London, summer 1993. Patting my pocket to check I hadn’t forgotten the money, I passed the bathroom mirror without a glance. My face was clean but my hair was probably a mess as the closest I came to caring about appearance was to occasionally use a nailbrush when my hands got really manky. I knew how I looked: a plastic dummy swung on a necklace and the bright red t-shirt I wore was the cleanest I had. Clothes were useful for pockets and wiping hands on when you spent all day outdoors with your friends. We were guttersnipes, fiercely independent, impudent and savvy as Brixton had taught us to be. Roaming freely, we’d chat openly to strangers in our broad Sarf Lahndahn accents while keeping a wary distance, eyes as sharp as any Dickensian pickpocket. I was twelve, the second-eldest of our group and bookish, which meant imaginative and so by some strange childish default, the leader. Each day I had to devise games and decide where we’d go, commanding my scruffy chums into exploring thickets and bushes of the park to build dens, collect acorns, beech nuts, conkers and elderberries or challenge strange children who dared cross our territory. We’d venture into the underground garages and lock-ups below the flats where we lived in search of grimy treasure hauls, broken radios and bald tyres, or sneak over the high wall that was supposed to protect an apple tree from nicking urchins like us. I was not off to meet my friends on this occasion, although I didn’t know it, I was leaving my childhood behind.
A tightly-knit bunch of six by day, each night after dinner when the sun had cooled the scattered knots of local kids would untangle into one mass of all ages in the nearby playground. There we’d assert our place in the hierarchical ranks, show off, poke things with sticks or scrape bricks and generally lark about with different people. Lee was older by about six months, skinny with shorn blond hair but brown eyebrows and lashes that made his blue eyes look darker. He ran about with his own group of boys and a few weeks before had sneaked up behind and poured a bottle of freezing water down my back. I reacted with fury, chasing him and knocking him to the ground where we struggled to hit each other unsuccessfully. Storming off, I swore revenge and wondered how best to get back at him as the older boys whistled and the teenage girls sitting on the swings goaded Lee to “go after his girlfriend”. How ridiculous, I thought, as if I’d go near a creep like Lee Combes! My boyfriend would be called Josh or Damon and would have floppy long hair and baggy jeans instead of the frayed shorts and trainers Lee wore. He’d read Stephen King and listen to Megadeth rather than Look-In and East 17, and instead of asthma and glasses he’d bring me on dates and live in a house with an apple tree in the garden.
I was still raging as I mounted the steps up to our maisonette when I heard my name called. Lee stood at the bottom, wheezing.
“Piss off, I don’t want to talk to you.”
“What’s the matter? It’s only a bit of water.”
“Everyone was laughing! It’s embarrassing!”
“Don’t be such a girl.”
“Say that after I thump you on the nose. I’m going to get changed.”
He was still outside twenty minutes later after I’d exchanged my t-shirt for a dry one, made a sandwich and stood at the door of the living room to watch the end of The Bill.
“Well, what dyou want?”
“Nuffin’ really. What you doing now?”
“Nuffin’. Staying in.”
“Don’t, it’s still bright.”
“Don’t care. I ain’t going back there.”
“Stay ‘ere then.”
“Wiv you? Huh.”
“Yeah, wiv me…come on, let’s get on the roof.” Each upper flat had a small shed built on either side of the steps, fencing in the yard of the lower premises. He stood up and held out his hand, partly as a peace offering and to help me up. I ignored it but got to my feet and he grinned, clambering up on to the adjoining wall. I followed and we sat there catching the last of the evening rays amongst the honeysuckle creeper that covered the brickwork, picking the flowers for the sweet drop of nectar nestled at the base of the stigma.
So it continued for the next two weeks, every night after dinner Lee would be waiting and we’d drift off together. I showed him our secret dens, he brought me to the old house that a bunch of hippies had abandoned, leaving a harem of cats behind. We’d walk to the “bad park” where a senile old lady used to wander cradling a baby doll until she’d been found raped and murdered. We’d sit in high grass on the banks of the pond, watching the water boatmen push their way across the surface and talk about our friends, popstars, games and elaborate daydreams that involved mansions with swimming pools and never-ending ice creams. Parents and the future were rarely mentioned. After nine days of this, he began to hold my hand. Two days later, we kissed, hard little lips pecking at each others’ face before slobbering tongues met awkwardly and we broke apart, trying to discreetly wipe away the ring of moisture that swept from nose to chin until our eyes met and we fell about giggling in the weeds.
On day fourteen, red-shirted and unruly-coiffed, I walked down the steps to find Lee waiting on the roof as usual. I’d not forgotten my dating ideals of Josh-Damon and had decided that it was time to take things to the next level. I set off towards the local shops where a typical English greasy-spoon cafe stood along with a Greek grocery, Maltese launderette and Pakistani newsagent. Instead of buying penny mix-ups and ‘ice-poles’, that day’s pocket money had been saved and along with a pound cadged from my mum, I had about £2.50 in my pocket. The cafe was empty when we walked in, two twelve year-old street rats who’d never ordered anything in a restaurant before.
“What we doing in ‘ere?”
“I want a milkshake. You got any money?”
“Nah, spent it dint I?”
“Right, well don’t worry. Go and sit down.”
“Where?” Lee looked around at the empty cafe in astonishment. “In ‘ere?!”
“What do you want?” the owner was a heavy, tired-looking old guy of about fifty with big freckles and muddy tattoo marks on his forearms. “You gonna order summink or what?”
“Yeah, two chocolate milkshakes please.”
“That’ll be £3.”
“Oh. I only have £2.50…can you let us off?”
“No I bloody can’t! It’s £3!”
“Uh…fine. One milkshake in two glasses please.”
“You’re cheeky int ya? I’ll give ya two straws.”
“Oh cheers, I’ll leave your tip in the glass shall I?” He looked like he would have clipped me round the ear if it wasn’t for my grubby handful of coins.
“I don’t like chocolate,” Lee looked uncomfortable. “You shoulda got chips.”
“Already had my dinner. Dint you get yours?”
“Why not…?” Dishes clattered in the background.
“Just didn’t.” He gave the beige milk-sludge a moody poke with his straw. Silence fell.
“What you doing tomorrah?”
“Dunno…what you looking at?”
“Tonya just walked past the window. I fink she seen us.”
“So?” I shrugged. “Tonya’s all right.”
“She’s probably gonna tell everyone. Come on, let’s go.”
“No, I ain’t finished! Stop worrying.”
He lolled in his seat, looking sullen and frustrated. “Hurry up. I wanna go.”
“Oh shut up moaning. I thought it’d be fun. We never do anything.”
“What you on about? We do loads, we go loadsa places.”
“Yeah, boring places. Kids’ places. We’re not kids any more.”
“I dunno…” Lee was hurt. “I like ‘em.”
“Yeah well, if we’re gonna-” I broke off. At least ten faces peered in through the window, hands banging on the glass, most of them made up of older kids. The younger ones were already barging into the cafe, hooting and yelling “woooooo!”
“Oh no….” Lee groaned, shrinking away from me, his face bright red with embarrassment. “I knew Tonya was gonna dob us in.” Indeed, Tonya could be seen outside, bent double with laughter as her friends milled around pointing at us.
“OI! Cut it aaaht!” The owner was yelling from behind the counter as Lee’s friends crowded around our table cheering and elbowing. The teenage boys bounded in.
“Well, well, look at the lovebirds…you getting married? You gonna ‘ave kids?”
“OUT if you ain’t buyin’!” came another roar. Lee looked at me for a millisecond before shrugging off his mates and hurrying out, where louder whoops greeted his appearance. Most of the kids left. I stayed to hoover up the dregs from the bottom of the glass. “You an’ all!” Bawled the old guy, looking even more tired. “Leave it and go.”
Romance was dead before it ever started. Like the after-image of a lightbulb staining the vision for ages after one foolish glance, I couldn’t shake off the look of horror on Lee’s face when his friends saw us together. I thought he liked me, I thought he wanted to be real friends, I sighed, determined not to cry over a creep like Lee Combes. I should’ve waited for Josh-Damon to show up. I should have made him try harder, should have never let him get away with soaking me, I should never have tried to change things…we should have stayed in the flowers or by the pond instead of trying to be something else. Dejected, I mentally kicked myself, setting up a guilt complex that would never leave me. Used to being in charge and making decisions, I had drank the nectar too soon, before the wonderful world of womanhood blossomed before me. Well that was it with boyfriends I reasoned. Never again.
I walked home on my own and went in, even though it was still bright. The next evening, there was no one waiting in the honeysuckle.