Three

Of course we get into the club. There are never enough girls to go round on a Saturday night and Zoey’s got a great body. The bouncers drool over her as they wave us to the front of the queue. She does a little shimmy for them as we go through the door and their eyes follow us across the lobby to the cloakroom. ‘Have a lovely evening, ladies!’ they call. We don’t have to pay. We’re absolutely in charge.

After checking in our coats, we go to the bar and get two Cokes. Zoey adds rum to hers from the hip flask she keeps in her bag. All the students at her college do this, she says, because it makes going out cheaper. Not drinking is one prohibition I’m going to stick to, because it reminds me of radiotherapy. I once got wasted between treatments on a mixture of stuff from Dad’s drinks cabinet, and now the two are stuck together in my head. Alcohol and the taste of total body irradiation.

We lean on the bar to survey the place. It’s packed already, the dance floor hot with bodies. Lights chase across breasts, arses, the ceiling.

Zoey says, ‘I’ve got condoms, by the way. They’re in my bag when you need them.’ She touches my hand. ‘You all right?’

‘Yeah.’

‘Not freaking out?’

‘No.’

A whole room dizzy with Saturday night is exactly what I wanted. I’ve begun my list and Zoey’s doing it with me. Tonight I’m going to cross off number one – sex. And I’m not going to die until all ten are done.

‘Look,’ Zoey says. ‘What about him?’ She’s pointing to a boy. He’s a good dancer, moving with his eyes shut, as if he’s the only one here, as if he doesn’t need anything other than the music. ‘He comes every week. Don’t know how he gets away with smoking dope in here. Cute, isn’t he?’

‘I don’t want a druggie.’

Zoey frowns at me. ‘What the hell are you talking about?’

‘If he’s out of his head, he won’t remember me. I don’t want anyone pissed either.’

Zoey slaps her drink down on the bar. ‘I hope you’re not expecting to fall in love. Don’t tell me that’s on your list.’

‘Not really.’

‘Good, because I hate to remind you, but time isn’t on your side. Now let’s get on with it!’

She pulls me with her towards the dance floor. We get close enough for Stoner Boy to notice us, and then we dance.

And it’s all right. It’s like being in a tribe, all of us moving and breathing at the same pace. People are looking, checking each other out. No one can take it away. To be here dancing on this Saturday night, dragging the eyes of a boy towards me in Zoey’s red dress. Some girls never have this. Not even this much.

I know what’ll happen next because I’ve had plenty of time for reading and I know all the plots. Stoner Boy will come closer to check us out. Zoey won’t look at him, but I will. I’ll gaze for a second too long and he’ll lean towards me and ask me my name. ‘Tessa,’ I’ll say, and he’ll repeat it – the hard ‘T’, the sibilance of that double ‘s’, the hopeful ‘a’. I’ll nod to let him know he got it right, that I’m pleased with how sweet and new it sounds on his tongue. Then he’ll hold out both arms, palms up, as if saying, I give in, what can I do with all that beauty? I’ll smile coyly and look at the floor. This tells him he can make a move, that I won’t bite, that I know the game. He’ll wrap me in his arms then and we’ll dance together, my head against his chest, listening to his heart – a stranger’s heart.

But that’s not what happens. I forgot three things. I forgot that books aren’t real. I also forgot that I don’t have time for flirting. Zoey remembers. She’s the third thing I forgot. And she’s moving in.

‘This is my friend,’ she shouts to Stoner Boy above the music. ‘Her name’s Tessa. I’m sure she’d like a drag on that joint of yours.’

He smiles, passes it over, takes us both in, his gaze lingering on the length of Zoey’s hair.

‘It’s pure grass,’ Zoey whispers. Whatever it is, it’s thick and pungent at the back of my throat. It makes me cough, makes me dizzy. I pass it to Zoey, who inhales deeply, then passes it back to him.

The three of us are joined now, moving together as the bass pounds up through our feet and into our blood. Kaleidoscopic images flicker from the video screens on the walls. The joint goes round again.

I don’t know how much time goes by. Hours maybe. Minutes. I know I mustn’t stop and that’s all I know. If I keep dancing, the dark corners of the room won’t creep any nearer, and the silence between tracks won’t get any louder. If I keep dancing, I’ll see ships on the sea again, taste cockles and whelks and hear the creak snow makes when you’re the first one to stand on it.

At some point Zoey passes over a fresh joint. ‘Glad you came?’ she mouths.

I pause to inhale, stupidly stand still a second too long, forgetting to move. And now the spell is broken. I try to claw back some enthusiasm, but I feel as if a vulture is perched on my chest. Zoey, Stoner and all the other dancers are far away and unreal, like a TV programme. I don’t expect to be included any more.

‘Back in a minute,’ I tell Zoey.

In the quiet of the toilet, I sit on the bowl and contemplate my knees. If I gather up this little red dress just a bit further, I can see my stomach. I still have red patches on my stomach. And on my thighs. My skin is as dry as a lizard’s, however much cream I smooth in. On the inside of my arms are the ghosts of needle marks.

I finish peeing, wipe myself and pull the dress back down. When I leave the cubicle, Zoey’s waiting by the hand dryer. I didn’t hear her come in. Her eyes are darker than before. I wash my hands very slowly. I know she’s watching me.

‘He’s got a friend,’ she says. ‘His friend’s cuter, but you can have him, since it’s your special night. They’re called Scott and Jake and we’re going back to their place.’

I hold onto the edge of the sink and look at my face in the mirror. My eyes seem unfamiliar.

‘One of the Tweenies is called Jake,’ I say.

‘Look,’ Zoey says, pissed off now, ‘do you want to have sex or not?’

A girl at the sink next to mine shoots me a glance. I want to tell her that I’m not what she thinks. I’m very nice really, she’d probably like me. But there’s not time.

Zoey drags me out of the toilet and back towards the bar. ‘There they are. That one’s yours.’

The boy she points to has his hands flat against his groin, his thumbs looped through his belt. He looks like a cowboy with faraway eyes. He doesn’t see us coming, so I dig my heels in.

‘I can’t do it!’

‘You can! Live fast, die young, have a good-looking corpse!’

‘No, Zoey!’

My face feels hot. I wonder if there’s a way of getting air in here. Where’s the door we came in from?

She scowls at me. ‘You asked me to make you do this! What am I supposed to do now?’

‘Nothing. You don’t have to do anything.’

‘You’re pathetic!’ She shakes her head at me, stalks off across the dance floor and out to the foyer. I scurry after her and watch her hand in the ticket for my coat.

‘What are you doing?’

‘Getting your coat. I’ll find you a cab, so you can piss off home.’

‘You can’t go back to their house on your own, Zoey!’

‘Watch me.’

She pushes open the door and surveys the street. It’s quiet out here now the queue has gone, and there aren’t any cabs. Along the pavement some pigeons peck at a takeaway chicken box.

‘Please, Zoey, I’m tired. Can’t you drive me home?’

She shrugs. ‘You’re always tired.’

‘Stop being so horrible!’

‘Stop being so boring!’

‘I don’t want to go back to some strange boys’ house. Anything could happen.’

‘Good. I hope it does, because precisely zero is going to happen otherwise.’

I stand awkwardly, suddenly afraid. ‘I want it to be perfect, Zoey. If I have sex with a boy I don’t even know, what does that make me? A slag?’

She turns on me, her eyes glittering. ‘No, it makes you alive. If you get in a cab and go home to Daddy, what does that make you?’

I imagine climbing into bed, breathing the dead air of my room all night, waking up to the morning and nothing being any different.

Her smile is back. ‘Come on,’ she says. ‘You can tick the first thing off that bloody list of yours. I know you want to.’ Her smile’s contagious. ‘Say yes, Tessa. Come on, say yes!’

‘Yes.’

‘Hurrah!’ She grabs my hand, steers me back to the door of the club. ‘Now text your dad and say you’re staying at mine, and let’s get a move on.’

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