Chapter Six

Grey dawn peeked through the window and nearly blinded me. My eyes felt like red hot coals in snow. Not good.

The taste in my mouth was indescribable, as all the flavours that had spewed forth the previous night came back to haunt me. And I mean spewed …

The bed I was in was big … and not my own. And even in my state, I knew I wasn’t alone. Shit. What had I done last night?

I tried to think … but my brain was AWOL … and the empty space where it should have been sitting was occupied by a full out drum section.

Mandy’s. I was at Mandy’s. It must be Mandy’s bed I was curled up in, and that must be Mandy who is spooning up the back of me with her arm draped over my belly.

Just a minute … spooning the back of me? With her arm around my middle?

A quick look under the covers told me I was undressed … a t-shirt that obviously wasn’t one of my own was covering my top half, but the bottom half was … gulp … naked. Shit … again. What had I done last night?

Tentatively I turned around, fully expecting to see Mandy’s ruffled brown hair on the pillow behind me.

But I was wrong … oh, so wrong. The sight that greeted me was like a blast from the past. Long black hair cascaded over the pillow, a fine chiselled face angelic in sleep, the nose straight and perfect.

Older, yet still faultless.

Ashley Richards.

My eyes shot open at this revelation. I was half-naked in bed with Ashley Richards. Ash. My Ash. The Ash I hadn’t seen for over ten years. And here I was, hung over, with the taste of dead kittens lingering around in my mouth. Shit … big time.

To say I was embarrassed would be redundant, as images of me puking over her the previous night came gallivanting back into my mind. Not sick on her once … but twice! How was I going to get away with that one? I wanted to get up, dress, and run. My wild eyes scanned the room, looking for my jeans and top from the previous night.

They weren’t anywhere. Fuck.

The idea of going home with just the t-shirt on actually became an option at one point. But could I really do with all the stares on the bus? Well …

‘Morning, Lou.’

Too late! I took too long! I was caught now. Oh crap. I resigned myself to the situation, albeit unwillingly, and said the only thing that popped in my mind.

‘Can I borrow a toothbrush?’ Sweet, eh? I hadn’t seen her for ten years and all I could manage to do was throw up all over her and then ask to borrow a toothbrush.

Her face broke out into an all out grin, white teeth shining in the morning’s growing light. She threw her arms above her head, and I felt the loss of the contact immediately. She stretched , making a little mewling noise as she did so. ‘Sure … I’ll just show you where the bathroom is and get you a toothbrush.’ That smile again. ‘I bet your mouth feels like crap, doesn’t it?’

Could I go any redder? Nope. Not unless you dipped my head in ketchup.

‘Come on then … I’ll show you.’ With that, she leapt out of bed, exposing miles of naked legs. Did I say I couldn’t go any redder?

I lied.

                        **************************************************************

I spent ages in the bathroom. Ash had told me to grab a shower if I wanted one, and by one quick sniff of my skin, I decided she hadn’t asked out of politeness.

The water was like a gift from the gods – cool on my over heated skin, the throbbing of the brass band in my head was calming to a dull roar. Minty toothpaste tried its very best to decompose the lingering tastes in my mouth … and eventually I calmed it down enough to feel a little more confident about speaking to people.

I had been in the bathroom for a good forty minutes before I realised I was at Ash’s house. I knew I was at Ash’s house, what I meant to say was Ash’s house – from when we were kids. I couldn’t believe it. After all these years she was still in the same place where I had left her. I also couldn’t believe I hadn’t noticed where I was before that.

Blame the hangover.

A sense of sadness washed over me. Why hadn’t I written to her? I had missed her so much in those ten years – I could have dropped her a note to tell her what had happened. I honestly can’t tell you why I didn’t … I felt so stupid … so shallow. The only excuse I could think of was that I had been only six at the time, and by the time I could have written to her, tried to find her or made some effort to try to contact her again, too much time had passed.

I wasn’t even sure she’d remember me.

What must Ash think of me? What must she have thought when I just disappeared off the face of the earth one night and never even contacted her … when she lived at the same fucking address she always had?

The sadness flopped into my gut, stopping the churning of misspent youth, and weighing heavily on my conscience. I sat on the toilet seat and put my head in my hands, trying to find some semblance of reason in my fucked up mind.

Then it dawned on me. Like a lightning bolt from the subconscious. Why hadn’t she tried to find me? Unreasonable, I know, but anything to pass the buck.

I leaned back against the cool wood of the toilet seat and sucked in a breath. What was the point of going over past events? It wouldn’t change anything, would it?

At least I had the opportunity to see her again … like I always promised myself, but was too bloody lazy to do anything about. A grin split my face. I was here, in Ashley Richards’ house, and she was just down the hallway from me. I had the opportunity to have her back in my life once again … A bigger smile adorned my face.

‘Lou? Are you okay in there?’ Her voice was like nectar to my ears. I felt like I had been transported back ten years. ‘I’ve made you a coffee …’

‘I’ll be right there!’ Then I quickly rubbed the towel through my long hair again, threw on the dressing gown she had given me, and opened the door to my future.

Ash. My Ash. Back in my life again.

What a day! What a bloody fantastic day!

Hangover forgotten, I nearly skipped down the hallway to my old friend’s bedroom.

                        *******************************************************

Over coffee, Ash told me about her life up to now. She was studying Law, Psychology, Social Sciences and Maths at A level, as she wanted to join the police force like her father. Well, she had the height for it; she must have been getting on for six foot if the length of her legs were anything to go by.

They went on for miles. I don’t know what had possessed me that morning, but I had difficulty tearing my eyes from the long expanse of flesh sticking out from the bottom of her sleeping shorts.

Weird. I had never had the inclination to eye up another female’s legs. But they were really long … and I mean really long. Probably because mine are really short.

Time with her seemed to fly by, and we chatted about college courses with ease, but at the back of my mind I really wanted to tell her why I hadn’t contacted her, why I hadn’t had the chance to say goodbye.

The problem was, I didn’t want to broach it … it was still painful for many reasons. Luckily enough, I didn’t have to.

‘Sorry to hear about your parents splitting up.’ My eyes shot up to her face, captured in the blueness of her eyes. Concern radiated from them … and once again I felt her protectiveness, her willingness to take care of me … just by her voice. ‘It was a bit of surprise when I came round to get you the next day …’ a small laugh escaped her, and she shook her head from side to side.

‘Did you speak to anyone?’ My voice sounded small, childlike.

‘Your dad, actually.’ She shifted in her chair, and I could sense the unease pouring from her. ‘He … erm … well let’s just say he wasn’t very forthcoming in giving too much away.’

‘What did he say?’ My voice was firmer now, and I could feel the hatred I had for my father welling up inside. Bastard. He had still found an opportunity to fuck up my life. No wonder she hadn’t tried to find me. I know, I know … she was only a child … but I had to blame someone … I had to try to rationalise what had happened.

Blue eyes looked at me nervously. ‘It doesn’t mat …’

‘What did he say?’ The anger in my throat was choking me; I wanted to scream out for some reason. And this alone made me even more angry. After all these years, he could still get to me. Every time I thought of what he had done … not just to me, but to us all … especially my mum … I couldn’t seem to control my emotions.

‘Look … Lou. It’s in the past.’ As she said this, she leaned forward and placed her hand on my leg. The contact made me suck in my breath and I felt the fight leave just as quickly as it had arrived. ‘Don’t let him win.’ Her voice was so soft, so caring, so Ash. How could I fight that?

My gaze drifted back down to her hand, which by now was making gentle circles on my thigh, and I could feel a sensation building inside my gut.

It wasn’t a feeling one friend should have about another. Definitely not.

I jerked back on the chair to escape her touch, embarrassed with this sensation. My eyes drifted to her hand … stopped … and … stared at the long tapering fingers moving serenely over my goosebumping flesh. I shook my head to break the gaze and then allowed my eyes to travel up to meet her face. Those blue orbs just escaped my bewildered look, as they slipped down to rest on the unconscious action of her hand.

Surprise unmasked and raw coated her face, only fleetingly, granted, but still there for the briefest of moments. Without warning, she snatched it away, curling the fingers into a pose of protectiveness, like she had be burned.

‘Ash?’ The questioning tone I used on her name focused her attention back on my face. Her eyes seemed troubled, like whirlpools. Troubled … yes, that’s the word to describe her look. She seemed troubled for some reason. I don’t know why. ‘What is it?’

It took less than a heartbeat to change her expression from perturbed to the face splitting grin she always had ready. A shrug of the shoulders, followed by a hard resounding slap on my leg was her next action. A familiar reaction between friends.

I laughed, although she had a good slap on her, my reddening leg living proof. The laughter seemed to break the amounting tension in the room, and it seemed to fit with the situation. Then she joined in, her eyes still seemed a little distant at first, but gradually became softer as the laughter took hold.

It was in this state of laughter that her previous words of comfort came crashing back into my mind.

She was right … the past doesn’t matter, it can only guide us to a better future. A learning process we needed to acknowledge before we could move on.

I decided to move on. And hopefully take Ash with me.

******************************************************************

Chapter Seven

It wasn’t long after that I got my clothes back (which she had kindly washed and dried because of the splattering of vomit that coated them), got dressed and found I didn’t actually want to go home. It felt good being in her company once again.

But, I had to go. I had promised Jo I would go shopping with her, under duress of course. I hated shopping with her … everything turned into a marathon. It was as if she was on a bet with God, and the bet was she could spot every bargain … try on anything that remotely fitted her … and piss me off in the process.

Nevertheless, I had promised. Even now, I can’t contain the sigh that escapes when I think of shopping with my sister.

Ash and I exchanged addresses and phone numbers, and I distinctly remember folding the little sheet of paper so neatly and tucking it in the back pocket of my jeans … it felt like an offering.

As I was leaving, her mum appeared. She didn’t look a day older than I remembered – her hair was still jet black and long, just like Ash’s. They were similar in appearance except for the eyes … her mum’s were grey, whereas Ash’s were blue like her dad’s.

‘Well I never … its little Lou Turner, isn’t it?’

‘In the flesh, Mrs Richards.’

‘Well I never … how long has it been? Ten … eleven years?’ As she was saying it, she was walking over to me, peering into my face just to make sure. I should’ve known what was coming next, but the years had been kind to me. Mrs Richards had a habit of nearly crushing the life out of you when she was happy, and then, to add insult to injury, she would pinch your cheeks and wobble the flesh up and down until your mouth made a farting sound.

Not a pretty sight … or noise for that matter.

And it hurt like buggery … but nevertheless … it felt good to be remembered, and with such fondness too.

‘You’re not running off already are you? Stay for a cuppa.’ She still had my face in a vice like grip and my answer came out like a wet fart. ‘Soon then?’ I looked at her wide-eyed. How on earth had she understood my answer? ‘Come for tea one night, yes?’

I nodded, and then sighed with relief as she let go of her death grip on my cheeks, the blood had fled in fright, and I must have looked a vision with my pasty fingerprinted face surrounded by a big red blob.

‘I’d love to.’ As I answered, I automatically turned to face Ash, who was grinning idiotically behind my back.

‘Tomorrow, then? Sunday tea?’

‘I … I … well …’

‘Mum … don’t pressure the poor girl. She’s probably got arrangements already, haven’t you?’

‘Well … no, not really.’

‘So you’ll come then?’

There was no point arguing with her, so I just nodded, which gained me a huge smile from both of the Richards women. Women.

Women.

Ash was a woman.

That little girl of seven and three quarters was nearly eighteen. A woman.

Emotions flushed through me, happiness, sadness, maybe a little anger too. I had missed the ascent from childhood to adulthood, not just with Ash, but my own also. It is amazing how different your life becomes when one day it’s all turned upside down for no fault of your own.

Ash’s eyes clouded with concern at my expression, and I staved off the question I knew was bound to come with a beaming smile. Keeping my voice light, I answered, ‘I’d love to.’

Sorted.

                        ****************************************************

Stockport market was heaving with people. I can’t tell you how many times I lost Jo amongst the crowds. She was like a spitfire, racing around the stalls, holding up the most hideous clothes to me and mouthing ‘This will look great on you.’

Yeah … when I’m dead. Then I wouldn’t be able to argue about the shit colour and the crap style. At least it was more fashionable than the creations my mum used to pick out. Jo and I could tell what she was going to pick up even before my mum spotted it. It had to be multicoloured, or just a biddy colour, and preferably with a kitten looking wide eyed on the front … ball of wool et al.

It makes my stomach churn just to think of it.

As I was saying, Jo was in her element picking up shite and measuring it against herself whilst I was looking my damndest to look alluring, propping myself up against the small wall at the side of the stall. I realise now I must have looked like a prostitute or just plain simple.

The beauty of youth, eh?

I was lost thought, mainly about Ash … obviously, and didn’t hear Jo’s question the first time round.

‘Oi … gormless … I’m talking to you!’ My eyes shot up to meet the daggers my sister was throwing me. ‘Returned from Never Never Land, have you?’ I shrugged. I thought I was so cool … you know what it’s like … never let your guard down in front of absolute strangers.

‘What?’ I went for bored, hoping she would take the hint, and take me home so I could lie on my bed and think whilst blasting the neighbours with music.

‘I asked if you had a good night last night.’ She looked me squarely in the eyes. It was funny, but I hadn’t even mentioned to her about bumping into Ash, I don’t know why. Maybe it was because I was embarrassed about how it all happened.

‘It was okay, I suppose.’ I looked somewhat sheepish at this point, and there’s one thing you can’t keep from my sister. That’s it … you can’t keep one thing from her … she could read me like a book.

‘What happened?’ The smile slipped from her face and I knew I was on the verge of being interrogated.

‘Not much.’

‘Really?’ She laid the top over the rack and slowly stepped away. Shit. I knew what was coming now.

‘Fancy a coffee?’ Here we go … her perfect interrogation technique was underway. She always thought I would crumble if she took me to a café and bought me a coffee.

Funny thing was … I did.

                        ******************************************************

I didn’t expect laughter. What I did expect was a thorough telling off. Especially for smoking pot. She surprised me by laughing, loudly, and pointing her finger at me. When I told her about falling off the stage, then throwing up, she laughed even harder, spluttering words along the lines of me deserving everything I got.

It was strange to watch the total change in her when I mentioned I had met Ash again; and that I had slept over at her house.

She was silent. All the laughter and finger pointing ceased. I didn’t get it. One minute laughing: the next, stony silence.

‘Are you going to see her again?’ The question was so quiet, I had to strain to hear it.

‘Well … erm … her … erm…’ Why was I acting like a dick head? Why did it bother me that Jo didn’t like Ash?

‘Are you … or aren’t you?’ Clipped words.

‘Yes ... erm … Ash’s mum invited me for tea tomorrow.’ I looked at her, my eyes wide, one eyebrow raised, and my mouth slightly open. I did look slightly simple, but I think I was waiting for her to say something.

She didn’t. She just got up and paid the bill. It was only when she had nearly reached the door that she turned to me, flashed me a huge grin and said, ‘Come on lard arse. There’s bargains to get.’

I shuffled under the table to collect the three carrier bags of hers she already had me carrying, and scuttled after her.

I had a grin plastered on my face, but underneath I was confused, and a little intrigued. I couldn’t help but wonder again why Jo seemed to put a distance between my friendship with Ash and my relationship with her.

Maybe one day I would get to the truth.

                        **********************************************************

Chapter Eight

Sunday tea is always a good tea isn’t it. It’s the time where you have the opportunity to go all out and make something nice. Now, personally, I love my mum’s roast dinners, although my dad (yes … he’s my dad) is the chef. I think it’s what you get used to really.

But Sunday tea is still a time where the family get together, and share stories. In my family, we always told stories of the past … the funny ones … especially stories about what we did as kids. I used to love those teas … erm … still do, in fact. It’s tradition. Eat sandwiches and cake, drink bucket loads of tea, and laugh at each other.

Perfect.

Now to miss Sunday tea at our house there had to be a good reason. Near death experience was okay, as long as you had a doctor’s certificate … But general pissing off to see your mates was a no no. It was family time – or as my sister Angie always says (and this is enough to fuck anyone off) ‘Quality Time’ sounding more and more like a Hallmark greeting card.

I wanted to go to Ash’s for tea. Obviously. My parents wanted me there. Obviously. Therefore, there was no competition.

I was going to Ash’s … come hail or high water … I was going to her house for tea.

Stuff the consequences.

Initially my mum just gave me the look. Instead of explaining, I did what all teenagers did best.

I went ‘into one’. Having a paddy … as my mum always said. I ranted and raved about never having any freedom, and when were they going to realise I was an adult. Mum just shot me another look, daring me to continue.

I’d had enough, and stomped up the stairs, making sure I banged every door on the way. Twice.

After throwing myself on the bed, burying my head in the pillow, and screaming into aforementioned pillow about how unfair my life was, how everyone was out to get me, I did the next best thing teenagers do.

I fell asleep.

It seemed like I had been asleep for hours, although it was more like forty-five minutes, I awoke to a gentle shaking of my shoulder. My head was still buried in the pillow, and for a split second, I thought I had gone blind.

Then unreasonable teenage angst traded places with fear of a life in the dark, as I remembered why I was in that position in the first place.

Muffled warnings about being left alone to grow old and fester in my room, escaped from the confines of the pillow.

‘You can go … I’ve explained.’ Jo. But …Jo? Jo didn’t like Ash. Why would she explain for me? ‘Mum said you can go to Ash’s, but to make sure you are back before ten.’

Ten! I didn’t care I had a curfew … that would leave me plenty of time to get to know my old friend again.

I turned over, leaving the pillow slightly damp from where I had drooled. Jo was sat on the edge of the bed looking at me with some concern. All the love I felt for her raced to the surface, and I threw my arms about her. ‘You’re a star, Jo. An absolute star!’

I could feel her smile on my shoulder as I hugged her senseless. Once again, my sister had gone out of her way to make me happy, knowing I was too awkward to do anything about the situation myself … knowing I was too much like a typical teenager to back down and talk about things reasonably.

Then a doubt crept into my mind. Why would she do that so I could see someone she visibly didn’t like? Confusion masked my features until a thought poked itself into my brain.

Because she loves you, dumb ass.

Once again, I felt my face crack open into a grin.

And I love her too. Wouldn’t you?

                        **************************************************************

Tea at Ash’s house was exactly like ours. There was a huge spread laid out, and even though my stomach was in knots, for some unknown reason, I still could eat half of what was there.

All the family were present. Anthony, Stephen, Ash’s mum and dad. Stephen had brought his girlfriend for tea and she sat, quietly, in the corner of the front room watching every move he made.

It seemed like yesterday when I had last been with this family. They all greeted me like an old friend, which of course I was, and made me feel like part of the family.

Tracy, Stephen’s girlfriend, just sat there taking in the scene unfolding in front of her, her faced shouted suspicion, but her lips just became thinner and thinner. I was introduced as the long lost family member and she stuck out her hand in gesture, but the sentiment never reached her eyes.

Nobody else noticed but me. Ash was too busy running around finalising the spread; her parents were poking fun at her shouting ‘Faster Ash! Faster!’ and the lads were talking about football.

It was just me and Tracy.

Unfortunately.

She looked over her shoulder to make sure nobody was watching, gripped my hand tighter and pulled me closer to her. A harsh whisper spat out of her mouth, ‘Keep your fucking hands off Stephen.’

Uh? What the hell had brought that on?

It was only half way through tea that the penny actually dropped – well fell, clinking and cluttering on top of the table in front of me. By all accounts they had all been ribbing Stephen before I came round about how he had had a crush on me when we were kids. He had been nearly nine then, and I couldn’t believe his girlfriend had reacted in such a way.

What a gormless mare.

I had to put up with glaring looks from her, the Child Catcher, when all I wanted to do was take her outside and slap her around for a bit. All because Stephen used to have a crush on me ten years ago.

I mean – ten years!

How sad is that?

But my attention was taken as my eyes drifted on their own volition over to Ash time and time again. It was so good to be back with her and her family after all these years, and for some strange reason it didn’t seem like I had been away.

It was the same chitchat; the same ribbing, joking and love bouncing back and forth to each member of the family.

I felt reborn.

And it felt good.

Stories were thrown around of childhood experiences … times that made us all flush with embarrassment. Ash even told the story of how I’d got my foot caught in the flared bottoms of my jeans and I had somersaulted arse over tit and landed, ungraciously, in a heap in the middle of the playing field.

God … I loved those jeans. Pale blue with embroidery of cornflowers growing up each leg.

Pure class.

Before I knew it, we were clearing the pots away and stacking them in the kitchen ready to wash. The whole family joined in, me included. The only one who didn’t help was Tracy, which was no surprise. She just plonked herself back onto the chair and picked up the Sunday supplement from the newspaper and began flicking through the pages.

Everyone took turns giving her a look as they passed, but she didn’t pay any attention to them, just carried on turning the pages and ignoring us all. I honestly couldn’t see what Stephen saw in her. She was nothing to look at, and he was gorgeous. Tall, with raven black hair that seemed tousled in his boyish way. His eyes were a darker blue than Ash’s but still intense … although they didn’t catch the sunlight like hers did.

I caught myself staring. Not at Stephen … at Ash. She was so beautiful, and had a body to die for, although that rather defeats the purpose I suppose. Every movement she made seemed effortless … almost like she was a dancer on stage, captivating her audience with her graceful way.

And she was only washing up!

I stood there with the tea towel in my hand, gawping at her … mouth open … the works.

‘Ah … we have a fly catcher amongst us.’

Ash’s dad had decided to come and stand directly in my line of vision and make a smart arsed comment. I can vividly remember ducking my head to the side to continue to watch, and then feel embarrassed for some reason.

Funny how memories go. I can’t really remember much else apart from embarrassment … the scarlet sheen my face had adopted more than compensated for the memory lapse, and the voices around me took on a definite burring quality.

The next thing I recall was a pair of twinkling blue eyes looking into my own and a firm hand on my arm. Her voice swept through me … caring tones … soothing tones … I looked at her, startled back into reality, and flushed even harder.

If that is possible.

‘I have …’ A cough to relieve all the emotion in my voice, changing it from a high-pitched squeak to a tenor with a cold. ‘I have to go … I have to get home.’ Why did I lie? It was only eight o’clock, and I still had two hours before curfew.

Worst thing was … Ash knew this. She looked at me slightly puzzled and her face dropped … just a little … but it dropped all the same.

A nod. Swift and sure. She turned around, her back was my only view. ‘Okay … Will you be all right getting back?’ She sounded different somehow … distant for some reason. ‘I can get Stephen to run you home if you want … Tracy will have to lump it.’

‘I’m fine … honestly … I can walk …’ She turned around so quickly, my eyes spun in their sockets trying to focus.

‘You’ll do no such thing! Stephen! Stephen!’ And she was off, racing into the front room, leaving me standing there in her kitchen like a lemon.

Thirty seconds later, she was back, her grin splitting her face. ‘Sorted. Stephen said he’ll take you at nine.’ I looked at her squarely in the eyes. She cocked her head at me, one eyebrow raised in challenge. ‘And you’ll still be early.’ Her expression begged me to argue with her … but I was no fool.

Not then anyway.

We spent the next hour in her room, sprawled on her bed, her music blasting from her record player. Every teenager’s dream … loud music and idle chatter. Ash had Yazoo’s Upstairs at Eric’s playing and we were lying on our backs staring at the ceiling. I had listened to the album before, as it was already a couple of years old, but hadn’t really paid it much attention before now.

Then I heard it.

The song.

The song.

Alison Moyet’s pure and sensuous voice filtered through the gloom of Ash’s room as ‘Only You’ started.

Looking through the window above

It’s like story of love

Can you hear me?

Came back only yesterday …

 

And all I ever knew

Only you …

I felt my heart open and then … crack … a splintering splitting noise reverberated through me …

All I ever needed was the love you gave

All I needed for another day …

‘Lou? Lou? Are you alright?’ I snapped myself into consciousness, now fully aware I was sitting bolt upright, my hands balled into fists, the covers of her bed wrapped firmly within my grip. My knuckles white and nails were jabbing into the sensitive flesh of my palms.

For a reason I had no clue about. ‘Are you …’

‘I’m fine, Ash … honestly … just felt a little bit of cramp coming … it’s gone now.’ Her face was so full of concern, and I felt like a git lying … again … to her. What was wrong with me? I had developed a deep-rooted need to lie through my teeth.

The song had finished and the next one on the album had started. I couldn’t concentrate on the lyrics, as I felt slightly dazed by emotion. It was confusing, to say the least. How on earth … or should I say, why on earth had I reacted in that way to a song? I had heard it hundreds of times before and … nothing.

Fifteen minutes later I was in Stephen’s beat up Ford Escort, Tracy in the front … glaring at me … her eyes screaming ‘Fucker!’ but her face oozed anxiety at my predicament of being without either a car, or a boyfriend with a car. At least I understood why she was such a troll. A fucking shallow one at that.

I left Ash with a promise of getting in contact in the week; maybe have lunch if our timetables allowed it. She waved vigorously from her doorway, and was still there as her brother’s car turned the corner.

I settled down into the back seat.

What a day? Or evening … I should say. I made a promise to myself to buy Yazoo’s album. I don’t know why. Especially after my earlier reaction. It just seemed the right thing to do.

But being a teenager at college, money was scarce … So, I decided to get myself a Saturday job … up the coffers a little bit. It would do me good to have a bit of cash to spend on things. And the sacrifice on part of my free time seemed a small price to pay for a little bit of monetary freedom.

Bugger. I hated work … although it does fascinate me. I could, without doubt, watch it all day.

                        **************************************************************

Chapter Nine

The week flew by in a blur, and I hadn’t seen Ash at all. This was mainly due to me avoiding all of the usual haunts, and telling mum I was too busy to take messages when she called … twice.

I felt bad. I don’t know why … and I didn’t know why I was avoiding her. I wanted to see her … really wanted to meet with her for lunch, become part of her circle of friends … get to know her again.

Then another week passed. This time with no phone calls … and I was withdrawing more and more into my own little world. I still had friends, but for some reason they didn’t seem to be enough. I didn’t see Ash at college, but strangely enough, I saw Tracy six times.

Six fucking times!

Each time was an experience, to say the least. Each time made my skin crawl as if I had scabies. A bunch of cronies sporting bad mullets and peroxide blonde fringes always flagged her. How cool is that? Lacy tops showed wife beater t-shirts underneath, and scrawny white arms reflected fluorescent lighting.

In a word – trashy.

I ignored her snide remarks as I passed, but swore one day to paste the living crap out of her. She was trying to intimidate me, thinking I was scared of her. If she only knew the thing that scared me the most was her smile … now that was freaky. Black kohl pencilled eyes showed a blankness that belied reason. She appeared to have the intelligence of an amoeba … and the sexual lure. God only knew what Stephen saw in her.

But I didn’t care about Tracy … oh no. It paled in comparison to how I was missing Ash. The pain I had experienced as a child when I had lost her seemed to disappear when I realised how much I missed her now. And I had only seen her twice.

The third time came on the Friday afternoon.

Now there’s a memory. Even better than the rabbit incident … the treatment night and Alan’s dancing … even the free glass of lemonade. Although the overall effect combined caused more fear, laughter and embarrassment than the previous three memories put together.

Do you want to hear it? Tough … you’ve got this far … now deal.

I had just finished A level English and was making my way out of the door, chatting with Sue, another student, when I heard my name being called above the din. I couldn’t mistake that rich alto voice.

Ash.

I turned to see her fighting against the tide trying to get to me. Students shoved and mumbled as she ducked past them, her eyes never leaving mine … like a tractor beam luring me to her.

I just stood there. Transfixed. Waiting for the ear bashing she was going to give me. I did feel guilty for ignoring her phone calls and the messages to call back.

That wasn’t all I was feeling.

No.

Not by a long shot.

Adrenalin pumped through my veins as I stood there waiting for her to get to me. It must have been less than a minute, but it seemed like a lifetime before she was standing, grinning, in front of me, making my heart bounce around trapped within my rib cage. I think it was in fear … or … I don’t know … it was just there like a tennis ball rebounding and punching the inside of my chest.

‘Hello stranger.’ That voice could melt butter straight from the fridge.

Hold on a minute!

Melt butter straight from the fridge? Where the fuck did that come from?

I just stood there and grinned like a Cheshire cat … clearly the simple looking grimacing beetroot one you don’t usually come across in the illustrations for the children’s book. I started to nod, my mouth opening and closing, words escaping me and the only sound was that of a captured fish.

She just stared at me, the grin fixed on her face in genuine affection, waiting for my dumb brain to acknowledge her with a simple hello.

When it didn’t come, she shifted nervously, the smile leaving her face briefly, but coming back twice as powerful. ‘Where’ve you been? I’ve called a couple of times … left messages …’

Thankfully, the mute spell that had bewitched me, lifted, and I spluttered out an incomprehensible excuse, which only made her grin wider and grab hold of me in a bone-crushing hug.

‘Oh … I’ve missed you, Lou. Don’t ask me why … but I have.’ Her breath tangled in my hair and brushed my cheek. Her arms were strong and I felt the feeling of safety cascade down my whole body … like I always did when I was with her.

She pulled back and released me, the air of the corridor bouncing off my skin like an alien concept. I missed her closeness for some unknown reason. Weird, I know … but I did.

‘Fancy a coffee?’ I started to say no, but the look on her face made my resolve drift away. I couldn’t remember why I was avoiding her in the first place. Come to think of it … why was I avoiding her?

‘Love to.’ I didn’t want to analyse the reason for a teenagers whims … I must have had a good reason, but for the life of me I couldn’t think of it now. All I could think of was the enchanting look on her face; the crooked smile playing on her lips, an eyebrow lifted in question as she waited for my response.

And maybe that was the reason …

And maybe I should have said no and walked away …

And maybe I wouldn’t have experienced the combination of rabbits … Derbac … and lemonade all rolled into one.

Well … maybes don’t build experiences … and I was on a one-way trip to Experience Land.

Unfortunately.

                        **************************************************************

The canteen, or refectory as some sad git called it, was packed, and we had to scrunch up in the corner with hot chocolates in polystyrene cups. A couple of art students were sitting opposite us with the traditional dyed black hair, makeup that would make Alice Cooper blush, and pasty white skin. They were giggling and religiously touching each other … quite inappropriately for a college canteen … erm … refectory.

Boys today, eh?

It was a bit of an eye opener that’s for sure.

Before long, I had forgotten about why I had tried to avoid Ash and just glowed in her presence. She gabbled on about her courses, what she had been up to, whilst I barely said a word. I was content just to sit in her shadow and soak up all that was her.

It was such a wonderful feeling … intense … but wonderful. The smile on my face grew wider and wider as she entertained me about some sad bastard on her course that couldn’t even make a cup of tea without adult supervision. He wanted to be a Solicitor … and couldn’t even work the washing machine. I felt sorry for his future clients.

Within thirty minutes, I was laughing aloud at her antics, and was finding it increasingly difficult to breath. My chest ached with laughter … and with something else, which at that time I didn’t want to put a name to. Well … not as much didn’t, as couldn’t.

I can’t tell you how long we sat engrossed in conversation, but I could distinctly feel the canteen empty … the touchy feely boys had long since gone, and then it was just me and Ash … again.

‘What are you doing tonight? Are you free?’ She leaned forward and looked me squarely in the face. ‘Me and a few friends are thinking about going to the Student’s Union … they’ve got a Karaoke night on.’ Still, she watched for any signs of refusal.

But that was the last thing in my mind at that moment. I was caught by her eyes … I felt the room melt into nothing as I just sat there and stared at her eyes … transfixed by them … pulled into her by them … feeling emotions one friend shouldn’t be feeling for another.

She didn’t back away. Her body leaned half way over the table and she just kept on staring … waiting … and if I wasn’t mistaken …

‘Excuse me, ladies.’

Was that voice in my head? That rich, deep voice?

Neither Ash or I moved … or blinked.

A cough.

Then another … louder … more insistent.

Ash leaned back into her chair, her face slowly changing from the absorbed look from moments before, to wield a mask of slight confusion, her eyes squinting slightly as she searched my face for answers.

‘Ash?’ That voice again. ‘Have you forgotten our date?’

The sound of brakes screeching to a halt in my chest nearly deafened me. The room seemed to grow terribly small and I grew huge and very exposed. Ash just blinked once and broke our gaze. Her eyes swung around to rest on the person standing next to our table.

‘Ben. Hi.’ My eyes followed hers, and took in the tall man standing, and slightly leaning towards Ash. And like a female, I digested everything about him. The blonde hair … green eyes … the solid build of his body … the tight fitting t-shirt that left nothing to the imagination. Which kind of fit in nicely with the tightness of his jeans …

But it wasn’t attraction I was feeling … not by a huge stretch of the imagination.

No.

It was something I wasn’t used to. Never experienced before this moment.

It was jealousy. The anger at being interrupted I had felt before. But jealousy? Definitely a new sensation, and to be perfectly honest, I didn’t like the way it made me feel.

I sat there and watched him lean over me and kiss Ash on the mouth … on her lips … in front of me … on the lips. The kiss was featherlike, and lasted all of a split second, but I felt it … and not in a nice way.

Ben still leaned across in front of me, and tried to stroke the side of Ash’s face, but I saw her pull back, only slightly, but she did pull back. I felt a smirk flit across my lips and had the urge to stick my tongue out at his back. Either he didn’t notice, or he was trying to ignore it.

‘This is Lou … a very good friend of mine. Ben … say hello.’ He turned his head around to look at me … but his eyes only rested briefly on my face as they travelled slowly down my body, only to rest on my breasts and then travel back up to my face again. I felt like I had been visibly undressed … almost an optical rape. Whatever did Ash see in a wanker like that?

‘Well … hello there.’ What a creep. He stuck his hand into my face and I lifted mine in greeting – I was well trained after all. Then the slimy fucker kissed me on the knuckles. I wanted to backhand right across the mouth. Instead I ripped my hand away from his lips and gave him a look that could pickle testicles.

Ash looked at me, and I’m sure I saw the remnants of a smile flicker across her face, but she didn’t say anything.

‘Feisty little creature aren’t you.’ God … could this bloke be anymore like a twat? ‘I like feisty.’

Yes. He could.

‘Glad you two have met.’ That flicker again. ‘I was just asking Lou to join us tonight.’ Her face turned to me in question, and I was just about to refuse when I spotted a fleeting look of pleading swipe across Ash’s face.

‘I’d love to.’

Where on earth had that come from? I didn’t want to spend my evening being leered at by this jerk.

But I did want to spend the evening with Ash.

And that is what it all boils down to isn’t it?

The smile she bestowed on me actually illuminated the whole room. Whatever doubts I harboured were all sent whistling into the wind.

Not the experience you were expecting, is it? No. Well I haven’t got to that part yet … give me time.

                        **************************************************************

We arranged to meet inside the Student’s Union at seven thirty, and at seven fifteen, I was nervously waiting outside, plucking up the courage just to go in.

For the tenth time I smoothed down my top and ran my hands along my jeans. For the tenth time I licked my lips bringing them to shine. For the tenth time I tried to make my breathing slow down, as I imitated a cross between an asthma attack and a panic attack.

And a little bit of hyperventilating for good measure.

Finally, I entered the lobby to be greeted by the smell of pot. As it drifted up my nose, images of me sprawled on the floor, after falling off the stage, danced about in my head.

I felt my face burn up. Christ … it had only been two weeks ago. I hoped no one would remember …

‘Look … it’s Agnetha!’

Shit.

I felt my face burn again, and smiled weakly at the group of lads seated around the stage. The same group of lads who I had landed on two weeks previously.

I think.

I made my way to the bar and tried to hide in the darkest corner. Hopefully my face would return to a more natural sheen after I had been served my coke by the truly inept bartender who was more likely better equipped to serve chips in Mac Donald’s … or not … as he would definitely fail the health and hygiene test.

After securing my drink, and pushing drunken students off me, I scanned the room looking for Ash. It was dark and smoky, and my eyes worked hard acclimatising to the gloom, especially because the bar area was bright enough to nearly cause a tan.

I could feel her rather than see her. Feel her eyes on me.

Slowly I turned to look behind me. And there she was … half standing, as if she had just started to get up from her chair. Her eyes focused straight on me and she looked dazed for some reason. Ben, the dickhead, was next to her, but when he went to grab her hand, she pulled it sharply away from him … her eyes never leaving mine.

It felt weird. Tingles spread up my spine, and for some reason I was beginning to become uncomfortable. So, I waved at her.

No response.

I waved again.

Still no response.

So I began to walk over, feeling a little self-conscious by this point, but pasting a smile on my face to hide the tumultuous emotions racing around inside. I couldn’t understand why my heart was roaring inside my chest so loudly I believed everyone could hear it.

Then I saw her shake her head … just a little shake … but a shake nevertheless. Her eyes lost the glassiness and began to squint a little. It was my cue to make contact … so … I waved again and did the cheesy ‘Hi’ thing.

This time her face broke out into a grin and I smiled in return, the uncomfortable feeling disappearing, but it was replaced with a feeling of excitement as I approached the table. Ben was eyeing me up and down and I wanted to tell him to fuck off … but evidently, I’m too much of a lady.

It wasn’t until I actually reached the table that I realised the other people around it were Stephen and Tracy. Shit. I liked Stephen … but Tracy? Christ … could my night get any worse.

                        **************************************************************

It was fun. Well … for the most part anyway. I enjoyed being in Ash and Stephen’s company, but little could be said about the other two. Ben was an out and out wanker … I couldn’t see what Ash saw in him. All he did all night was hit on girls in the bar. Funny thing was, Ash didn’t seem to mind! I’d have gone bonkers.

As for Tracy … well you know my views on her. She is what is commonly known as a ‘Twattette’, and spent most of the evening glaring in my direction whilst sipping a Pernod and black. How common. She didn’t even realise she had red lines up the side of her face (made by the blackcurrant as she drank) making her look like either the Joker or the Count from Sesame Street.

Funny … nobody could be arsed telling her. She sat there like Lady Muck from Turd Hall thinking she was something she most certainly wasn’t, looking for all the world like she would suddenly shout out ‘One Pernod and black ahahahah … Two Pernod and blacks …’ You get the message.

It’s a pity she didn’t.

And I for one most certainly wasn’t going to be the one to tell her. I know … but honestly … would you?

It wasn’t until the end of the night that the experience happened … remember … the one I threatened you with earlier.

I had just gone to the phone booth to call my parents to say I would be leaving in about twenty minutes and would be on the next bus home, when it all kicked off.

I should have seen it coming, but I didn’t.

I should have known she would do something, but let’s put it down to the innocence of youth … or just plain stupidity.

And I should have been paying attention instead of rummaging around in my purse looking for change for the bus.

Silly me.

‘Think you’re so fucking clever don’t you?’ Tracy. ‘I bet you were laughing at me all night?’ She came out of the shadows and came closer to me; her face was devoid of blackcurrant by now. ‘I’ll fucking teach you.’

Smack!

In retrospect I should have ducked. In retrospect … I should have smacked her back … but I didn’t.

Do you know why?

No?

I didn’t smack her back because I didn’t have to.

Ash did.

Right in her blackcurrant gobbling mouth.

Now for the embarrassing thing …

‘Why the fuck did you do that? I don’t need you to fight my battles!’

Ash looked stunned … more stunned than Tracy, who was on the floor nursing her face by this point. ‘But I …’

‘But you what? Think I can’t look after myself?’

The bar had gone completely quiet, and I knew people were staring at us … at me in particular. Someone came up behind me and I felt my whole body tense. A deep male voice spoke firmly into my ear. ‘I think it is time to go, love.’

It was the bouncer. And he didn’t sound pleased, and neither was I for that matter. I was getting kicked out for doing absolutely nothing, whilst Tracy was being helped up by a member of staff and Ash just stared at me, her face pale.

‘But I didn’t do anything …’ My voice sounded whining even to my ears.

‘It doesn’t matter, love … it’s for the best.’

Ash tried to interrupt and tell them what had happened, but I rounded on her, the tone definitely one of anger.

‘Look! However hard it is to believe … I’ve grown up, Ash … I’m not a child anymore for Christ’s sake.’

With that, I turned and marched away, but not before I heard Ash mumble something. I don’t know what she meant, or even if I heard right, but it sounded like ‘I’ve noticed.’

It’s a pity she only figured that out when I had given her a mouthful.

                        **************************************************************

part 3

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