Love is like bath bubbles. Tender moments shine as they float, then pop without warning.
“Could someone in your family be harbouring a secret?” was the question Detective Pritchard asked me less than a week after the accident. I’d just turned seventeen.
My answer, spoken with teenage contempt, was, “What the fuck do you think?”
Secrets are serious, good or bad. Secrets mean more than some people’s lives added together. I knew a woman who reached the age of ninety-eight without experiencing real love. She told people she understood, even said, “I love you,” to a few, but it was just self-absorbed bullshit. She kept the secret all her life. She kept a lot of secrets.
For some, secrets mean lies. Things to keep quiet about.
For me, some secrets are lies, but I’ve vowed to convert every lie I’ve ever told into something better so that, when I’m ninety-eight, I don’t have to carry around that breathtaking guilt. When I’m her age, I want to be able to chill out, secrets and all. Which reminds me: lots of things in life start and finish, but I don’t think secrets ever dissolve.
Big Tate was the worst. He’d just spent a fortnight in isolation for bad behaviour. That’s how they did it at Cranston. Sunshine never spread like honey over our hills. We only had gloomy skies, lost summers and the threat of hours alone in darkness. Putting Big Tate into solitary was like filling a dog full of amphetamines. That was his crime, anyway. We all laughed. The dog died. We suffered Tate’s shame. A new lad, John, and I finally blew up the science lab that week. We’d been talking about it for ages. I was good at chemistry. He was good at fire. Ours was a dangerous achievement. Engines lined the school road and the police took us in for questioning. Apparently, I was “confused and shaken”. They took the bait and didn’t even search me. In a secret pocket in my school coat were two small lumps of hash and some whizz I’d got for Big Tate. I blamed new boy, John, for the explosion. That was our way. Blame and shame. Play the game. John disappeared as fast as he’d arrived. No one liked him anyway. A week later, when the debris had settled, Deputy Head McKinnock punished us all with burning stripes. He knew about our lies, but the proof was ours to hide. “Crimes culminating –” and the searing pain was all I remember. The threat of expulsion meant fuck all.
Detective Pritchard was nice to me, but that was a lie, too. He was deeply suspicious. He had a pin and he wanted to use it. He didn’t really like me, or maybe it was a problem he had with all teenagers, especially my kind – especially a girl. Pritchard, or Pritstick as I thought of him, knew he was dealing with what my house-mother described as a “child”, but he also wasn’t as foolish as she could be, because he was a detective questioning people about the deaths of two young people in a car accident.
A bag of drugs had been found under the passenger seat. Pritchard couldn’t afford to waste time worrying about upsetting me. I was still a child in my house-mother’s eyes, but a teenager in the detective’s and filled with enough understanding about the seriousness of the situation to help him with his enquiries. Plus, I burst into tears when he arrived at the home and that set his detective’s mind ticking. Like a time bomb, he was only minutes, I was sure, from finding me guilty. Judge and executioner. In one sense, Detective Pritchard was bang on: there was more to my crying than shock. I was hiding a secret and he knew it. But the secret wasn’t that I’d supplied the white powder or set the trap. If the idiot had done his job properly, he’d have known that even before he met me. After I watched his brown leather shoes march out of the door I retreated to the room I shared with three other girls, sat on the hard flat bed by the window and gripped the covers as the repeating scene unfolded . . .
I remember it being late at night and biting cold as I lowered the dripping can to the floor and checked my watch. As I put my glove back on and wiped my runny nose, I was convinced the fibres smelled of my father’s smoke. But I was wrong: they smelled of mine. The cigarette I’d discarded lay on the verge. It seemed too visible, so I ground it into dust with my boot. I turned and looked at Leanne, who’s boyish haircut and piercings made her look older than her eighteen years. Expelled twice, already armed with a record for theft, she took the empty can we’d pinched from her uncle’s mechanics yard and drove away, leaving me there as agreed, no questions asked. Her words would later form the backbone of my alibi. In our town, favour for a favour is best.
When the vroom of her car faded, I stood against the cold for twenty minutes watching two gallons of glistening motor oil spreading like feelings all over the road. Temperatures were low enough for snow, but I knew not to rely on ice forming. Far better to use chemicals. It always was.
I paced about to keep warm, focussed on simple thoughts. The route he took to her house was a rarely-used, winding rural road that ran between two small towns passing only derelict pubs and farms. It wouldn’t be long now.
At last it began. Faster than imagined. A distant growl like a big cat leaping into action. My heart thudded, too. I sensed his energy, recognised the way he slipped the clutch for the corners, pushing the engine to its limits. Hot blood rushing through components. Closer and closer, accelerating rapidly up the hill. Showing off. For her. I remembered my first ride with him. When he showed off for me.
But it was time to forget the past. The present was too fresh to ignore. The oil had run down the hill to the dangerous bend, snaking invisible chance all over. Saplings and farm buildings to the left; a broken fence and sloping field to the other. Just a scare. Just a warning. Nothing else.
Long before I saw the car, I heard the swerve, pumped-up tyres screeching as he tried to win back control. I imagined saplings breaking and tyres slowing on soft grass, but it didn’t mete out like that.
I heard a more violent scream from the car’s burning brakes and knew the vehicle had left the road, but not how. The quiet moment that came next crawled across my skin. The crunch of metal that came after it set my body on fire. I abandoned walking and broke into a run.
When I saw, I changed.
The vehicle had spun off the road, but not in the way I’d hoped. Scared of knowing, but needing to know, I raced towards the crushed, faded-blue bonnet, the ugly tangle of metal I knew held Chris.
Thick smoke poured from breakages, broken components hissed as they warped and flexed, releasing their strains. I saw two people inside. Him and her. Only she wore a seatbelt. He never did, because he thought it made him tougher.
Andrew’s Salts and a garbled feeling inside. I’m thirty-five now and it’s all behind me. It’s Tuesday 18th July 2008, and I’m reminded of another friendship I have – a secret bond that I forget about sometimes, but it’s always there when I need it. A bond with my own mind. Not self-love; just self-reliance. It’s sometimes the only thing I have left. My mind and I can’t engage in conversation in the truest sense, but behind the sniggers we look out for one another.
The psychiatrist assures me the flashbacks are nothing to worry about, but I hate the way the fear of them finding out grips my memories. I know all of this is part of what survived in me from back then. There’s always a bottom line, even when you’re reading between the rest, and in my case, she knows it’s that people didn’t want me to know what they didn’t want to tell me. They still don’t. They didn’t want me to know that my father was on a special register, but I found out all the same.
They’d given him a new flat. I’d lived with grandma since mum died. I only visited him occasionally. Grandma didn’t like me staying over at his place because of his drinking and neither did I, but if he’d started a bottle early, he couldn’t drive me back to hers so there wasn’t much else I could do. The new flat only had one bedroom. He made me sleep on the floor. He’d been bragging about a new photography club he’d started going to. It was only when I caught him masturbating that night in the toilet over one of the images that I discovered what the club was for. Before he lost his job, my father had been a referee for the local football team and he knew the mayor, who also frequented the photography club. When I doused my shame in the same drink he loved and called a helpline to report him, the police got involved, but it was him they believed not me. Bastard mayor stuck up for them both. Threatened me with institution time. I shut up and lay low.
My father managed to destroy all but one snap, which I found down the back of a cupboard. I tried to trace the little girl without luck. A few months later, a local girl that I swear looked just like the one in the photo was snatched from the canal towpath. She’d gotten separated from her family on a walk. When it came on the news, I watched my father instead of the screen and saw the flicker of a smile light his miserable face briefly before he fought it back down. He glanced over at me, but I was already looking elsewhere. A week or so later, he grunted, “Anybody still lookin’ for that kid?” I told him, no, they’d given up. He said, bitterly, before finishing another can of lager, “They never find ‘em after that long.”
A short time later, grandma died, like my real mother had when I was two. I drank a bottle of whiskey and set fire to a trolley full of stolen clothes in the town square right in front of the mayor’s offices. In the morning I was cautioned, assessed and sent to the young offender’s institute. After a while there, they transferred me to Cranston. I was only fifteen.
I met Skinny Chris and Big Tate later that month. Big Tate was built like a hairy mammoth, stupid and muscular. Chris was skinny and tall, good looking and quietly intelligent. He liked sitting on the kerb picking about in the dirt with his fingertips and sometimes he didn’t say much, but he was no slowcoach. Far from it. He was wild and energetic. He drove without a license, started riots in school corridors, took the piss out of teachers and rated girls, somehow without offending either. He set the head’s desk on fire once, stole a wallet from the staff room and hijacked a new car all in one week. To many, he was invincible. But a hidden part of him was less cocksure. He was just a teenager finding his way through a life he wasn’t convinced he owned or was owed. He pretended to get it. He didn’t really get it. None of us did. I caught him behind the art rooms one day, scratching an unsteady white line onto red brick close to his lips with a chalky stone.
“What are you doing?”
He jolted to look at me, stroked a thick wedge of dark hair from his eyes and shrugged. Rain had darkened the shoulders of his navy jumper some time ago. He eyed me to my shoes, catching a second glance at my breasts on the way back up and murmured, “Chloe. Saw you mouth off at Ransom.”
I liked his sullen voice, felt a rush of body heat because he knew me and had seen me respond aggressively to the worst teacher at Cranston. I’d always fancied Chris from a distance. I fancied him even more now that he was staring at me, and we were alone.
Then she came along and spoiled it. He held her hand, a bit embarrassed. Jocelyn she was called. Pouty, pretty and tall like him with long hair and a skirt too short. I didn’t hate her, really, but I didn’t like her. Jocelyn glared at me with the greenest eyes. She wanted me gone.
Later that night, I drew a picture of a toad with a glistening green back and sticky, protruding blobs for fingertips and I wrote her name on its backside.
That week they made me see a psychiatrist, who asked me to answer an insult: “Have you ever considered suicide?” She observed my next movements closely, studying not only my verbal answer, but also hand movements, foot twitches, head tilts and levels of eye contact. The perceptive cow was waiting for me to fall at her feet, to suck on her perfectly painted hooves.
I was only there because I had to be, so I held her gaze and smiled as I replied, “I adore life. Why, have you ever tried to kill yourself?”
By the look on her features, it was clear who’d lost and who’d won. She wasn’t in the game to begin with. I was fighting with myself for position. She was so sweet. She let her guard down immediately and whispered, “It’s ok, Chloe. It’s ok.” Then, softly, “Tell me about your mother.”
It took me a while to answer, “She was distant.”
I shook my head. “Not at first. At least I don’t think so.”
“What do you remember of her?”
I stared blankly at the wall. I remembered nothing; I was only two when she died – but I couldn’t let the poor psychiatrist down. She was desperate for it all to fit into place; I could see it in her eyes. So I caved. “One day I just looked up at her, saw her big brown eyes and thought she was so pretty, but mummy lost her smile.” I paused, then added, extra sadly, “Which was all my fault.”
I killed at nine. Not a person, just a rabbit. I didn’t even mean to, but I can’t lie and say there wasn’t a spark of enjoyment. It was one of the first dark secrets I told Chris. He listened carefully because he liked me and because we saw ourselves in each other. He took my hand that day and admitted, “Jocelyn is so fucking boring.”
We’d do both occasionally. Hold hands and kiss. Once he touched my legs too far up and I felt the first tightenings. I wanted more of him, but didn’t know what more was. I’d seen his trouser crotch fill with stiffness, but he was scared of something. He looked guilty when it happened, like it was very wrong and he was a bad boy for letting it. At dusk one evening, when the ordinary screams and shouts of other Cranston kids were all lost to dust, Chris led me to a place I’d never gone to before. At the bottom of the school slope, beyond the sport’s hall, lay the concealed entrance to a lonely path. To reach the path, you had to climb across a carpet of curling hurtful brambles. I was so in love, but I was terrified. I felt alone, even with him, because we were simply not good enough at closeness. Still, I followed him. We crossed a field behind some houses, walked another half-mile – we didn’t care – then Chris pointed ahead at the just visible rooftop of a huge building in a crook of the landscape.
My life now runs in reverse, but with him, that night on our way towards this old, derelict manor house he’d found, it raced forwards. It hurt me it raced so fast.
He took me inside the grounds through a broken gate, under a massive stone arch. It was obvious the place wasn’t lived in. We tramped together across a courtyard of big smooth cobbles and in through a door he’d somehow unlocked before, into the dank cellars by the light of the torch he carried. Just stones on the walls and cold uneven floors and lots of smaller archways we had to walk under to get closer to the real house. I gripped Chris’s hand when I felt scared, but he couldn’t resist some fun, switching off the torch once or twice to hear me beg for him. He laughed and I decided to kill him. I told him I must, because he surely didn’t love me if he wanted me to suffer all my Halloweens in one night. He was my boyfriend, apparently, and we’d been bickering about body shapes. To top it all off he threw a late insult, saying my hands weren’t girly enough. When I went to slap him, he switched the light off again. Well I decided to kill him, there and then, but my idea of death was a very different one to the one he’d been expecting. In the pitch blackness, I grappled with him to get at the torch, grabbed it out of his hands and dragged us both into an unknown corner of that strange, cold corridor. Chris fell silent. He knew what was happening. Nervously, I groped him until we both felt good. His trousers slowly sank to his ankles. His hand went up inside my skirt and started pulling material aside. He was ready to do something I’d no idea could happen, breathing rapidly into my neck whenever our bodies came close, then he laughed the way I thought my father might have laughed when he looked at the child he’d caught and this was when I pushed myself off him and stopped massaging his cock. I wanted to kill any man who might be like my father, even sound like my father. I pictured the dead body I would create out of Chris, whom I loved with all my heart, and the pleasure I felt deep inside turned nasty-sour. Chris was confused, but couldn’t contain his desires, which were my fault anyway. Out of shame, he tried to keep quiet, but I heard him touching himself all alone in the dark. Using the light of his torch, I ran away.
Heavy wet clothes hung from my house-mother’s washing line. I took them down for her, crying into them as the shame came in waves. I remembered Chris. I remember him forever.
I needed it all to be a secret. Chris continued to be seen and heard, always on the tip of someone’s tongue, whereas I just hung around on the periphery, lonelier than before, getting cold intimidation stares from his group of friends. He must have said something about me to discredit me, in case I spilled the truth of what he’d done. Although it hurt, he was still magnificent in my eyes. I dreamt of our night at the manor many times, dreamt that it went the way it should have gone. I planned ways of getting back into his good books, but never imagined it would happen, then one November evening, just like last time, when the bats were in silent flight between crawling branches, Chris’s footsteps appeared in the back of my mind. He was following me.
We smoked all the way along the path and to the arch, a heavy silence between us. He carried another torch. I still had his last.
“Never gave you this back,” I whispered.
“Keep it,” he muttered, eyes lowered. “Come on.”
Along the cold cellar corridor we went, torchlight dancing along the walls. I remember smells of dampness and old beams. Chris led me up a flight of stone steps, opened and shut a large, groaning door and then we wandered along a series of corridors with broken floorboards, barely surviving carpet and old bell pulls for servants high up. A network of invisible, cold air currents destroyed any hope of warmth. Only our motion, fast as we explored, kept us from curling up together and dying sweetly in a corner. The house had been classy, but was now a crumbling history of itself. Furniture stood in the corridors, covered with dust sheets. Every inch of space in the many similar rooms was filled with something destroyed by age. Someone had been there, clearing the lower floor slowly. Only when we reached the next floor, treading cautiously up a jaw-dropping staircase, did I begin to appreciate what the place might have been like in the olden days. I tried to imagine the missing pieces: polished dark wood panels, landscape paintings and portraits hanging on sapphire blue wallpaper . . .
Two heavy doors were shut and locked. Across the hall, another room, filled with boxes of books. We rushed by. Chris pulled me closer to a room at the end of the corridor and asked me to close my eyes. I heard nothing but our footsteps, smelled musty fabrics and old soap. When I opened my eyes I saw a damaged place with dark blue cracked plaster walls. The paintings were all gone, leaving behind patches of darker paint. A half-moon shone in through the huge window. In the centre of the room was a four-poster bed flecked with white paint. A blanket lay on top. Along the floor to either side were old toys, stacks of sepia photos.
Chris came closer and looked into my eyes. I felt the crack in my heart reseal slightly, like an ice cube smoothing over in warm water. Exchanging a long look with him nearly killed me. His juicy black scowling eyes, full of curiosity and lust, hiding under that wedge of dark hair I so wanted to touch. I ran my fingertips into it as he kissed me. This was his way of being, the attitude that saved him from the tougher boys and the part of his personality I wanted to have inside me. Anxiety was offset with excitement. The skin on my arms and neck crawled. We climbed onto the dusty bed and took off our clothes. Chris had a smooth chest with dark brown nipples. A loose cross hung from a chain at his nape. We touched each other softly, then had sex, underwear strangling our ankles. His chain stroked my chin over and over. We just needed to feel what the other possessed – and, in all honesty, to exploit it. Chris and I were both totally quiet during, then afterwards I giggled and he smiled. I was happy for the first time in my life and stunned by it. Against that ancient, musty bed, we enjoyed several physical battles and both of us were speechless by the end. More than anything else, I loved the secrecy, the place he’d chosen, the risk of ghosts climbing the stairs and watching us with envy in their eyes. Chris became a man in those moments. I only hope he saw me as a woman. Briefly, he seemed to gain strength rather than be sapped of it the way sex always ended later in life, and I wondered, much later, if he’d fallen in love with me that night. We lay for an hour or more kissing and laughing at whispered teases on bedsheets specked with my blood.
When I woke, Chris was gone. I dressed, left shakily and snook back to the kid’s home.
Next time I saw him, he was weeping down in the damp soil behind the sport’s hall shower block. He’d been absent from school for more than a week. I was heartbroken I hadn’t seen him, but overjoyed he’d reappeared. He cried deep and quiet like a man, but his body was crumpled up like a child’s. I asked him what was wrong. He couldn’t get his words out, but I was sure I heard, “Leaving.”
I hadn’t prepared for the strength of my own emotion. I didn’t want our secret to end, but it was about to. He was saying goodbye.
“Did you like it?” he asked, like he needed to know he’d done something right.
I replied shyly, “It hurt a bit but I liked it a lot.”
He sort of smiled, but kept staring down at his dirty, tear-stained hands. Blue ink from some pen was smeared over the knuckles and thumb-edge. I wanted to kiss him, but didn’t feel it was right.
He breathed in awkwardly as he stepped away. “I can’t change this,” he said.
That sly glimmer in his eyes I’d come to be obsessed with vanished in that instant from my life and, as the silence came, as his smile receded into memory and our passion faded, becoming forgotten, the whole world seemed to grow colder and less important.
Only the front seat passenger survived the crash, but died of her injuries in hospital.
During our second “meeting” Detective Pritchard looked hard into my eyes. He waited for me to answer him, but he was waiting in vain, because I wasn’t ready to tell him what he wanted to hear.
He correctly detected my animosity towards Jocelyn, the girl who’d been with Chris, his girlfriend again after two years. He correctly detected that, at first, when I saw her breathing and bloodied, crumpled and semi-conscious in that wreck of a car, I didn’t really want her to be the one who lived, but he was wrong about everything else. I tried to help her. I phoned the ambulance. I tried to save her. I stayed by the wreckage and talked to her, stroking her doll-like face and holding her cold hands. For a long time Pritchard didn’t understand how much I’d wanted to kill the driver of that car for being the one I loved. But I never wanted him to die.
He won in the end. My alibi was fucked because I stayed at the scene. The oil was a giveaway. It was naive. I left a note on Detective Pritchard’s doorstep telling the truth and the ‘secret’ the silly fuck could have researched himself if he’d been any good at his job: “My father is paedophile Malcolm Briggs. Look him up.”
The reason I hated my father was because he stole my innocence, not by abusing me, but by making me kill him. I did it in the end by injecting him with too much of his own medicine – insulin – when he was passed out drunk. Everyone blamed him, which felt fantastic.
Chris never asked me why I ended up at Cranston and I only discovered what put Chris there after his death. I never dared ask when he was alive. Every child at our school was allowed one secret.
He beat up his violent step-father at fifteen. Only managed to put the old bastard in hospital whereas Chris had suffered more than a decade of physical beatings. In my heart, I know he tried to commit the kind of crime that gets you hung in Texas and just didn’t succeed. Instead, he was sent to Cranston and now his step-father, who still lives to this day, spends his benefits on drugs in a bungalow off the main road. I see him now and then and I hate him. Some people deserve to be hated.
Nine months after that final night, I gave birth to our daughter, Shelly. She’s a product of her parents – intelligent but lazy at school, nothing to say yet full of backchat. I’ve told her she can be whatever she wants to be and I mean it – and I think her wild edge will tame into lawful determination. Sometimes, I think of her father. I touch the cross I wear that was his, which I tore from his lifeless neck (I deserved to take something). I think maybe he’s proud of us as he lies there in the ground, cold and calm at last.
Because some of us are rebels and always will be. We sense the subtle emotions people don’t want us to feel, like longing or sadness or loneliness, projected into us, but they are sad and lonely and hateful, too, inside. Adults are scared of a teenager who isn’t afraid to express the toughest feelings. People were scared of me.
It would have all been over if Deputy Head McKinnock hadn’t announced two names in a special service: Christopher Ainsworth and Jocelyn Holt. He read out Jocelyn’s mother’s eulogy – “Thank you to everyone for being so supportive as we pay tribute to our beautiful daughter. I cannot put into words the grief that my family is experiencing…” – but then the fake bastard said something later to a colleague he trusted that he thought no one would hear about. “Jocelyn was a truant and a drug-user. For once, in my eyes, God didn’t claim the wrong soul.”
Big Tate lost it when he heard the rumour. Got so angry he went back to McKinnock’s office after hours and started stabbing him with a knife. If he hadn’t been stopped by two other teachers he’d have killed. As they dragged him out, he hollered, “Fuck you and fuck your world!”
And for that, and for his own deeper reasons, Big Tate, like many of us, is a rebel who will never really be free.