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Authors: David Belbin

Student (6 page)

BOOK: Student
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‘And where are you living this year?’ Helen asks me.

‘A house in Lenton.’

‘Who with?’

‘My friend Vic and three other people.’

None of whom I really know, which would sound sad, only Helen isn’t all that interested so doesn’t interrogate me over who the others might be. Vic has sorted out a bloke to replace Paul. He will have the inferior first floor room, leaving me with the attic one, which is what I wanted.

‘I’d better get off,’ I say. ‘I’ve got my driving test tomorrow.’

This throws them a little. I leave in a hail of ‘good luck’s without revealing that my test is not until three in the afternoon and I have no intention of going to bed early.

There’s an email from Aidan waiting when I get home. He writes surreal emails with jokes and poems in which one or the other of us is a character (but never the two of us together). I told him about the driving test then immediately regretted it, because he has a ten year ban. But I wanted him to know that, if I passed, I’d be able to drive over and see him. At the end of the email, he wishes me luck and says ‘be good to see you again’. Where he lives, it’s a train and a bus and a long walk, a ninety minute journey, but it would take less than half an hour in a car.

There’s loads riding on the test. My dad, guilty about Christmas, has promised to buy me a car if I pass, and to pay the first year’s insurance. We hardly communicate, but he’s been paying for two lessons a week all summer, which adds up. My instructor says I have a fifty-fifty chance. My mum hardly ever takes me out (she’s a nervous driver) but says I can use her car if I pass. I could go and see Aidan tomorrow.

Why didn’t I learn when all my friends did? It has something to do with my seventeenth birthday coming so late in August. I wanted to concentrate on school and I didn’t want to ask Dad for anything. I had to wait until he offered.

The test flies by. Three point turn. Emergency stop. I’m nearly back at the test centre, my head reeling with the thought that I might have done it, when, at the junction before the test centre, the examiner gives an instruction that confuses me.

‘Follow the road as the signs indicate.’

I’m so busy working out what the signs say and whether there’s a twist to his directions that I’ve missed, I fail to notice the lights have changed. The examiner points this out, loudly and nervously. Back at the centre, I know I’ve failed and hardly take in his words. This is the first time I’ve failed anything. My love life, I’m sure, has also failed.

My instructor says she’ll get me a cancellation before I return to uni. If I leave it until Christmas, the nights will be short and I’ll have forgotten most of what I learnt this summer. I phone Aidan to tell him the bad news.

‘ I can’t drive over, not while I’m home this time anyway.’

‘Why don’t I come and see you?’ he says, to my surprise.

Easy as that.

I meet him at the station. He’s on time, and as attractive as I remember, though it’s not the weather for the junk shop tweed overcoat he’s wearing. We go for a walk through town and end up on the beach again. Aidan keeps his hands in his coat pockets. I think of hooking my arm through his but that might be too soppy. Aidan walks fast on the windy beach. At times I struggle to keep up. I remind him about Hilbre Island, over on our right, bird watchers’ paradise. The night we met, he claimed not to have heard of it, but now I know he comes to West Kirby a lot, so that can’t be true. I’m only starting to get used to his sense of humour.

‘Next time, maybe we can walk there.’

‘Why not today?’

‘You need to go out at low tide and stay there for five hours before you can walk back again. We’d need to plan it.’

‘How long does it take?’

‘A couple of hours. Maybe a little less.’

I am about to say that there’s a shorter route from Red Rocks in Hoylake but Aidan has a kind of gleam in his eye and I sense that, if there is a more dangerous route, he’d take it.

‘We could go tomorrow, if you stayed over.’

‘Do you want to? Would your mum mind?’

‘I don’t think she’d even notice.’

Tired from our beach walk, we get the bus up the hill. I ask him about his friendship with Huw. This is the nearest I’ll get to asking him about the accident. Unless he brings it up himself.

‘Huw’s... Huw. I’ve known him since Infants. He used to live in Birkenhead.’

‘How is he?’

‘Dunno. I’ve not seen him much lately.’

‘We could go round to his later if you want.’

Aidan doesn’t respond to this and I’m not keen, though visiting Huw would be a way of legitimising Aidan’s putative position as my boyfriend.

‘Someone said Huw’s going back to uni next month.’

‘Yeah. He’ll be a second year, like you.’

‘Have you thought about going back?’


‘You’re not ready.’

‘Maybe. I don’t...’ Long pause. ‘Everybody knows.’

I don’t know how to respond to this, so I kiss him. He kisses me back, a long, soft kiss. We miss our stop and have to walk back to mine along the side of The Common. Once we’re home, I take him straight up to my room. I don’t want Aidan to think I’m a slut but there’s only an hour before Mum gets back from work and I want to have sex with him. I want to have sex while I’m sober. He doesn’t resist. We undress ourselves and he doesn’t have a condom so I have to find a packet that’s been at the back of a drawer since Christmas. We fumble around with the curtains closed. I have to help him inside. It’s nice, but it’s over almost before it’s begun. My first time with a virgin. What’s nicer is afterwards, holding him, flesh on flesh.

Later, after Mum has gone to bed and we’ve watched a silly horror movie, we do it again. And this time it’s better, better than the three times I’ve done it before, better than good. It’s the intimacy that amazes me, the having him inside me and the smell of him all over me and the way he’s so gentle and loving. At three in the morning he goes back to the spare room and I wonder what I’ll do in the morning after Mum’s gone to work. How will I explain to Aidan that I don’t have any more condoms? There were only two left in the packet because I used one with Mark at Christmas. But I won’t need to explain. He’ll assume I’ve been doing it for years, like most of my mates. Only I’m not like most of my mates. And neither is he.

I wake at nine, early for me, early enough for us to go for our walk to Hilbre. When I take Aidan a mug of tea in bed, he’s gone. No note, nothing.

What sort of guy disappears in the middle of the night? Five nights later, I go for a drink with Mark. Aidan hasn’t answered my emails since he left. I have to tell someone, and Mark knows me better than anyone. I need his advice.

‘I’ve been seeing this guy called Aidan Kinsale. Do you know him?’

Mark shakes his head. That was easy. I relax. I’m killing two birds with one stone: Mark will tell Helen I’ve got a boyfriend and she’ll decide it’s safe for him to see me alone. I tell Mark a bit about Aidan, skirting over the car crash stuff.

‘I’m not sure if we’re going out, as such. But we’re friends.’

‘Helen says men and women can’t be friends. There’s always a sexual element. That’s why she doesn’t like me seeing you alone.’

‘Does that mean I can expect her to walk through the door any minute?’

He laughs awkwardly, indicating that Helen knows where he is. I join in, acknowledging that neither of us would put it past her to turn up. This lends some urgency to our conversation.

‘Have you slept with him?’ Mark asks.

I glare at him. He has no right to ask me this question. Not in public. Not at all.

‘Would you be jealous if I had?’

Before Mark can answer this, Helen arrives, wearing a bustier that reveals her Ibiza tan to boy-stunning advantage. I blush to think how stupid my last question was. Mark only wanted to know how close I’d let myself get to Aidan before he offered me his advice. He’s getting grade A sex from the sexy sexpert who’s just sat down and has no reason to be jealous of anybody.

It’s my round. When I return, Helen asks me about the driving test. I explain that I’m retaking it the day before I go back to uni, which means I’m living in West Kirby until the last possible moment, which wasn’t in my plans. We’re about to leave when Helen says, apropos of nothing, ‘Did you two hear about Huw? You were at school with him, right?’

‘Huw?’ Mark says.

‘Used to go to Calday. He was in that horrible accident, where...’

‘We know. What about him?’

‘He died in a car crash, last Monday. The funeral was today.’

I freeze. My chin quivers, thinking of Aidan, but Helen doesn’t notice.

‘Do you know how it happened?’ Mark asks.

‘He was in the car alone, that’s all I know, ran into a tree.’

‘Lost control or...?’

Helen shrugs. ‘I never liked him much. He tried to get off with me at a party when I was in Year Eleven. Arrogant tosser. Hands all over the place. But you wouldn’t wish that on anyone.’

At home, I write Aidan an email offering my condolences with an unspoken question: when did he find out? Was there a text in the middle of the night? I get a polite email back, perfectly spelt and punctuated, unlike his other emails.

I couldn’t sleep, he says. I don’t know if it was because of what happened between us or because I sensed what Huw had done. I had to go home as soon as it was light. I waited at the station for an hour before the first train came.

He invites me to visit him in Birkenhead. You’re all I have now.

I reply at once, before I take these last words in, saying I’ll go. Then I begin to worry. His oldest and best friend has just died. I’m getting in too deep, too fast.

Next day, I ring Zoe. She’s surprised I’m still around. I explain about the driving test. She tells me about the funeral.

‘Not many people were there. It was horrible. Everyone crying. The vicar gave this icky talk about guilt and God’s forgiveness.’

‘How did Aidan take it?’

‘Aidan wasn’t there. I’m not sure if that was his choice. Maybe Huw’s parents didn’t want him there. Or perhaps Aidan couldn’t face it. I don’t suppose you’ve heard from him since my party?’

‘Actually... I’ve seen him once.’

‘That’s good. I mean, I’m surprised, but it’s good. Does he talk to you? Because, when we were going out, I did 90% of the talking. Which, at first, I thought was cool, a guy who listens. But then I began to worry that he didn’t know how to communicate, didn’t know how to read his own thoughts, never mind anyone else’s. He and Huw seemed ascloseasthis but, whenever I was with the two of them, they never really talked to each other, not about anything. A couple of words here, a glance there, that was all they had to communicate.’

‘I do most of the talking,’ I said, then ask the question that’s been on my mind since the night I met Aidan. ‘Do you know whose idea it was, the chicken game with cars?’

‘Aidan was driving, but the idea... it sounds more like Huw to me.’

‘Do you think Huw meant to kill himself?’

‘I don’t know. The whisper was that he’d had a lot to drink.’

‘At least Aidan doesn’t drink,’ I say.

‘He used to,’ Zoe tells me. ‘He used to take anything and everything.’

Aidan’s mum collects me from the station. Even though Aidan’s not with her, we recognise each other at once. I am the only skinny nineteen year-old in sight, while she’s pretty much the same age as my mum, but better preserved. She has an immaculately made up version of Aidan’s mouth, Aidan’s nose. Mrs Kinsale doesn’t explain her son’s absence. After we get into her smart Alfa Romeo, she launches into a series of warning signs.

‘It’s great that he’s met someone. Aidan says that you’re a very caring person, very clever, too. Of course, I can tell what he sees in you.’

I don’t recognise myself from this description. Maybe mothers have a special way of viewing their son’s world. Linda Kinsale tells me that Huw’s death has hit Aidan hard. He’s been behaving strangely. Off his meds. Both families thought it best he didn’t attend the funeral. She asks how much I know about ‘the accident’.

‘I was at university when it happened. All I heard was that they were playing a dare game and it went wrong. Aidan doesn’t talk about it.’

‘He’s the same with me. Those two boys, when they were together, they always created their own little world. I don’t think either of them appreciated the risks. His father...’

We pull into the driveway of a modern, detached house with a substantial garden at the front. She doesn’t finish the sentence. Aidan, to my mind, belongs in a Gothic pile, or at least an attic room like the one I’m about to have, with a skylight and wooden floorboards. Instead, he inhabits a concrete prefab. I walk over the fitted pastel carpets, look politely at the framed prints of ‘modern’ paintings that decorate every wall.

‘Aidan!’ Linda calls. ‘Allison’s here.’ No reply. ‘He must be in his room.’

‘Would you show me where it is?’

Linda guides me upstairs into a wide, airy hallway, then up a narrow, winding stairwell into the converted loft. She knocks on the door but opens it without waiting for an answer.

‘Aid, Allison’s here.’

The room is stuffy. Body odours mixed with stale air suffused with skunk. Linda doesn’t comment on this. Aidan’s in bed, asleep. His mum opens the window. I look around, wondering what I’m doing here. It’s like a palace, this room. Large bed, widescreen TV and a computer with a screen twice the size of mine. Two games consoles. Comic book artwork on the wall, some of it signed originals, in frames. A stack of CDs and DVDs several feet high. A stereo that’s bigger than Mark’s, and he’s into his music, whereas Aidan is pushed to name a band he half likes.

The carpet is thick pile, purple. The bright midday light reveals beer stains and hash burns. There are no bookshelves, only comics in purpose-built boxes and a stack of graphic novels beneath the metal bed base. Aidan rubs his eyes. ‘I’ll make some coffee,’ Linda says. ‘How do you take it?’

‘Black. Strong.’

‘I think that’s what he needs, too.’

She closes the door behind her. Aidan gets up. I’ve never seen him naked before. Not properly. He’s even thinner than I thought, his bony chest unhealthily pale but for grey-pink, inverted nipples. His pubic hair is a shock of black barbed wire inside which his penis nestles like a dormouse. He blinks at me, says ‘shower’, then disappears into an adjacent room. He has his own, en-suite bathroom. He is a spoilt man-child and I don’t know why I am taking him under my wing.

BOOK: Student
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