“He drinks a whisky drink, he drinks a vodka drink/
He drinks a lager drink, he drinks a cider drink/
He sings the songs that remind him of the good times/
He sings the songs that remind him of the better times.”
Tubthumping – Chumbawamba
Is there a limit to the teenage boy?
Danny is currently swigging from a bottle of fizzless cider that’s mostly spitback. Not just his. His face is flushed, hair soggy around his forehead and his t-shirt is baggy around his neck from when Tom grabbed him by the scruff a few hours ago.
I’ve known Danny since I was eleven. That’s when he started to exist in the outskirts of my life. Our seats in form were assigned because of the alphabet. His Kinsey to my King. I’d forgotten my notebook so he’d prised a sheet out of his own and handed it to me. I’d watched him pull the squares of residual paper out of the metal spiral, meticulously plucking at them with fingers with bitten nails, and sweep them onto the floor.
If I wanted, I could probably find that sheet tucked into the pages of my textbook: underlined equations in grape flavoured ink.
I hadn’t kept it on purpose but I’m glad that it was preserved. The start of it. The start of something.
Our first year at high school was determined by our timetable: maths in G42 (no air and broken blinds), biology in Lab 3 (laddered tights and leaking Bunsen Burners), English on the third floor (heat rises and Shakespeare’s sonnets, one between two).
By second year, we had become friends. He wasn’t just a smudge on my periphery anymore. His number was in my phone and I texted him, to my surprise, more than anyone else in my phone book. His were the messages I had to delete to free up space on my phone. He’d come round for dinner, with our other friends of course, and my mum would be smitten. Pushing plates full of garlic bread towards him when she thought no one else was looking.
By third year, we had become best friends. Our social groups had officially become one: my friends clashed with his, lines and boundaries blurred as they met up without either Danny or I being there. We’d ride the bus lines as a gang, eight of us, scattered across the top deck. Three of us would buy chips and polystyrene would squeak as it was passed around; the smell of vinegar and sneaky cheap weed that Tom would buy from his brother’s girlfriend’s cousin would create the backdrop. Danny would sit next to me; baggy jeans to my leggings, fingers linking mine when he believed no one was looking.
We’d rule the streets of the city, pissing the night away with cheap drinks but rich memories, laughing at our own jokes and creating the good times, the better times that we’d always return to, years down the line. And we did it without even realising.
By fourth year, I kissed him. Under the stairs that no one used that lead up to the tech labs, smelling of soldering irons. He was surprised, for a second, rocking back on his Rockport boots while I leant forward. He tasted of chewing gum, one that he’d probably pressed under the table of his Business Studies class minutes before, and I could still taste the gravy he’d smothered on his chips. When I dared open my eyes, I saw that his were still closed and I stared at his face, registering the tiny muscle-flick under his right eye.
Fuck, he had said and then he’d grinned and looked at his phone. I have to go.
I had grinned too: mirror image.
I haven’t done the homework, he’d said.
I’d raised my eyebrows and he’d leaned in again, kissing my cheek. It felt normal, instantly. Like it was already our normal and nature had just been waiting for us to catch up.
I watched as he’d gone; shirt untucked and shoe laces untied.
Our lunches never matched but we’d have five minutes, a crossing in the corridor, him handing me my favourite sandwich if he’d noticed they were running out. Me handing him a message Tom had written to him about missing footie after school.
Five minutes last a long time when that’s all you’ve got.
Our stolen kisses were punctuated by the school bell.
By fifth year, we were together officially. I’d written his name in my pencil case and every time I flipped the rubber, watching it somersault through the air, and I’d ask a question, it would always be about him. I’d accepted his Facebook relationship request. I’d write posts on tumblr that I’d pretend were generic but they were only about him. He messaged me things that he’d seen in his day and I’d pretend I was rolling my eyes but I’d laugh just as much as he did.
Now, we were sitting in a field and he was drunk. God knows what he’d drank tonight. Vodka, whisky, lager, cider.
He was singing with the rest of them. This was our Friday night. We’d bring our own alcohol and a multipack of crisps and we’d listen to the songs from playlists that someone would make off a tinny speaker someone had bought for cheap off Amazon. No one ever bothered us. The pub over the fence was rough but the locals never bothered us and other people around were too afraid to go through the guinnel and face the youths and their crazy ways.
“Can you believe we’ve finished school?” Sarah, my best friend and soulmate, asks as she sits down next to me. I met her in primary school and it had only taken a few weeks, and a couple of shared packs of picked onion Space Invaders, to decide that she was my best friend. When I had declared this to her, brandishing a homemade friendship bracelet at her, Sarah had bit her lip for a second before nodding decisively.
And that was it.
She followed me and I followed her, and we walked side by side through primary to high school and, when we put our pens down in our last GCSE (biology, osmosis, potatoes), I had turned round and she was already grinning at me.
“It feels good, doesn’t it?”
“So good,” she says and rests her head on my shoulder. “Hey, I bought you something.”
She holds out a Smirnoff ice and lemonade pre-mixed can. It’s blessedly cold and I hold it, for a moment, against my burning cheeks.
“Sarah, I can’t drink this.”
“It’s just lemonade,” she says. “I decanted it.”
I can’t help it. I burst out laughing.
“I love you, you know?” she says.
“I know,” I say. And I do know.
“OK, I’m gonna go be a social butterfly,” says Sarah standing up. She thrusts out her bum at me. “Am I fine?”
I brush off some leaves from her arse and then give it a slap. “You’re good.”
I watch her leave. I take a sip of my lemonade.
The pub carpark looks out onto the grasslands around the reservoir. The water levels look full, at capacity, at the limit, at overflow. We’ve had a lot of rain recently and the grass, shades of yellow and green, are moist with tomorrow’s dew and it’s late and I probably should go home but.
The colours stop me.
Danny throws himself down next time.
“You’re never gonna get back up again, are you?” I ask, grinning.
“I’ll get up again,” he says, leaning back. “Eventually.”
I glance at him and his eyes are closed. He’s smiling and he reaches an arm over, fingers finding the closest bit of skin, the strip between my top and my jeans, and he rubs his thumb over it.
I think this is his limit. This is his enough. A smile playing across his lips, surrounded by his best friends, school behind him, six weeks of guitar strings and last buses home, and me, within reaching distance.
This is Danny’s limit.
This is enough.
The sun is setting.
“Babe,” he says. “Want a drink?”
“I have one,” I reply, shaking the can at him. It’s flat but it’s fine. The sugar is working its way through my veins and it feels good.
“Oh my god, remember this song?” he holds his phone up to my ear and I snatch the lyrics. It’s one we’ve all sang so many times that it’s become our anthem.
“Of course,” I say. “How could I forget?”
It mustn’t be the reaction he wants because he opens his eyes and he pinches the skin of my stomach between his fingers.
Not hard, but enough to make me look at him.
“Are you OK?” he asks, his voice bleary. “Did I do something?”
I reach out and grab his knee. It’s wet for some reason: grass stains and cider.
“Of course not,” I say. “It’s just…”
“Worrying about college?”
“Yep,” I reply.
And I am.
Because what else do sixteen year old girls worry about?
Amongst other things.
“Yep. A bit nervous,” I say. “Is that weird?”
“Nah, sweet. It’s normal.”
His skin is pale and I want to memorise it. I want to map it out and I want to use his freckles and blemishes as stopping points on our journey.
My head is pounding and all of my bones ache.
He smiles and leans back into the grass. Eyes closed. I kiss him, just above his left eyebrow.
I find Sarah and tell her I have to go. Her eyes are wide, drunk and not-all-there, when she tells me she loves me and I should call her as soon as I get home.
I nod obediently.
I find Danny where I left him and when I tell him I’m going, he leaps up. Full of energy. He wraps his arms around me, sweaty but familiar and so, so safe. I’ve been here, cocooned in his embrace so many times it feels like it’s where I should be.
His kiss goodbye is sweet. My stomach flips and I wonder if it’s because of all the lemonade or the chips I just ate or if it’s something else.
“Text me,” he says, two clammy hands on either side of my face. “When you get home, OK? Your mum will punch me if you don’t.”
I give him a smirk. My mum loves him more than I do. And that says a lot.
On my way home, I pluck the leaves from the trees I pass. I roll them in between my fingers, green residue in my nailbeds. I take hold of the grey plants and run my fingers along the stalk, stripping them off the green and holding them in the palm of my hands. When I was younger, I believed that these pods were the currency that fairies used to get by.
Now, I’m not entirely convinced.
I tap in and make my way down the stairs to the Tube.
On the platform, I stand next to a woman in her early thirties. She’s looking at her phone, thumb swiping up, eyes trying to read as much as they can. She’s dressed smartly, hair pinned up.
There’s a ‘baby on board’ badge pinned to her jacket.
People would stand up for her, let her take their seat. I let myself wonder how many would stand up for me.
Not, at least, with a smile of support they’d give to the other woman. I would get disapproval, pity, sympathy. I doubt I’d get congratulations.
Luckily, there’s a spare seat.
I sit down, taking the load off my feet. I check the time on my phone. It’s only nine but I can’t wait to be home. I have a missed call from Danny. The photo of the two of us when we went on holiday with his parents. I’ve got a braid in my hair and I’m still wearing my braces. He had the worst sunburn because he didn’t think that Turkish sun would get that hot. We were drunk on all-inclusive-vodka and coke and his parents didn’t care.
They’ve been better pictures of us but I’ve never gotten around to changing it. I don’t think I will.
I smile and slip my phone into my coat pocket. I’ll ring him back when I resurface.
I wonder if there’s a limit to the teenage girl.
A limit to me.
When everyone has told us what we’re supposed to think, what we’re supposed to do, who we’re supposed to love, what we should read, what we should listen to, what we shouldn’t be doing, what direction we should be headed in, what will happen when we veer off the path that we may not have even chosen.
What is our limit?
When it’s just enough.
Underlined and italicised.
Highlighted in bold.
I close my eyes, a smile on my face, hands resting on my stomach, and the train rattles out of the station.