Monday, 18 December 2017

The boyfriend

She almost didn't see him.

The bar was packed and the band had just started up, belting out tired old wedding songs, so conversation was practically impossible. It was her 16th birthday and she was celebrating: there had been pizzas at Harvey's restaurant and an inedible cake her best friend had made. The group somehow bypassed the doorman at the entrance to the bar in the bowels of an old church. She had just ordered a 'black russian' drink from her friend, which made her feel somewhat sophisticated. It had cost her buddy way more than the usual pint of cider and he had handed to her and stormed off, unimpressed. Shrugging off her guilt, she turned to look for the rest of her friends, squeezing past a row of bizarre cinema style seats just beneath the stage.

Then she caught sight of a tall, lean, brown haired boy, perched on the seats, laughing with his friends. He had that relaxed stance, a t-shirt clinging to his toned frame and a wide open smile. He was so handsome she thought for a minute of simply walking past - after all, he would never look at her. But the alcohol made her brave so she pushed through the crowd until she reached a girlfriend nearby. Taking a sip of the sugary drink, enjoying the sting of the alcohol on her tongue, she wondered how she could get his attention. A thought struck her. She leaned in and whispered to her friend: "Wish me happy birthday." Then, "Say it louder."

And he heard, immediately looking at her and smiling: "Happy birthday. So what age are you?" She knew she had to lie. Would she pass for 18? Or the age on her fake ID? Doubtful. She plumped for 17 and waited for his reaction. He grinned and closer to her.  He smelt of beer and a faint musky cologne. She noticed he had dimples. He offered her a drink and aware that her exotic choice may be met with distain, asked for a cider instead.  Her girlfriend made small talk until he returned and then discreetly left her to it. She flicked her long blonde hair to one side, tilting her face, desperately trying to remember the article she had read in Cosmopolitan about how to flirt. Do you stare at his lips? Or is it into his eyes? The vodka was loosening up her nerves and she found herself talking too much. He didn't seem to mind, telling her he sold cars, lived in the expensive end of town (with his parents, but this was 'temporary') and that his name was Mark. He was 19. She didn't know any boys older than her, so the fact he was out of school made him instantly more appealing. She felt the eyes of her school buddies on her as they walked past - their eyebrows raised as if to say 'who is he?' She gave a slight shake of the head, glaring at them, silently praying they wouldn't interrupt her.

But talking became too difficult with the base player directly above them, so he guided her to a darker corner of the sweaty bar and his hands came to rest of the small of her back. She was thrilled when he lent over and kissed her - his lips soft, his tongue gently playing with hers. He pulled her closer and she pushed back slightly, uncomfortable in such a public place. Glancing at her watch, she realised her curfew was up and unable to tell him the truth, she made some excuse about having to meet a friend at another bar.  He offered to join her but she managed to excuse herself and he gave her his number - telling her to call.

She raced across the street to the taxi office, giddy at the events of the evening. Her stomach flipped, thinking over the kiss... A kiss from a 19 year old no less.  She pushed the small bar mat with his number on it into her wallet - the one with stickers and notes from classmates and a long list of all her friends' home numbers. It was 1989, long before the days of owning a mobile phone. She stared out the window of the cab as the lights of Belfast darted past, wondering how long should she wait to call...

Every day she would pull out the number and study it. Daring herself to pick up the phone.

Finally she did.

He chose the dirtiest bar in Belfast to meet. The back of Laverys, where he said he was meeting a friend and she could join them. Too afraid to go alone, she corralled her best friend into coming too. Getting off the second bus she had travelled on to get to the bar, she pulled down her black stretchy mini skirt. The tight purple jumper she wore accentuated her curves. She glanced at her reflection in a shop window, hoping that she would get past the doormen, that she would pass for 18.

Her best friend had been forced by her minister father to attend a prayer event, in a nearby church hall. Feigning a sick bug, her friend escaped. They giggled and lit up cigarettes the minute they got out the door. Her hand was shaking. The bar was unusually busy and she couldn't find him, so they got half pints of cider and stood smoking, hoping they fitted in. He arrived with a friend and for a moment she thought he was blanking her and her stomach fell to the floor. Then he made his way through the throng of people and kissed her - on the cheek. She felt disappointed, as if she had somehow been demoted. His friend was warm, chatty and bought drinks. He made more effort with her than Mark and she suddenly wondered why she had bothered to come. Her best friend had to get home, to be wrapped up in her 'sick bed' before her parents got back; so suddenly she was on her own with the men. She felt uncomfortable, like she was intruding on their meeting and declined another drink.

Mark's friend asked her about her studies and she almost slipped up that she was doing her GCSEs, when her lie would make her an A level student. If he noticed he didn't say anything. As Mark finished his second drink he came closer, hooked his arm around her waist and tried to persuade her to stay longer. She felt wanted and desired and it was almost enough to make her stay, but she knew it was getting dark and she couldn't afford a cab home. Mark ordered shots and lined one up for her. She pretended she knew how to drink them and watched as the friend downed his and copied him. It made her gag and she coughed, her eyes watering. When he kissed her in front of his friend she didn't try and stop him, pleased he was acknowledging her at last.

On the bus home she felt excited - does this mean I have a boyfriend, she wondered?

He sold cars in a local dealers that her Mum drove past on the route home from school. It meant going the long way, but she would often lie and pretend she had left something important at her Step-Dad's house, so they would drive past and she could stare in and watch him work. She always slunk down in her seat, lest he see her in her school uniform.

She called him several times and left messages with his mother but he didn't return the call. She would stare at him as her Mum's car slowed at the lights and wonder why he had grown cold.

Then he rang.

It was Friday and he suggested she come over the next night - he would be babysitting his younger sister and they could hang out. She agreed, too quickly perhaps and spent the day fretting over what to wear. In the end, she chickened out. She hadn't got her driver's permit yet, so it would mean spending the last of her hard earned money from her glass collectors weekend job on a cab and then how would she get home later? She was tired from studying for her CGSE exams and wanted to curl up in front of the TV. Her next door neighbour Lorna advised her against going - she didn't know him well enough. Part of her wanted to go, to get to know him, to spend time alone with him. Isn't that what adults did? But without the false bravado alcohol gave her, she felt vulnerable, too young for such an encounter and yet... yet she din't want to lose him.

When he called back later to give her his address, his voice was slurred and she knew he had been drinking. She told him she couldn't come but he wouldn't accept her excuses. He got annoyed, saying he had come home from a barbecue and put his little sister to bed, all to see her - and now she wasn't coming. Worried she was losing him she agreed to come over and he said he would pay her cab. She guessed he must be really keen to see her. She applied some lip gloss and mascara. Had a shower and washed her hair.

She stood in front of her wardrobe and debated what to wear. In the end she selected a bright multi-coloured shirt from Benetton and simple black leggings. Garish and loud, the shirt wasn't remotely sexy. She threw on a cardigan as the night had a chill in the air and asked the cab to meet her at the top of the street. She told her Step-Dad she'd be back in a few hours, pretending she was just going next door to see her buddy. Then she ran up the hill, waiting for the cab. She shivered, something in her gut told her not to go.

He paid the cab driver, waited for his change and then ushered her inside. The house was big and modern, the TV room at the back. No sooner had she sat down on the gold sofa, than he was all over her, kissing her and roughly grabbing at her breasts. She squeezed out from under him and asked for water. He told her unkindly she could get it herself, and pointed towards the kitchen. She opened the door and he hissed at her to be quiet, or she would wake his Grandmother who was asleep in the next room.

She tip-toed around the house and when she returned, she sat on the chair opposite to him. He turned the TV lower and insisted, with charm, that she sit beside him. For a few moments there were flashes of the man she had met the first night, in the Empire pub. His beautiful cola coloured eyes taking her in, making her feel beautiful. He kissed her gently, complimenting her... He told her she had great lips. She responded, but he tasted of garlic and beer and she could feel his erection jabbing at her thigh. Within seconds he had shoved his hands in her leggings and despite her protests jammed his fingers inside her, demanding to know if she was a virgin. He guess she must be as she was so 'tight.'  Embarrassed, in pain, she admitted she was. He shrugged, announcing he'd had virgins before. For a moment she thought he was going to rape her and the fear that gripped her momentarily froze her to her seat. He was on top of her now, his whole body pressing on her so she could hardly breathe. She realised how strong he was, how supple - and how quickly he had contorted her into a position where he was starting to unbuckle his jeans.

She tried to push him off and he asked her why she was frigid? His voice had changed. He was angry, sullen. She said she wasn't ready and hoped he would stop. He took her hands, sat upright, softened his voice and changed tack. He tried persuasion instead. He liked her, almost as much as the girlfriend he had recently lost in a tragic car accident. He laid on thick the devastation he had gone through in losing her, and now, now he had a chance to feel happy again - wouldn't she want that?

She nodded. Afraid to speak. Scared she might cry. Then they were kissing again and his hands were peeling off her leggings and her bra was knotted roughly against her breasts, her shirt hoisted up as he bit on her nipples. He kept taking her right hand and shoving it onto his penis. For a moment she wondered where his jeans had gone, was he naked? The room was dark, the TV the only light - shadows flickering on his face, distorting his features.  His tongue was thrusting in her mouth and she just wanted to scream, but she had got herself here, she had said she was 17, she had made this happen. She felt stupid and afraid. She wriggled and turned her head but he kissed up and down her neck leaving trails of saliva. She had to make him stop, so she blurted out that she was 16. He almost didn't hear her. Then he sat back, looking at her with.... with scorn? He got up and did up his jeans, leaving her lying there, half naked, cold.

Awkwardly she pushed down her bra, fixed her leggings and underwear and pulled on the baggy cardigan. She tightened it around her like a comfort blanket. She waited for him to sit next to her but he sat by the television barely looking at her. Then he barked, "I'll call you a cab."

She knew she had done something wrong - was it saying no? Was it being 16? She went to him, tried to sit on his knee, to show she was mature after all, but he got up and suggested she wait outside. Confused, she went to the door and asked if she ever would see him again - after everything she still liked him. She felt she was to blame for it all. He'd made all this effort to have a date with her and she  had ruined it. He told her to wait on the other side of the road, not directly outside his house, in case any of his friends saw her. The comment stung, but she tried to act cool, like it was all fine. She stood on the pavement watching him close the the front door, holding her head high.

She cried silent tears in the cab on the way home.

A few days passed and she missed him. She thought of him as she looked at the bruises he had left on her breasts. She drove past the car dealers and watched him on the phone. His face was more tanned; the summer had delivered the promised heatwave. School dragged on and desperate to know what she had done wrong, she picked up the phone and dialled.

His brother answered and she asked for Mark but was told he was out. They got chatting, he wondered who she was - he had never heard Mark mention her. She coyly pretended to be a friend and then mentioned how she liked their house. He wondered when she had been there and she admitted on Saturday night - when Mark was babysitting their younger sister. She waited for him to be impressed, to maybe consider she was Mark's new girlfriend.

Instead Mark's brother laughed. Then he said she must be confused - because his sister was at an ice skating competition, with his parents and grandmother,  in Dublin... No one was home.

Just Mark.

She thought it was funny, this joke, this trick. It must be, right? She laughed along because she felt foolish - then she wondered if this proved how much he liked her, the effort he went to, to get her there alone.  But deep down she knew the truth.

Mark never called again. One day she looked up and he wasn't at the car dealers any more, or the day after that... or ever. She told her school friends about it - the time she had crept around a house, when in fact no-one was home.... on a 'date.' It was a hilarious tale, always got the laughs. What a joker!

She grew up and realised that the story isn't funny any more.

In fact it was never funny at all.

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