Authors: Araminta Hall
‘Well, we could just meet and then …’ she trailed off. She was on such shaky ground it was impossible for her to continue.
‘Don’t you want me to call your house? Have you got a boyfriend or something?’ But Tony said it so confidently Alice knew that he didn’t see the mythical boyfriend as a threat.
‘Oh no, it’s just I’m not there much.’
He didn’t look convinced, but let her off. ‘OK, let’s say we’ll meet outside the multiplex at six and if we’re early we can go for a drink.’
Alice knew her smile gave too much away, but she didn’t know what else to do. ‘Great.’ She stood up. ‘Anyway, thanks but I should be getting home now.’
Tony stood up as well. ‘Really? I can’t tempt you with another?’
‘Oh, well, thanks, no. I live with my mother, she worries and, well, so.’
‘Let me walk you to the bus at least.’
They left the pub together and the day was still bright and hot which seemed at odds with Alice’s mood. As they walked Tony talked about how in his opinion town planners should be shot. How they’d torn down everything that had any soul in towns like Cartertown and replaced it with concrete monoliths which made the residents feel depressed. Alice nodded and murmured, hoping that Tony couldn’t tell she had no idea what he was talking about. She didn’t even know what a monolith was. By the time they arrived at the stop Alice’s bus was pulling up. She turned to Tony, unsure of how to say goodbye.
‘Nice to meet you, Alice Cartwright,’ he said. ‘I look forward to Saturday at six, when we know not what we might see or where we shall go.’ There was a smile playing round his lips and Alice was filled with fear that he wouldn’t turn up. She wanted to say something to ensure that he did, but she didn’t know what that might be. Tony bent forward and pulled her towards him with a strong hand round her waist, pressing his mouth against hers, mashing her lips in a way she thought only existed in films, or on darkened stages. ‘You’d better run,’ he said, pointing at her bus. And so she did as she was told.
All the way home Alice was filled with the delicious thought that her mother was wrong. Clarice saw the world as a place of threat and violence and manners and rules. It was obvious now to Alice that she had simply never been in love and was quite possibly wrong about everything. Often when she had been younger she had fantasised that her real mother had died in childbirth and her lovely, kind father had remarried out of some sense of duty to her, his daughter. After he had died she thought this probably wasn’t true, but – in a real sense – it might as well have been. Her father had become a mystical saint in death as is so often the way, and she felt sure he would have shown her the right way through the world, but left alone with Clarice what hope had there been for her? Tony, she thought, might be her one and only chance to escape a life that could very easily end up with her throwing herself off Conniton Hill in a few years’ time. It was vital to her future that she got it right.
As it turned out Alice didn’t need to do much more than be herself to impress Tony, which was one of the biggest revelations of her life. Being with Tony was like standing on stage, a leap in the dark in which she didn’t even have to know the right lines. They drank in pubs, watched films, even ate a Chinese meal, and she made him laugh and he told her she was beautiful. But undeniably their time was snatched. Alice still hadn’t told Clarice; all her excursions with Tony were hidden behind a fictitious group of friends she’d made at college who all lived in nice houses with parents who asked the right questions. Tony was very understanding and seemed to accept that Clarice was difficult without getting annoyed by it. Finally though he came up with a plan: why not tell her that Alice’s course had been extended by a week. He would take the same week off work from the record shop where he worked while he waited to be discovered as the musical genius he so obviously was. And they could spend it together. There’s a beach nearby, he’d said, I can borrow my mate Trevor’s car, he owes me a favour and we could go there every day. The plan sounded delicious even though Alice was troubled by the mate she knew nothing about and the mysterious favour. She didn’t want to be a bystander to Tony’s life any more, she wanted to be part of it, which was enough to pull her through the lie to Clarice and get away with it.
Tony met her off the bus on the first day of their pretend holiday and held her hand all the way to the Ford Escort he’d parked a few streets away. They were unusually quiet, embarrassment radiating between them at what they were doing and all it said about how they felt. On the drive Tony wound down his window and turned Radio 1 up full blast, singing along to bands Alice didn’t know. But it lightened the mood and made her laugh. Alice’s hair whipped across her face and she let her head rest against the seat, drinking in the countryside around her, thinking that she would probably never feel happier. Briefly Alice thought about Clarice, either sitting in her chair under the apple tree, or maybe discussing the pruning of the roses with Peter, perhaps listening to the afternoon play on Radio 4, and she was filled suddenly by the sensation that she couldn’t catch her breath, as if she was drowning. Fear of the future loomed over her, a complete knowledge that she could not submit to such a life, that eking out your days was not enough.
They parked in a dusty car park and walked over a hill to the beach, Tony carrying the picnic he’d brought along and Alice their towels. The sky was so blue it was as if you could look through it and Alice had to keep watching the horizon to stop herself from feeling giddy. The sun was hot and round and hard, as it so rarely was in the first week of October where they lived, so that by the time they reached the steps to the beach they had forgotten they were only half an hour from home and both were imagining Greek islands.
‘Have you ever been here before?’ Tony asked.
Alice laughed. ‘Of course I haven’t. It’s so beautiful.’
They started their climb downwards. ‘It’s amazing, isn’t it?’ Tony said. ‘I’ve never been abroad, but people who have say it’s better than any beach there.’
‘How do you know about all these things?’ asked Alice as she watched the top of Tony’s head bobbing down the steps in front of her.
He turned back and smiled at her so that her stomach contracted into itself. ‘I don’t know. How do you not?’
They swam and they kissed and they lay in the hot sand and they were so beautiful and perfect and so complemented the beach that the weather rewarded them with a week of perfect sunshine. There was hardly ever anyone else on the beach and even when there was there were rocks and grasses to hide behind. Alice knew that she would lose her virginity to Tony, although the whole phrase seemed inadequate for the process. She was not losing anything and it did not belong to her. But Tony seemed strangely reluctant. She couldn’t imagine that he was a virgin and she had imagined that he would lead her through this with the same confidence that accompanied everything else he did. She pushed her body into his, but still his hands seemed to stop at all the right moments.
By Thursday night Alice felt desperate. Desire had overtaken her body so that she tingled if a fly so much as landed on her. She showered when she got home, tasting the salt as it washed off her skin, and then stood for ages in front of the bathroom mirror, staring at her now brown face, wondering if perhaps she wasn’t as pretty as she’d suspected. She rubbed at the freckles on her nose and worried that she looked like a child.
‘You’ve changed colour,’ Clarice said to her as they ate their incongruous supper of pork chops, sitting in their brown dining room, even though the evening was still warm and the air was as light as a kiss.
‘Oh, I’ve been lying on the grass outside college at lunchtime with some of the other girls,’ answered Alice, amazed at how easily lies now tripped off her tongue. Like everything else, lying seemed to be simply a matter of practice.
Clarice nodded. ‘Have you thought about what you’re going to do when you finish?’
‘I suppose get a job in Cartertown.’ Even the words tasted stale to Alice.
‘It’s funny’, said Clarice, ‘to see you growing up. There were times when you were younger that I thought it would never happen and now it’s happened so suddenly.’
Alice had no idea what her mother was talking about and so she took a sip of water and the conversation stopped.
The next day was their last and Tony seemed as jittery as Alice. She felt him staring at her as she ran to the sea and his hands shook as he touched her body in the cool water.
‘You really are so beautiful,’ he said as they stood waist-deep in the ocean. ‘Don’t ever let anyone tell you otherwise.’
But there won’t ever be anyone else, Alice wanted to shout, please don’t say that.
After lunch they went to their favourite rock where Alice lay back into the sand but Tony stayed sitting, hugging his knees. ‘Have you told your mother about me yet?’ he asked, letting sand run idly between his fingers.
‘No, she wouldn’t understand.’ Alice didn’t want to talk, she just wanted him to lie next to her. But his next question shocked her.
‘Is there someone else? You can tell me, you know, I wouldn’t mind.’
‘I’d rather know.’
‘Of course there isn’t. Why, have you got a girlfriend or something?’ Alice imagined a string of girls trailing Tony like confetti wherever he went.
He smiled over his shoulder at her. ‘No, no. Only you.’
Alice sat up as well and wondered if they were stuck not because of her, but because of him. I have approached this whole encounter like a job interview, she realised, all the time worried that I wasn’t good enough. Maybe he is feeling the exact same way. Maybe the fact that I haven’t asked him anything about himself is troubling him, not soothing him. It was the first time that Alice had considered herself from the outside and this new perspective shamed her. She placed her hand on his bony back, curved and dotted by the ridges in his spine and he felt warm and sticky from the salt. ‘Where are you from?’ she asked simply.
‘What are you doing here?’
He shrugged under her hand and the movement pained her in its loneliness. ‘Just had to get away. My dad’s a wanker and my mum’s what you might call harassed. I’m the fourth boy and she never made any bones about the fact that she wanted a girl. Not that she didn’t love us, but she was pretty spent by the time it got to me.’
‘I’m sorry,’ said Alice and she didn’t think she’d ever spoken truer words.
‘What about your dad? Why’s it just you and your weird mother?’
‘He died when I was nine. He had a boat and got caught in a storm. Swept overboard. They never found his body.’
Tony turned round at this. ‘No, really? That’s shit.’
And it was shit, shitter than Alice had perhaps realised before. She saw herself standing next to her mother at her father’s memorial, in her black dress and little white gloves, swallowing her tears, desperate for a shred of comfort from Clarice, who just looked forward, a veil over her eyes, her hands clasped in front of her.
‘Don’t cry,’ Tony said and she felt the tears on her cheeks.
‘No, I didn’t mean that.’ He leant forward and kissed the tracks they had made on her face. ‘Look at the two of us,’ he said. ‘I’m never having kids. Parents just fuck you up.’
And as much to stop him from saying words that Alice could not bear to hear as anything else, she pulled him towards her and something about the way she kissed him or the pitch of the seagulls’ screeches or maybe just the way the planets were moving round the earth gave Tony the courage to take the movement as far as they both wanted.
Sometimes you can feel summer ending in the whip of the wind or the coolness of a morning or a cloud passing over the sun. The news was filled with stories of their Indian summer, blown to them like a piece of magic from a mystical land, but still it happened two weeks after their holiday and, with the season’s change, Alice felt a terror which she didn’t know how to articulate. Sooner or later she would have to stop going into Cartertown for pretend interviews and actually get a job. In just a few weeks it would be too cold to meet on Conniton Hill and the boarding house Tony lived in didn’t allow visitors. Their meetings would have to take place in pubs and cinemas, crowded with other people, and eventually he would lose interest and meet a girl who was less complicated and happy to introduce him to her parents.
By November it was as if the summer had never happened and Tony shivered in the wind. Alice felt him slipping from her with every meeting until one day, on Conniton Hill, he wouldn’t meet her eye and so she grabbed and thrashed with her conversation. ‘I wish we could meet more often,’ she said, longing for him to ask her to run away with him.
He lit a cigarette and she could see frown lines between his eyes. ‘It’s hard, what with your mother, my shitty room, no money, sodding life.’
‘But maybe it doesn’t have to be hard.’
Tony grunted. ‘Life’s always hard, Alice. Maybe not in your fairy tale castle, but for the rest of us it is.’ His voice sounded gruff and something curdled in her stomach.
Besides, the insult had stung her and she felt tears popping at the side of her eyes, which she wiped furiously away. Somehow, somewhere, she’d always known that it could end this way and everything about the fact that she would die without him gave her courage. ‘Come on,’ she said, pulling him up and leading him into one of the many thickets on the east side of the hill. Once there she started to take off her clothes, pulling at his, standing on tiptoe to reach his mouth.
‘Steady on!’ Tony laughed. ‘What’s got into you?’ But Alice didn’t answer, kneeling before him instead and taking him into her mouth, feeling him harden against her tongue. ‘Fuck,’ he said from somewhere above her. Now she pulled him down so that he was on top of her, panting with the same desire that she felt. ‘Wait a second,’ he moaned, fishing a condom out of his pocket and every second that he wasn’t inside her was too long so she pushed her hips towards him. But once he was she found that nothing was enough, he could not get far enough inside her so that she was almost crying with rage at the inadequacy of the human body’s inability to turn itself inside out. She sucked him into her, pulling all of him, wanting part of him inside her for ever.