The wind whipped her strawberry hair, let it fall back into her eyes; she squinted, the lights becoming laser-beams and fireworks, excited orange circles and pink-red zigzags speeding full-force across her vision. Caramelising onions, sizzling meats, the sweet-sugary warmth of fresh doughnuts and candyfloss, rushed up at her like water from a fire hose. She linked puffa-jacketed arms with Caitlyn and Beth, she felt a laugh, or a scream, or both growing deep within her belly, stretching its limbs upwards into her chest and down to her legs. She would take photos with her Kodak disposable camera all evening, but her feelings in those hours would be saved to an internal chip and retained as some immutable point of reference – a benchmark for all future experience.
“Tori! Tori! I asked you a fucking question!” he was in that mood, his face contorted in disgust – a veil of seriousness had come down like a steel door, blocking out any sense of the rational.
“What the fuck is this?”
She stayed in the kitchen, her half-angry, half-frightened heart fluttering like the wings of a dying bird. Her mother was upstairs in the bathroom, not that she’d be any help. She heard his footsteps coming towards her.
“Well?” her father had always been a tall man, but to her then, he was a red-faced giant.
“I…I…I’m sorry,” her shoulders rounded, body curling into itself.
“Sorry!” he slammed the mug down on the kitchen side, “I’ll tell you what this is…it’s disgusting! Did you even show it the fucking tea bag?”
Tori looked down at her feet and clasped her hands together, she knew it was better to say nothing.
“It’s not just tea, Tori,” he was glaring at her intently now, looking for some small sign that his words were being given their due regard, “this…this… is a representation of how little you care! Of how little attention you pay me! Of how little respect you have for me! I work every day of my life so you – you – can have everything, and you? You can’t even make me a cup of tea the way I fucking like it!”
As he delivered the ‘it’ in roaring crescendo, he swung his left arm towards the mug sending it violently into the air. Hot liquid shot across the worksurface and splashed heavily onto the kitchen floor. The cup she had bought him for his birthday ricocheted off a cupboard and flew into the dining room where it smashed to pieces.
“Clean that up,” he snarled, and turning his back on her he returned to the living-room, to sit in front of the television.
“What next?” Caitlyn asked, half-giggling, as they jumped down from the egg-cages.
“Nothin’ with you! Wouldn’t stop shaking that cage,” Beth, half-joking, half-serious.
“Waltzers?” Tori offered; Jamie’s outline might have been there in the distance, but was it too much to hope for?
“Candyfloss!” Caitlyn, grinning and twirling at platinum blonde curls with her left finger. Tori looked at that finger, pale and elegant with a silver ring at its base, wondered what it might be like to be a person with beautiful fingers, a person who never had to guess at what boys were thinking.
They sang, arm-in-arm again, striding through the common which was usually the un-lit preserve of lusty older girls and horny young men at that time on a Friday night. But for two weeks the annual fair lit up the green fields like a department store in December, a buzz of excitement, of life, of possibility. Tori let the pink sugar, swirled into its iconic mass, dissolve on her tongue, whilst Caitlyn told them about how she’d kissed upper-sixth form boy, Simon Bates, right outside the Science block in broad daylight. She said it had tingled, a bit like the candyfloss, but he smoked Benson & Hedges Gold cigarettes, so it didn’t taste half as nice, but it was more exciting.
“You ought to kiss a boy,” she told Tori and Caitlyn, it wasn’t anything to be afraid of. Tori wanted to tell her she wasn’t afraid, not of the kissing.
“You ready? I’ve got my shoes on,” he sounded grumpy, but he’d agreed to take her and pick her up from the school disco all the same. The end of Year 9 celebration, the marking of the transition from lower school to upper school. There had been exited chatter in her form room for weeks because the boy’s grammar school had been invited. She wasn’t really that sure about boys, but her friends talked about them a lot and she hated feeling like an outsider, someone standing on the periphery with only an academic understanding of the subject. She wanted lived experience of everything they did. She wanted to join in.
She looked at herself in the mirror, she was never sure if she liked her reflection or not, the black dress pulled tightly across the emerging curves of her body, the red lipstick accentuating the fullness of her pout. She gathered up her red-blonde hair into a chignon, allowing the front to hang loose in a sultry pose she had seen on models in magazines – perhaps at the right angle someone might have called her pretty.
“Coming,” she called back, anxious and excited, hopeful and teenage.
She knew something was wrong as she met his eyes and their impatient revulsion.
“Not like that,” he spat, “not looking like a slut! For God’s sake Victoria, you’re thirteen! Get back upstairs and get changed.”
“No!” she said, bravely defiant, surprised as if she were only watching her reaction from the audience, “I bought this dress for tonight. I’m going to wear it tonight.”
“Wear it all night in your room then. I’m not taking you anywhere!” a smile hung around his mouth as though it were a light pencil-sketch. That smile, the sadistic sleight of hand which always came before the violent eruption.
“Fine! Then I’ll walk,” Tori raised her voice, the injustice expanding like a gas to take up all the space in the room and suffocating her fear of him.
“You’re not leaving this house with an attitude like that and dressed like a nasty little prostitute!”
“Yes. I. Am.” Tori’s face reddened as she strode to pass him to leave the house. He grabbed her arm pulling her back towards him, and in his wild force, he flung her backwards. She landed on her bottom, on the hard, wooden hallway floor. Rather than making him feel bad, his physical outburst spurred on the fire raging uncontrolled.
“Get upstairs now!” his whole body had become consumed, as though it were a vessel for some otherworldly demon, white froth appeared at the corners of his mouth, saliva thrust forward onto the floor as he bellowed. Her eyes flicked over to her mother, who was hovering in the hallway wearing a quietly pained expression. When she didn’t move, he screamed again, “now!”
“Fuck you!” her final crumbling offer of defiance, he thrust his arm to smack her as she stormed past him, slamming shut the door to her bedroom, and barricading it with a chair in case he decided to follow. Once alone, she climbed onto her bed and sobbed. She didn’t think about him; he was what he was, what he would always be. She didn’t care where his rage came from, she didn’t pick it up or dissect it like she imagined her mother did, she wasn’t interested in why he was such a prick or why he took so much delight in upsetting her. She thought about her friends, about what they would be doing without her, about everything she was missing.
The waltzer car spun around and around and around until Tori couldn’t see, just flashes, tiny sections of blurred pictures.
Their stomachs spun fast like hamster wheels being turned at full speed, about to detach from their hinges, Blue by Eiffel 65 thudded in their ears, the fear was swept up into an ecstatic release, and they screamed again.
“Waaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhh!” If only I could stay here, thought Tori, pinned back against the seat like upholstery, yet exhilaratingly free. A small rising sickness in her stomach, mixing with the desire of expectation, the relief of each survival, all emotion shaken together like some wonderful cocktail savoured for its sweetness. A sweetness which is all the greater for being cut with the salty tang of a momentary anxiety, which vanishes, only to reappear in the vulnerable space between the ribcage.
Earlier in the week, she had spotted a sparrowhawk flying above her garden, and without warning (as is the way with most disasters), the bird had fixed itself into great sweeping dive. It was as though it were riding headfirst down an invisible water slide, and before she had really seen it, it had snatched up a small brown bird with a spotted chest and was gone like the Millennium Falcon disappearing into warp speed. Tori imagined she was the sparrowhawk, fast, graceful, free.
They were laughing, momentarily unsteady, as their feet tramped down the dull-silver aluminium steps. Caitlyn, always the leader, dragged them off to get a drink from one of the food stalls. Whilst they waited, she took out her Nokia 5110 from her blue jacket pocket, looked at the screen and smiled.
“Simon?” Beth asked raising her eyebrows.
Caitlyn wrinkled her nose and grinned in reply, “wants to know if I’m going to the club later.”
Tori’s heart sank for a moment, that would probably be pushing it.
“I’m so jealous of you Cait,” Beth admitted, tucking her light-brown hair behind her ear, “I’ve never been able to talk to a boy I like. Like, I’m scared he’ll laugh at me or I won’t have anything to say.”
Tori was pleased Beth had said this, she hadn’t dared to admit it before, but it was how she felt about Jamie.
Caitlyn smiled, “y’know what babe, they think that about us! They come over all macho, all Mr-I-am, but they’re like spiders y’know, more afraid of you than you are of them!”
They all giggled for a minute, in that way only young girls can.
“So, who do you like anyway?” Caitlyn asked, “Simon has friends…”
Beth admitted to fancying a Year 12 boy called Lee.
Tori blushed and shook her head wanting to pretend there was no one, but then, as if by telepathic force, Jamie and two other boys walked past.
“Hey,” he said to Tori, her face broke into a wide grin as she replied, and he carried on walking in the direction of the dodgems. She looked at Caitlyn and Beth who were both grinning, like pirates on their maiden voyage who have just unearthed a large treasure chest.
“Alright, maybe there is one boy…” Tori shrugged, explained how Jamie lived in her village and they got the same bus. He was in Year 11 at the boy’s school, they’d sat next to each other once or twice when their usual ‘companions’ had been absent. Tori liked that he was tall and broad-shouldered, and how he smelled of Lynx Africa. She remembered watching him take the can out of his school bag and spray it under his arms, his shirt riding up to reveal his slender pale stomach with its hint of soft fuzzy hair, and how she had been overcome with a desire to touch it.
“They’ve predicted you 7 C’s and 4 D’s, I don’t know why sweetie, this isn’t you. You’ve always been so good at school,” Tori’s mother, soothingly between sips of camomile tea sat across from Tori at the table, “you ought to have told us sooner, we could have got you some extra help.”
Tori wanted to say she didn’t need any extra help, she’d just been having fun, wasn’t that what being a teenager was all about? Plus, she had another whole year before her GCSE exams, there was plenty of time to improve. But she didn’t say anything, just watched her father who was sat staring at piece of tablecloth, dreading the moment he would look up at her. She thought he’d grown steadily worse over the years, attempted to push away niggles about what he might be building to if he wasn’t stopped.
“I don’t know what I’ve done wrong”, he said shaking his head, of course it had to be about him didn’t it?
“I’ll try harder next year,” Tori mumbled.
“Everything I had was second hand,” he continued, ignoring her completely, “or third-hand, or fourth-hand, but you and your sister, we’ve made sure you’ve not gone without. Maybe that was the mistake, perhaps this is all my fault.”
Tori doubted he believed anything was ever his fault. It was always her fault, her fault for existing, which when you thought about it was a lot more to do with him.
“I’ve not been trying as hard as I should. I’ll try harder next term, I will, I promise.”
Her mother smiled, “hear that love? I’m sure these grades are as much of a shock to Tori as they are to us,” then turning to her, “I know you will do sweetie.”
Tori lifted herself slightly from the dining table chair, intent on leaving and getting ready to go to the fair with her friends, the first time he’d ever allowed her to go at night. But before she got all the way up, her father spoke again.
“No,” he sighed, “No that’s not good enough! Tori, this is your future. GCSE’s matter. I’ll not let you waste your life. You’re always off out with those friends of yours, I knew something like this would happen. You’re grounded until your grades improve.”
Tori felt as though he had punched her swiftly in the chest, even though he had not moved an inch.
“After tonight you mean?” she could feel herself beginning to struggle for breath.
“No Tori, you’ll stay in tonight, make a start on that schoolwork,” he was smiling again, the way he did when he knew he had complete control of a situation, as though her misery, the restriction of her freedom, soothed him like a lullaby.
“But…” she opened her mouth to protest, then her emotions calmed and gave way to a better idea.
“Two of you in that car… one of you’ll have to wait. Cars are all full,” the grey, dishevelled older-looking man who was taking the money.
“It’s okay, I’ll watch,” Tori let Caitlyn and Beth climb into car number five, then heard a boy’s voice calling out to her.
“Hey, I’ve got no one to sit with either…” Jamie’s mouth expanded in a wide grin, straight-white teeth, a small dimple in his chin, repeating the first words he’d ever said to Tori, when he’d asked to sit next to her on the bus.
“Cool, okay,” Tori tried not to be as enthusiastic as she felt, nor trip up on her way across the track to car number twelve, understanding he wanted her to join him. Jamie’s skin was pale, soft, unblemished; his large blue eyes met hers. She sat down next to him in the car, inhaled him like an incense stick, smiled as their thighs pressed together. He didn’t offer to let her drive, but she didn’t mind as all her effort was being funnelled into trying to keep her trembling body still. He drove them, fast and carefree, into the side of his friends, into Caitlyn and Beth, into anyone he could get a good enough run at, but he did it good-heartedly and in high spirits. As they were bashed into unexpectedly from behind, Tori’s body was thrown against his, sending a tingle through her body.
When their turn was over, she rose from the car and tried to thank him, but before she could say anything he asked if she wanted a drink; she didn’t, but in that moment she would have followed him anywhere. He bought them both a Fanta Orange, without asking her preference, and said she should stay out – they’d be getting booze later, from his friends eighteen-year-old brother, beer, vodka, those WKD things girls liked. She said she thought Caitlyn and Beth were probably going to the club, the bouncers didn’t seem to mind about you only being fifteen if you were a girl. Jamie laughed. He moved closer. She said something stupid about the bus, her mind was emptying itself, she was becoming a goldfish, staring open-mouthed and helplessly into the oncoming situation. But it didn’t matter. Jamie moved his face towards her, his fleshy warm lips upon hers before she knew what was happening. He was kissing her, and then she was kissing him back and she didn’t care what happened next, only that life had blessed her with that moment.
“I’m going to do some of my work, then I think I’ll get an early night,” Tori told her parents, it was seven o’clock,“I might be asleep when you come up.”
“That’s wonderful sweetie, we won’t disturb you,” her mother.
“Good, well done. Nice to see you showing us a responsible attitude, for once.”
“I’m just gonna grab my books, get a drink…”
“Goodnight then love,” her mother said, as Tori closed the living room door and walked into the kitchen.
She left the tap running as she slipped into the conservatory and unlocked the outer door. Then, she returned to the kitchen with her books, turned off the lights and trudged upstairs.
From her bedroom window she could climb onto the extension’s sloping roof and drop down between the fence and the glass conservatory panel. Over the wall, into the next-door neighbours’ garden, down the open passageway, and she was out. She text Cait and Beth, she’d meet them at the gates at 7:30pm. She knew she’d be in trouble if her parents noticed the unlocked door, but she was also desperate for her life not to be a series of missed moments or an absence of love. And not just the romantic, but all love; the love of the rain on her face, of her friend’s button nose, the way Beth laughed at her for her funny ideas, which weren’t like other people’s but would make sense in the end.
Being alive, to her, was about living for those connections and all the colour they flicked into a day, being alive was about living for those small moments of freedom.
Rachael is a fiction writer and poet based in Lincolnshire, UK. She holds an MA in Creative Writing from the University of Lincoln, and has work published or forthcoming with Truffle, can we have our ball back?, Burning House Press, Streetcake Magazine, Hedgehog Poetry, The Centifictionist, Horla, Bratum Books, and Fly on the Wall Press. Her microfiction has been nominated for the anthology Best Microfiction 2020. Follow her on Twitter @rachaelg2601 or Instagram @rachaelcharlottewriter