Sixteen

He’s uglier than I remember. It’s as if he warmed up in my memory. I don’t know why that should be. I think how Zoey would snort with derision if she knew I’d come knocking on his door, and that thought makes me want to never let her know. She says ugly people give her a headache.

‘You’re avoiding me,’ I tell him.

He looks surprised for a second, but covers it up pretty quick. ‘I’ve been busy.’

‘Is that right?’

‘Yeah.’

‘So it’s not because you think I’m contagious? Most people start acting as if they can catch cancer from me in the end, or as if I’ve done something to deserve it.’

He looks alarmed. ‘No, no! I don’t think that.’

‘Good. So when are we going out on your bike then?’

He shuffles his feet on the step and looks embarrassed. ‘I haven’t actually got a full licence. You’re not supposed to take passengers without it.’

I can think of a million reasons why going on the back of Adam’s bike might be a bad idea. Because we might crash. Because it might not be as good as I hope. Because what will I tell Zoey? Because it’s what I really want to do more than anything. But I’m not going to let the lack of a full licence be one of them.

‘Have you got a spare helmet?’ I ask him.

That slow smile again. I love that smile! Did I think he was ugly just now? No, his face is transformed.

‘In the shed. I’ve got a spare jacket too.’

I can’t help smiling back. I feel brave and certain. ‘Come on then. Before it rains.’

He shuts the door behind him. ‘It’s not going to rain.’

We go round the side of the house and get the stuff from the shed. But just as he helps me zip into the jacket, just as he tells me his bike is capable of ninety miles per hour and the wind will be cold, the back door opens and a woman steps into the garden. She’s wearing a dressing gown and slippers.

Adam says, ‘Go back inside, Mum, you’ll get cold.’

But she keeps walking down the path towards us. She has the saddest face I’ve ever seen, like she drowned once and the tide left its mark there.

‘Where are you going?’ she says, and she doesn’t look at me at all. ‘You didn’t say you were going anywhere.’

‘I won’t be long.’

She makes a funny little sound in the back of her throat. Adam looks up sharply. ‘Don’t, Mum,’ he says. ‘Go and have your bath and get dressed. I’ll be back before you know it.’

She nods forlornly, begins to walk up the path, then stops as if she remembered something, and turns and looks at me for the first time, a stranger in her garden.

‘Who are you?’ she says.

‘I live next door. I came to see Adam.’

The sadness in her eyes deepens. ‘Yes, that’s what I thought.’

Adam goes over to her and grips her gently by the elbows. ‘Come on,’ he says. ‘You should go back inside.’

She allows herself to be helped up the path and walked to the back door. She goes up the step and then she turns and looks at me again. She doesn’t say anything, and neither do I. We just look at each other, and then she goes through the door and into her kitchen. I wonder what happens then, what they say to each other.

‘Is she OK?’ I ask as Adam walks back out into the garden.

‘Let’s get out of here,’ he says.

 

It’s not what I imagined, not like cycling fast downhill, or even sticking your head out of a car window on the motorway. It’s more elemental, like being on a beach in the winter when the wind howls in off the sea. The helmets have plastic visors. I’ve got mine down, but Adam’s got his up; he did it very deliberately.

He said, ‘I like to feel the wind in my eyes.’

He told me to lean when we go round corners. He told me that since it was my first time he wouldn’t go top speed. But that could mean anything. Even at half speed, we might take off. We might fly.

We leave the streets and lampposts and houses. We leave the shops and the industrial estate and the wood yard, and we go beyond some kind of boundary where things belong to the town and are understood. Trees, fields, space appears. I shelter behind the curve of his back, and I close my eyes and wonder where he’s taking me. I imagine horses in the engine, their manes flying, their breath steaming, their nostrils flaring as they gallop. I heard a story once about some nymph, snatched by a god and taken somewhere dark and dangerous on the back of a chariot.

Where we end up is somewhere I didn’t expect – a muddy car park off the dual carriageway. There are two large trucks parked here, a couple of cars and a hotdog stand.

Adam turns off the ignition, kicks the stand down with his foot and takes off his helmet.

‘You should get off first,’ he says.

I nod, can barely speak, left my breath behind on the road somewhere. My knees are shaking and it takes a lot of effort to swing my leg over the bike and stand up. The earth feels very still. One of the lorry drivers winks at me out of his cab window. He holds a steaming cup of tea in one hand. Over at the hotdog stand, a girl with her hair in a ponytail passes a bag of chips across the counter to a man with a dog. I’m different from them all. It’s as if we flew here and everyone else is completely ordinary.

Adam says, ‘This isn’t the place. Let’s get something to eat, then I’ll show you.’

He seems to understand that I can’t quite talk yet and doesn’t wait for an answer. I walk slowly after him, listen to him order two hotdogs with onion rings. How did he know that would be my idea of a perfect lunch?

We stand and eat. We share a Coke. It seems astonishing to me that I’m here, that the world opened up from the back of a bike, that the sky looked like silk, that I saw the afternoon arrive, not white, not grey, not quite silver, but a combination of all three. Finally, when I’ve thrown my wrapper in the bin and finished the Coke, Adam says, ‘Ready?’

And I follow him through a gate at the back of the hotdog stand, across a ditch and into a thin little wood. A mud path threads through and out to the other side, where space opens up. I hadn’t realized how high we were. It’s amazing, the whole town down there like someone laid it at our feet, and us high up, looking down at it all.

‘Wow!’ I say. ‘I didn’t know this view was here.’

‘Yeah.’

We sit together on a bench, our knees not quite touching. The ground’s hard beneath my feet. The air’s cold, smelling of frost that didn’t quite make it, of winter to come.

‘This is where I come when I need to get away,’ he says. ‘I got the mushrooms from here.’

He gets out his tobacco tin and opens it up, puts tobacco in a paper and rolls it. He has dirty fingernails and I shiver at the thought of those hands touching me.

‘Here,’ he says. ‘This’ll warm you up.’

He passes me the cigarette and I look at it while he rolls himself another one. It looks like a pale slim finger. He offers me a light. We don’t say anything for ages, just blow smoke at the town below.

He says, ‘Anything could be happening down there, but up here you just wouldn’t know it.’

I know what he means. It could be pandemonium in all those little houses, everyone’s dreams in a mess. But up here feels peaceful. Clean.

‘I’m sorry, about earlier with my mum,’ he says. ‘She’s a bit hard to take sometimes.’

‘Is she ill?’

‘Not really.’

‘What’s up with her then?’

He sighs, runs a hand through his hair. ‘My dad was killed in a road accident eighteen months ago.’

He flicks his cigarette across the grass and we both watch the orange glow. It feels like minutes until it goes out.

‘Do you want to talk about it?’

He shrugs. ‘There’s not that much to say. My mum and dad had a fight, he stomped off to the pub and forgot to look when he crossed the road. Two hours later the police were knocking on the door.’

‘Shit!’

‘Ever seen a scared policeman?’

‘No.’

‘It’s terrifying. My mum sat on the stairs and covered her ears with her hands, and they stood in the hallway with their hats off and their knees shaking.’ He laughs through his nose, a soft sound with no humour to it. ‘They were only a bit older than me. They hadn’t got a clue how to handle it.’

‘That’s horrible!’

‘It didn’t help. They took her to see my dad’s body. She wanted to, but they shouldn’t have let her. He was pretty mashed up.’

‘Did you go?’

‘I sat outside.’

I understand now why Adam’s different from Zoey, or any of the kids I knew at school. It’s a wound that connects us.

He says, ‘I thought moving from our old house would help, but it hasn’t really. She’s still on a million tablets a day.’

‘And you look after her?’

‘Pretty much.’

‘What about your life?’

‘I don’t really have a choice.’

He turns on the bench so that he’s facing me. He looks as if he’s really seeing me, as if he knows something about me that even I don’t know.

‘Are you afraid, Tessa?’

No one’s ever asked me that before. Not ever. I look at him to check he’s not taking the piss or asking out of politeness, but he returns a steady gaze. So I tell him how I’m afraid of the dark, afraid of sleeping, afraid of webbed fingers, of small spaces, of doors.

‘It comes and goes. People think if you’re sick you become fearless and brave, but you don’t. Most of the time it’s like being stalked by a psycho, like I might get shot any second. But sometimes I forget for hours.’

‘What makes you forget?’

‘People. Doing stuff. When I was with you in the wood, I forgot for a whole afternoon.’

He nods very slowly.

There’s a silence then. Just a little one, but it has shape to it, like a cushion round a sharp box.

Adam says, ‘I like you, Tessa.’

When I swallow, my throat hurts. ‘You do?’

‘That day you came round to chuck your stuff on the fire, you said you wanted to get rid of all your things. You told me you watch me from your window. Most people don’t talk that way.’

‘Did it freak you out?’

‘The opposite.’ He looks at his feet as if they’ll give him a clue. ‘I can’t give you what you want though.’

‘What I want?’

‘I’m only just coping. If anything happened between us, it’s kind of like, what would be the point?’ He shifts on the bench. ‘This is coming out all wrong.’

I feel strangely untouchable as I stand up. I can feel myself closing some kind of internal window. It’s the one that controls temperature and feelings. I feel crisp as a winter leaf.

‘I’ll see you around,’ I say.

‘You’re going?’

‘Yeah, I’ve got stuff to do in town. Sorry, I didn’t realize what the time was.’

‘You have to go right now?’

‘I’m meeting friends. They’ll be waiting for me.’

He fumbles around on the grass for the crash helmets. ‘Well, let me take you.’

‘No, no, it’s OK. I’ll get one of them to pick me up. They’ve all got cars.’

He looks stunned. Ha! Good! That’ll teach him to be the same as everyone else. I don’t even bother saying goodbye.

‘Wait!’ he says.

But I won’t. I won’t look back at him either.

‘The path might be slippery!’ he shouts. ‘It’s beginning to rain.’

I said it would rain. I knew it would.

‘Tessa, let me give you a lift!’

But if he thinks I’m climbing on that bike with him, he can think again.

I made a fatal error thinking he could save me.

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