethany told me. “It was cool. We used to go to Camden Market, Portobello Road. There’s loads of stuff to do.”
I raised my eyebrows. “Unlike this hellhole.”
“Yes, well. It’s not that bad, I suppose. It’s pretty. How long have you lived here?”
I shrugged. “For ever. But I’m leaving the minute I get the chance.”
“Are you?” Bethany asked, and for a moment we both just stood facing one another.
“You’ve still got bubbles in your hair,” I said. We were closer now. I don’t even know how that happened. Her eyes were brown, the lashes dark and heavy.
“Well,” said Bethany, “and whose silly fault is that?”
Looking at her was like staring straight at the sun: I couldn’t take it. I glanced away a second, trying to get a grip, but I could smell her skin – something chocolatey, lemony, hot.
And that was it. I couldn’t stop myself; I had to hold her. I didn’t care if her mate was a geek or she was weird.
If she knocks me back, I’ll die
, I thought, but Bethany didn’t.
It was like diving into a deep warm pool from miles high, going in for that kiss, not knowing if she was going to turn away, and then when she didn’t I felt like I was flying. The location wasn’t exactly romantic or exotic but I wasn’t complaining. Her mouth tasted of Jelly Tots and cigarette smoke.
I was hungry for more.
The train rattled along, and Bethany played with the soap dispenser, squirting thick pink goo into the plastic fag-burned basin. Then she turned to me. “Do you really think I’m not being selfish coming with you guys this weekend? I do. I should be more worried about Dad, not thinking about myself the whole time.”
I know how it feels to be afraid that someone you love is going to die.
Bethany’s eyes burned into me and, for a moment, I thought she might ask me about Owen and Herod. Everyone in our town knows about them, what they did and what came after. This place is just a hole in the ground where nothing happens, so people still talk about my brothers and use them as bogeymen to frighten their kids, even five years later.
Watch out, you don’t want to end up like that MacNamara boy
. Then quite often they’ll mutter something like,
You’d think their father would have done
with all that money.
My family has become a cautionary tale. When both Herod and Owen were gone, Mum even went into school to speak at an assembly about the Dangers of Drugs. That was before I started, thank Christ. I’m not cool enough to survive an onslaught like that. As if having a crazy brother wasn’t enough to deal with.
“Look,” I said, “you’re only human. Don’t feel guilty. It isn’t your fault and you’ve got to have some fun. Maybe your mum feels like she’s got to control something, since she can’t do anything to help your dad.”
I didn’t know then how much of a bitch Bethany’s mother was, or I wouldn’t have defended her with my pop psychology. Turned out she was worse than my dad, and he’s an evil old hippy with more money than God.
For a moment, Bethany just stared at me. I couldn’t read the expression on her face at first. Then I realized she looked grateful, somehow, as if I’d just handed her my last bottle of water in the middle of the desert. “Jack—” she started to say, but the train stopped with a jolt. We both slammed into the toilet door, clutching at each other and laughing.
I peered out of the window at the sign on the platform. “This is it. Come on.”