She’d bent, all business, to pick up her schoolbooks, cramming them haphazard in the mouth of her bag. I watched— the arch of her back, the fall of her plait. I ran fingers over lips again.
“I have to go home,” she said, and turned in the doorway, hands on the jamb. Light through the gap in the curtains painted her lenses so her eyes were obscured. Her dimples were black, her smile was gold. “Don’t tell anyone. This is just for us.”
I nodded. “I’ll keep my mouth shut.”
“Friday,” she said.
“Friday,” I said.
She was gone.
I sat on my bed and in time it got dark.
Days to wait, oh, almost unbearable.
In our classes we found each other, eyes across the room. I’d smile; a giddy, gormless closed-lip thing. She’d hide hers behind a book, but the flash of her eye, the shake of her shoulders…
We shared a secret.
I broke. I had to speak to her.
The day before the dance I followed her friends, waiting for her to split away. I lapped the college once, keeping them in sight as they passed the art rooms, came down by the tennis courts.
They fractured at the corner into two groups of two.
I took my chance.
“Hey,” I said, my fingers on her sleeve, a cheeky tug. “Can I…”
And the sudden realisation I had nothing to say to her.
“Talk to you?” I finished with a sharp inflection.
She looked at me, her arms crossed over her navy uniform, her “Yes?” a drawl impatience.
“Just for a moment,” I said.
She sighed and sent her friend away.
We were alone and the words welled up and fell out: “You’re beautiful, never seen you looking so beautiful,” and I’m aware that words are being said, that they are built and laboured things, inadequate, clunking inelegance, and I wished they were purer and softer to say.
But I won a smile from her.
“That’s what you said the last time.”
“That was before,” I countered, “And you’re here right now and.”
“Never been so.”
I reached to cradle her cheek, thinking how soft and warm it must be, but she put her hand upon my arm and pushed it down. “Don’t,” she said, more gentle than anything, “Not here. Okay?” Her freckles set in a growing red, she gave my arm a little squeeze. “Friday. Be patient.”
I took a step towards her. Her eyes flashed left and right behind her glasses; she knew what I wanted but people were near and she left it at a small uncertain smile and went to find her friend again.
Leaving me, an empty heat.
I opened my mouth to call, brought hands up to help but I touched something wrong—sudden pain and taste of blood. Ducking into the toilets, my fingertips explored, opened me out to the mirror. I’d punctured my cheek or ripped my gum— I’d loosened the fang and let it cut.
Bloody-mouthed I abandoned left school for home.
I sat at the kitchen table.
Granddad worked on me.
“Be careful with it,” he said, “You can’t just. Just.” He shook his head, teeth gritted against the inexpression, rasping the file along the edge of my alabaster fang.
My mouth began to fill with filings.
Each stroke had its own syllable attached:
“You’d— think— you’d— learn— by— now—”
That last stroke stung and won a gasp from me. He put down the file and took up pliers and got the body of the fang in its jaws. Slowly, carefully, he pulled it back until it sat straight in the gum. “Boy your age,” he muttered.
A rag for his hands, spittle and blood. As he cleaned himself I worked up the courage. “Granddad—” deadened lips and choking— “There’s a dance,” a trial to swallow, “I need a suit, you think you’d have?” But overwhelmed with alabaster dust I had to leave the question there.
He looked with narrowed eyes.
A length of a moment, then:
“You’re the same as me.”
(He meant my size.)
I nodded, coughing.
He hoisted his trousers, twisting them straight around his stomach. “Are you taking?” He cleared his throat. “Or are you with someone?”
“A girl,” I said.
He grunted. “Hurh, good.”
“Come on.” He passed me a tea towel for my blood and I dabbed as I followed him up the stairs. Slow; feet dragged up step by step, stiff fingers half uncurled to hold the banister.
I stood in the door of his bedroom, watching him drag laden hangers from one side of the wardrobe to the other. Dull each impact on the wood as he pawed hung clothing.
Not often I got to look in his room— surfaces covered in sleeping dust, colourless wallpaper and pristine sheets, everything dull beige or cream. On a bedside locker a picture of my grandmother, beside it a single bed, a backless chair, a chest of drawers and an empty vase.
“Hmm. This’ll do.” Out a thick skin on a hanger, bringing with it its heavy smell. He laid it on the bed, an old-fashioned suit, dark chocolate brown. Beside it a light blue shirt and a navy tie.
“That do you?”
(I will polish my shoes and that will be that.)
I tried the jacket on and looked in the mirror.
He was a hover behind me.
The fit was close enough to be good.
Granddad’s hand found itself on my shoulder.
A dull noise.
I looked at our reflection.
Was he happy?
I took those noises to mean all those things.
Close enough to count.
She was waiting for me outside my house in red and shoulder-less, material gathered around the waist.
(Oh, her waist…)
A black flower pinned her hair in place and she wore new glasses with thick black frames, a triple of stars aglitter at the hinge.
Threading through weeds and broken metal I met her, standing a step away, too bashful to approach. “You look beautiful,” I said, “You’ve never—” but I caught myself before I plagiarised again.
Her gentle soft smile I returned. We walked down the lane together; it twisted and took my house away, the musk of nettles thick as we passed the gates set high in banks, as trees came together overhead.
Halfway along she took my hand.
It made me.
We walked into the village. Crossing the road at Gallows Hill, she took her hand away, began to walk a little bit faster, so in the end I had to dash.
“Slow down!” I laughed.
She turned—flash of light on her lenses.
A challenge to catch her.
Around us I began to see them. On either side of the road were couples, heading towards the hall at the far end of the village, a shoal or flock, moving with one purpose. We joined them and were swept along; I lost sight of her for a moment but found the red, the black of her plait, and held her hand and so came through the gates of St Barnabus Hall.
The press of suited boys and fancy girls took us indoors and into the beat and pulse. The sound system was unkind to the music, blurring it, melting words down to a buzz. Lights rolled across each other, spots in spinning blue and red showing how dark the dark can be.
I stood with her in the bodies and dark. Her stars were blue, her stars were red. “You get one dance,” she told me.
Where to put my hands?
“Around my waist.”
I reached out.
“The other one.” A sniff of impatience.