That Age

Posted on February 13, 2009


By Sally Cook

It is my turn to visit Nana. I deliberately scuff the rubber toes of my Converse into the silty ground as I wander down the cut. The old railway line is deserted. There’s not much reason to come this way, since they shut down the open-cast and boarded up, one by one, the crumbling terraces which only my nan and a couple of other old-timers stubbornly inhabit. Mum says they can’t leave their memories. Kids come here sometimes, to mess about in the hillocks and potholes on buzzing quad bikes; and teenagers from the comp at weekends, leaving empty cider bottles and charred campfire circles, crisp packets and condoms snagged in the long grass.

The afternoon is scorching. It is thick with the peppery scent of oilseed rape in full bloom. Nothing moves. Small black flies hang motionless, suspended in the soupy air.

I am too hot. It feels like hours since I got off the bus. My throat is parched, my tongue thick and grainy against the roof of my mouth. Briney beads of sweat prickle at my temples, my upper lip, under my arms and between my thighs; my feet are sweltering, ridiculously swaddled in winter socks, this morning’s bad decision. They throb inside the faded canvas, which was once the colour of the sky on a day like today. It is more the shade of a thunder storm now.

I am proud of that. It took a lot of effort to get the newness off them. Mum was annoyed. I remember her standing at the back door, tendrils of greying hair dancing about her flushed face, watching me scrape the box-fresh trainers against the stone wall and dust-bathe them in the flower beds. She was angry, like I’d taken advantage – I had sweet-talked her into buying them, playing on her fondness for me, the baby, knowing the others had never been allowed brand-names.

Dust, powder-light, settles on my damp skin wherever it touches. The heat releases body smells, organic and overripe, which mingle with the rapeseed, and potent clouds billow around me with each laboured step. I need to take off my socks. I am at the foot of the embankment. At the top it levels out onto a meadow, and a gnarly crab-apple tree casts a circle of shade on the grass. I scrabble up the slope, catching my arm on the thorns of a bramble bush and blackening my fingernails with dry earth.

I fling my bag, heavy with textbooks, on the shady ground and sit down to unlace my shoes. I peel off the socks, damp and sharp-smelling in my hands. I roll them into a ball, stuff them in my bag, push my toes into the cool grass and lie back, tugging my grubby school shirt free of my skirt. It feels better. I close my eyes.

It is not long before I become aware of a presence, something in the changing gradation of blood red to black behind my eyelids, a tiny stirring in the air. I blink into the light. There is a figure standing near me, maybe six feet away, silhouetted in the glare of the sun so I can’t fill in the details. A rash of cold goosebumps prickles my skin despite the heat. I push myself to a sitting position.

A male, adolescent voice speaks my name. As my eyes readjust, the shadows of his features swim blurrily into focus and he looks tall from down here and skinny, with messy dark hair and a rash of acne creeping from jaw to temple. I trawl my memory, casting around for a connection, but falter and ask if I should know him.

His name is Jamie, he was in the same year as me at junior school, but a different form. There is a stirring, a faint recollection of a small, weedy child, asthmatic, always picked last for the football team. I smile, pushing my damp fringe off my forehead with the palm of my hand. I tell him he looks different, and he does. I suppose we all do.

He sits down beside me and starts talking, absently tearing at the dry grass. He tells me he went to the comprehensive after primary school, when I left for the old grammar two miles away. He is inquisitive, asking me about my exams, am I revising, what marks I’m expecting, am I going to college? I feel self-conscious and answer his questions thickly; aware of my smell and wondering if he’s noticed. I push my feet harder into the grass and hug my knees to my chest, arms wrapped tightly around my sticky, dusty shins. He points at my forearm, his voice pitched higher with concern. The scratches from the bramble, deeper than I realised, score my flesh like angry red tramlines, blooming here and there with rubies of congealed, seeped-out blood.

I explain that it is just a scratch; that it looks worse than it is. He takes my arm by the wrist, pulling it away from my folded-up body and rolling it towards him for a closer look. I feel his breath on my skin, heat on heat, faintly scented with peppermint and something sharper, a bit stale, like old crisps. It makes me shiver, him breathing on me like this, and there is a kind of achy, stretchy feeling uncurling in the pit of my stomach.

I say I need to be going, that my nan will be waiting. I explain about my nan, how she is a bit confused these days and my mum, my sisters and I take it in turns to visit her so she doesn’t spend too long alone. She doesn’t leave the house much. I start to get up, pushing my swollen bare feet into the unlaced trainers. He pulls me back, clammy fingers around my upper arm, and with a bump I am on the ground and lying down again.

I am not really surprised that we are kissing. It is the same, more or less, as other kisses with other boys. His mouth is hot and urgent on mine, and wet where mine is dry. His tongue pushes clumsily behind my teeth and fills the space there, seeking my own and half choking me with its insistence. He is on top of me, heavy and long. He is undulating, like a snake, trying to dislocate its jaws and swallow a mouse whole. I struggle, it is difficult to breathe, he is pressing on my ribcage. He backs off a bit, still kissing me, but with his weight supported on his forearms either side of my head. I wonder whether I want this to happen. I can smell him now, too, the sourness of his sweat and some other, more animal scent that I recognise although it is not familiar.

I open my eyes. His are closed, lids pressed tightly together, as though concentrating very hard. He has dark skin and dark hair, and there is fine stubble in patches on his cheeks. He is sucking my bottom lip between his teeth now, it is hard and painful, and his tongue is back in my mouth, searching. Glancing upwards, I see the washed out, bleached rags of carrier bags caught in the branches above us, limp in the still air; squalid bunting.

He moves his left hand to my hip and pushes upward, under the damp fabric of my shirt. His palm is on my stomach and there is a pool of sweat there, collecting in my navel. He smears it over my skin without seeming to notice. I wonder why I am letting this happen. I barely know him. My shirt is pushed right up now, to my chest, and the fabric of my bra tents over my breasts. I am waiting for him to touch me there. It seems inevitable. I could stop him, I suppose. He kneads my flesh through the flimsy material, then roughly pulls the strap from my shoulder where it jams, caught in the sleeve of my shirt. It is enough though, and in an instant his sticky palm is hot against my skin. The achy feeling is stronger now, my heart is beating fast and he is still kissing me. My lips are numb and swollen but it is better that he continues, than stops and says something stupid. I can feel his dick, stiff and hard against my thigh, and I wonder if I should touch him. I don’t know what he expects, if he expects anything at all, but I know I should do something other than lie here, inert.

I don’t move.

His hand travels down to my thigh, and he slides it round the inside, slick and easy. I feel a surge of panic, worried by the heat and the smell of me, afraid he will think I’m unclean. But I don’t stop him. His fingers reach between my legs and he is pushing on my right thigh, nudging my limbs apart. My leg moves, and I am not sure if I move it. His fingers brush against my knickers and I know he will feel the dampness there, the coarseness of the hair curling around the edges. With a hooked finger he pulls the fabric to one side.

There is a stabbing sensation, clumsy, sharp pain. More warmth, and a slippery wetness. It feels strange, uncomfortable. The achy, stretchy feeling in my stomach gets stronger and I feel sick. He is still kissing me. I remember that we are in the middle of a heatwave and there is a sprinkler ban. I remember something from English today, a quote from Macbeth.

I sit up sharply, pushing him away. He rolls backwards and I am surprised at my strength. I wipe my mouth on the back of my hand, pins and needles in my lips. I tell him I’m sorry. I smooth my crumpled skirt and shirt, pushing my bra strap back onto my shoulder. He sits up too, shrugs his shoulders and smiles in a funny lopsided way. It’s ok.

I have to go, I tell him. I’m late. I hastily jam my feet into the abandoned trainers. He looks at them, looks at me. Nice Converse, he says. He stands and holds his hand out to help me up. I take it, and as I get to my feet I can smell myself, faintly, on his fingers. The air is thinner now, and evening is on its way with the promise of cool relief. Nana will be worrying, the table set for tea, ringing my mum who will sigh and say, ‘she’ll be there soon. You know what they’re like, at that age. Distracted by anything. Give me a ring if she’s not there in ten minutes.’

I am there in seven, and Nana is on the doorstep, waiting. With an arthritic hand she reaches out, plucks a blade of grass from my hair, and tenderly presses her cool, powder-dry palm against my hot cheek. She looks at me questioningly, but the light in her eyes is gentle. She’s not angry with me. She tells me it’s salad for tea, and she’s made some lemonade. I let the front door bang shut behind me as I follow her inside.


Sally Cook is 27 and lives in Manchester. She writes stories when she should be doing other things and occasionally gets up the nerve to send them places. She has a blog here.

Posted in: Fiction