Kel was eleven, but all day she’d rehearsed her date of birth as if she wa twelve, because you had to be twelve to get into Karisma on Nappy Night. She said it again in a whisper, to mek sure she hadn’t forgot: ‘Fourth of April 1986.’ One third of an inward-facing triangle, Kel huddled elbow-to-elbow wi Shaz and Rach, halfway down a queue that stretched length ut nightclub’s shiny steel wall. It were start of Christmas holidays but none of them wore a coat because, sez Shaz, Donny lasses didn’t. Their ponytails bobbed while their feet rocked between toe and heel in their platform shoes. Motion wa part shiver, part nerves, and part, for Kel, to tek her mind off her bare midriff, which she wa trying to keep sucked in.
At door, bouncer waited. He wa med of convex surfaces, all belly and baldhead, black fleece zipped tut chin. Int forty-five minutes they’d been waiting, his eyes hadn’t moved, staring ahead at Maccy D’s across way. He drew his mouth thin, downturned, like ham sandwich left too long in its lunchbox. Kel reckoned he had mards on because he wa working underage night instead of Freaky House Fridays, advertised on club’s wall wi pictures of older lads and lasses, dancing half naked and hanging backward off stripper poles. maddest house night in doncaster, poster reckoned.
Kel nodded int bouncer’s direction. ‘Reyt mard arse, him.’
Shaz squinted at him ovver her shoulder. ‘Fuck. Dint know it wa that cunt.’ She brought her lashes closer together until squint became a dead eye so intense she could have been asleep. ‘Twat turned our Louise away other week. Said her ID wa fake.’
‘God’s sake.’ Rach hugged hersen tight. ‘Bet you he waint lerrus in.’ Rach wa oldest looking lass in year seven. Two inches taller than Kel and Shaz, she already wore bras, an’ all.
‘Better do,’ Kel said under her breath. She’d never sin inside a nightclub. Shaz and Rach had both been loads of times before wi big sisters, big sisters who dint do underage no more, because now they looked old enough to sneak into proper nights, where everyone got off their faces, and – sez Shaz – sometimes shagged reyt ont dance floor. Kel weren’t sure what happened on Nappy Nights but she couldn’t ask because then everyone would know she didn’t know. All she could see in her head were disco lights cutting long bright cones through dark. Shaz reckoned there wa private booths where you could sit and sip Coke and smoke, tap your fagends into ashtrays like ladies did at pub. Tonight, after months of begging her mam, Kel wa only allowed out because she promised to stay wi her mates and not go anywhere on her own. It were just two of them at home so mam liked to keep her in. Kel thought maybe she wa lonely but you couldn’t tell your mates that. You had to say, ‘Mad bint’s strict as owt for no goodfucking reason.’
‘Oh aye, what you gunna do if he dunt let you in, like,’ Shaz asked Kel.
Kel inspected her arms, hairs bristly int cold; one lightning vein ran bluish down back of her hand. First time Shaz and Rach gorrin to Nappy Night they were still ten, and they’d been gerrin in ever since. ‘Just this once’, Mam had said and she always meant it, so this wa Kel’s only chance. Around them, queue swelled and ebbed, like worms Kel and Rach used to pluck, cardigan sleeves pulled ovver fingers, from nettle beds and behead. Kel couldn’t see anybody else from their school yet, and she’d never got bus home from town on her own. She weren’t sure she knew bus route number. And if Shaz and Rach gorrin and Kel didn’t, she couldn’t ask them to go home wi her. They’d never stop rippin piss. Again, Kel repeated to hersen, ‘Fourth of April 1986.’
Shaz laughed. ‘She’s only dezzy to gerrin because Ando might be here.’
‘I’m not,’ Kel said, cheeks warming. Her right hand clutched her chest, index finding thin V-shaped scratch sat between her collarbones, faintest ridge in smooth skin.
‘You are, an’ all.’ Rach punched soft fat at top of Kel’s arm.
They chanted, ‘Kel fo-or An-do, Kel fo-or An-do,’ while Kel willed red to go away from her face and now she needed a wee. ‘Kel fo-or An-do, Kel fo-or An-do!’
‘Shurrup, will yer?’ Kel scanned faces int queue, searching for heads turned toward them, ears listening in.
‘You said you’d lerrim finger you ont school field if he tried.’ Shaz said it loud on purpose. Lads behind looked ovver, raised eyebrows, smirked.
‘As if I did.’ Kel sucked in her stomach. She weren’t even reyt sure what fingering was.
Her bladder tightened, fuller.
‘You did,’ Shaz said. ‘Cleggy told us.’
‘Wunt lerrim near me.’ Kel screwed up her face to mek it clear: she couldn’t gi a fuck about Ando, not since he called her Fanny Flaps at break today. She wa behind sports hall blagging three fags off Cleggy, who buys them himsen because he’s fourteen and looks old enough and then sells them single to year sevens, 20p a piece. Ando wa there going on to Cleggy about how many lasses he’s gerrin off wi tonight. Kel dint care if he snogged hundred lasses. ‘He’s a reyt minger, anyway.’
‘As if he is. He’s well fit.’ Shaz refolded her arms. ‘Hardest lad in year nine, an’ all.’
Kel proper needed a piss now. She pressed down ont V-shaped scratch till it stung.
‘Sup wi thee,’ Rach asked, when Kel started bobbing more violently.
‘Nowt, I just need loo.’ Kel tried to tame her legs’ wild dance, but couldn’t keep them still. In her groin, a fat sackful of liquid pressed against her bladder’s taut skin. It felt like summat wi sharp feet wa trying to crawl out. She focused on sucking her belly flat, but that just med it worse.
‘Piss ovver thier.’ Shaz’s thumb indicated slim alley between Karisma and Colonnades. Ont way here, they’d sin two older lasses squatting down there, bums pressed against brick wall. But Kel could never get hang of pulling her knickers out way, and she’d sin at least five older blokes go down there since they’d been waiting. She dint like thought of them stood around wi their willies out while she squatted, holding her knickers out way of her stream.
‘Can’t be arsed,’ said Kel. ‘Don’t really need it anyway.’ She shrugged, shoulders jabbing up to meet her earlobes, where two pierced holes were still healing, green and sore around two heart-shaped studs. Rach had got hers done when she wa seven, Shaz when she warra babby, but Kel weren’t allowed until last week when she finally wore Mam down wi a tale about how she were gerrin laughed at because not having your ears pierced meant you’re frigid.
Longer they waited, less Kel could feel her legs, numbed by wind nipping at her flared skirt, which wa cut tut thigh and covered in turquoise sequins. Kel gorrit special last week from MK One, where Shaz reckoned she went thieving ont weekend, but Kel knew she wa chatting shit because Shaz never ate – she wa saving up her dinner money for Adidas Poppers. That’s why you could count her ribs through her back. Today at break, Ando sez to Cleggy that Shaz would be a reyt shag, if she had any tits.
‘Anyway, if I do see him, I’ll bang him out,’ Kel said.
‘What you on wi?’ Shaz asked.
Shaz gev Rach a look, and they started chanting again. ‘Kel fo-or An-do, Kel fo –’
‘No, listen, reyt: he’s saying shit behind Shaz’s back. He wants banging out.’
When he wa done laughing about Shaz’s tits, Ando had reached out and hooked an index ovvert neck of Kel’s cotton white tank top, triangle of it peeking above her school shirt, which wa buttoned low. Just like everycunt at Ridgey knew you couldn’t wear your bag on two shoulders, every Ridgey lass knew you had to button your school shirt low, even though it meant gerrin after school detention if Miss Simpson saw. Ando’s finger pulled down an inch ont cotton neck, and he’d squinted at Kel’s chest as if he wa looking through microscope in Biology. ‘Thissun waint be gerrin in Karisma wi these fried eggs, either,’ he’d said, which med Cleggy laugh so hard a bubble of snot bloomed out his nostril. Kel’s cheeks had flashed hot at his words, but skin on her chest had crackled and sparked round his finger, like he wa med of lad flesh and power lines. Spark shot all way down to her fanny. Thought of it now med her feel sick.
‘Kel fo-or An-do, Kel fo-or An-do.’
Creature in Kel’s bladder flexed its claws.
‘I fancy a Maccy D’s,’ she said, nodding at one ovvert road.
Shaz stopped chanting, narrowed her eyes. ‘You ate yer tea before you cem out.’
‘So?’ Kel pressed her knees together. Ankles splayed, her legs med a big upside down Y.
‘You’ve gorrer come in wi us, though.’ Rach’s face fell serious.
They’d practiced it ont bus into town: to mek sure Kel gorrin, they’d go past bouncer together, talking reyt loud about periods, so he wouldn’t even bother asking Kel her date of birth. She’d just have to hold it till they got through.
It started snowing, thinly, more like frozen rain. They were shielded by Karisma’s awning, but older lasses going past on their way to proper club nights leaned forward, bracing themsens, hands cupped above their forreads to save fringe they’d blow-dryed and gelled into a stiff semi-circle. Flakes cem at them ont wind and their bodies crumpled in like empty cans of pop.
That wa one good thing about cold: you could cross your arms and squeeze your tits up into a reyt cleavage, but nobody could call you a slag because you were just freezing. Every lass int queue were stood int sem pose, shoulders hunched ovver their folded arms, all dressed like Kel in boob tubes and platform heels. Like most of them, Kel had a tiny handbag dangling off one wrist. Her toes tapped against each other in a regular rhythm, slowly building speed until they were going rapid as happy hardcore tunes that townie lads blasted from souped-up Fiat Unos.
Still, a single drop of moisture trickled down her inner thigh.
‘Back in a sec.’
She dashed across road to Maccy D’s, tiny handbag clutched to chest. Her heels were heavy ont sole and half a size too big, held on by a strip of patent leather-look plastic. Mam wouldn’t let her buy any – reckoned they’d mek her look a reyt slapper – so she had to borrow some off Shaz’s big sister Louise. Clinging to them wi scrunched toes, she sprinted past early evening pissheads on high stools int window of Maccy D’s, soaking up their day sesh wi their squished Filets-O-Fish. Inside, and past pink milkshake puddle, past sad family squeezed into a booth, upstairs, and past plastic decal of Ronald and friends someone had drawn bucked teeth on, Kel found a solitary loo, reyt at back and down a corridor that smelled of hospitals and Dettol. She pushed door open wi her shoulder and fell into a room where walls were clammy and scrawled on, chemical smell cem laced wi a sweaty aftertaste, and toilet bowl wa blocked by a papier-mâché sculpture of loo roll and shite.
Kel couldn’t stop still long enough to pull her knickers down wi’out letting more wee escape, wi’out everything gushing out. Her underwear dampened and her abdomen burned while she hopped, crashed intut hand dryer and sink, willing her knickers to mek friends wi her knees. After a load of quick finger jerks ont elastic top, she managed to shimmy them halfway down her thighs. Her arse slammed ontut loo seat just before she let go, hissing an angry stream at shite sculpture below. The relief felt like Mam’s cool hands against her forread last summer when Kel’s skin blazed wi flu and Mam called in sick tut call centre so she could stay home wi her.
Kel’s tiny silver-grey bag dangled between two loose fingers. It wa first thing she bought from Claire’s Accessories after she started her paper round and now Rach had sem one. Kel kicked her legs straight out, like she used to ont park swings. Around her ankles clung a wet pair of white knickers wi a wavy blue trim that she’d worn since first year of primary school.
She dint piss hersen. Knickers dint count – it’s not like she’d gorrit on her clothes.
There wa no bin, only scrunched up wads of loo roll and used tampon holders piled in a corner beneath largest bit of graffiti: twatty bollocks 9t8, scratched two-foot tall intut wall’s plastic paneling wi a compass or hood of a Bic lighter. Kel couldn’t bring hersen to leave knickers ont heap for everyone to see, like a Guy ont bonfire waiting to be burned. What if someone she knew cem intut toilets next? But she couldn’t carry them around wi her. And she couldn’t go home wi’out proving Ando wrong.
Round back ut sports hall, praying her cheeks dint look as hot as they felt, Kel had pushed Ando’s finger away and said, ‘What you on wi? I go Karisma every week, me.’
Cleggy had laughed harder. ‘Nappy Night’s once a month you daft bitch.’ His laugh went ahh-ahh-ahh-ahh like sheep that took off running when they saw school bus going past, double decker inching every morning between stone walls down back lane.
‘Tenner sez you waint get past bouncer tonight.’ Ando held his hand out for her to shek.
Kel dint have a tenner. She had one pound fifty and that were for bus fare and a bag of crisps, but she knew she couldn’t say that because it’d sound like copping out.
Before she could say owt, Ando leaned in so close she could see fat ginger mole hiding behind his left ear. Her nose stung from spicy cloud of Lynx that older lads at Ridgey sprayed reyt on their school jumpers instead of under their arms. He pressed his hand against front of her skirt, fingers finding then cupping under her fanny cleft, sending every inch of her rigid.
He scowled down at her. ‘If you do gerrin, I might even gi you a good fingerfucking.’
Kel had shoved Ando’s shoulders wi both hands, pulse raging. ‘Gerroff me.’
Ando let himsen stumble back. He smiled. ‘Si thi tonight, then, Fanny Flaps.’
It wasn’t till later, brushing her hair in her bedroom mirror, gerrin ready to meet Shaz and Rach at bus stop, Kel had found red V on her chest where his jagged fingernail had nicked her skin.
Kel fingered V now, sting in her chest tekkin her mind off her wet knickers and her damp arse aching from hard lip ut loo seat pressing into her flesh. She dint know if she wanted Ando to touch her like that again or if thought of it terrified her or if it were both.
She couldn’t lose bet, though. She stretched knickers ovver Louise’s platform heels, stuffed them into her handbag’s slim secret pocket, zipped it shut. As long as wee didn’t soak through bag’s fabric, she’d be reyt.
Kel hobbled fast as she could back down stairs, her feet dragging Louise’s shoes back past sad family, past pissheads and their soggy sandwiches, back through snow, ovvert road to Karisma. Wi each step, new air rushed between Kel’s legs, cold like a slap, wind threatening to slip an icy finger below her skirt’s flapping hem and lift it up.
Rach and Shaz were almost at front, three away from bouncer and his greasy scalp, shiny under Karisma’s neon sign. Kel dipped back in wi them.
‘Where’s Happy Meal, then?’ Shaz asked. ‘Like fuck you’ve already scoffed it.’
‘Oi!’ A group of lads further down started on. ‘Fuck’s that about?’ they shouted at Kel. One of them wa tall and lanky like Ando. They threw their shoulders at kids in front of them and everyone else tripped forward, bodies crushing together. Boy nearest Kel fell hard onto her back, pushed her sideways away from queue, knocking breath out of her. She tottered on her toes, fighting to stay upright.
‘Fuck you doing, you silly slag?’ Lads kept on, and Kel couldn’t say owt, winded, oxygen shocked from her lungs by force ut boy’s weight on her spine. Karisma’s awning shadowed lads’ faces, and she couldn’t tell whether tall un wa him or not.
Bouncer let in three more and now Shaz and Rach were reyt at front.
‘Come on, then.’ Shaz motioned to Kel wi a sharp hand.
Tall lad moved forward wi queue, stepped under neon sign, and his face lit up. It wasn’t Ando.
A rush of air, and Kel found her voice. ‘I were here already.’ She pointed at Shaz and Rach. ‘These lot saved mi place.’
‘Hows about get t’fuck, you little wankstain.’
Pride thrilled through Kel’s chest when lads piped down. They grumbled to themsens, slagging her off too soft for her to hear, but they dint say owt else to her face. Gaps between bodies re-opened, queue stretching out again like a Slinky uncoiled. Kel wriggled in wi Shaz and Rach, just in time for their turn to go past bouncer and through club’s heavy double doors.
Three of them faced him together, and Kel launched intut bit they’d practiced ont bus. ‘Got proper bad PMS, me. Aching reyt down to mi knees.’
Before Shaz and Rach had a chance to do their bits, bouncer waved Shaz through. She strode in. Rach followed. Eyes on Rach’s ponytail, Kel stepped forward and walked smack intut bloke’s upheld palm. She bounced off it like a test dummy off crash barrier in a car safety advert.
‘Fourth of April 1986,’ Kel said, collecting hersen.
‘But I’m wi them.’ Her shoulders tilted at doors that had swallowed her mates.
‘Wait, or yer don’t gerrin.’
Bouncer’s arm barred her way. Up close, his face wa just as mardy as it had been further off. Looked like he’d never bothered learning how to smile.
Wind grabbed her skirt, reminded Kel that one cheeky gust could expose her tut whole queue. She gathered loose hem in her hand to keep it tight to her legs.
Kel had never been a blagger. Even though Rach looked oldest, Shaz always did their blagging. Like other month when they snuck intut cinema to see Titanic. Shaz had ordered their tickets and bloke dint even ask their ages because Shaz had med sure they were all wearing sparkly eyeshadow and gold hoop earrings – clip ons for Kel. Shaz’d leaned ovver bloke’s counter wi her boobs pushed up, smiled and held her eyelids low.
Kel approached bouncer again. She sucked in her tummy and looked him reyt int eyes.
‘Ay up, what’s your name?’ she said. She stroked his forearm up to his elbow, ruffling his jacket’s black fleece.
He stared at Maccy D’s, body still and solid as a concrete bollard.
‘Touch me again and you’re barred.’
Blinking fierce against sting in her eyes she stepped back, crossed her arms ovver her chest, fingers scurrying into armpits. She wa desperate to know if lads behind had heard, determined not to turn around and check. Wind bit at her, teased until she held her skirt in place wi both hands, shivering up and down on her heels to count seconds and minutes until warm inside.
Bouncer’s hand med a come here motion and she stepped forward again, straight back intut iron palm.
Her pulse thudded in her ears, blood crawling up her throat to her cheeks. ‘What about mi mates? You dint check theirs.’
Bouncer’s face dint move.
‘Mi mate Rachael’s even got sem bag.’
‘I check yer bag, or you gerrout queue.’
She looked at queue. There was still nobody she knew there, and now she couldn’t remember which end of town bus left from – North Station or South. Both sat poorly lit beneath multi-storey car parks, barren between loading bays but for smashed glass and trails of piss. Shaz sez only skagheads hung about there at night. Kel had never been there alone even int day.
She slid tiny silver-grey pouch ovver her wrist, opened bigger ut bag’s two compartments and held it out, praying he wouldn’t notice skinny secret pocket still zipped up tight. Bouncer poked a finger around, disturbed her Frosty Melon lipgloss tube, her bus pass, tampon she kept on her just in case it happened, and three loose fags. Satisfied, he closed zip.
When he turned tut bag’s other side, Kel’s heart flooded, bashed itssen against her ribs.
Back went slender zip in his massive hand, and in went his finger.
Bouncer cringed, nose wrinkling as if he’d just unearthed loo roll sculpture int toilets at Maccy D’s. His disgust hit Kel like a fist – first a sock to her belly, then a dead weight spreading through her, draining her limbs. He pulled his finger out, hooking crotch of Kel’s wet knickers.
Inside her a cave opened, as though bouncer’s finger were crooked around her guts, pulling them out. Lads behind went ‘FuuuckinHELL’ and their laughs gnashed at her face. She couldn’t turn and look for Ando, see if he wa there, laughing.
Bouncer’s grin cracked his cheeks open, his ham sandwich slices parting to reveal a gold front tooth in an overcrowded mouth. He un-crooked his finger and Kel’s knickers slid slowly off. They were creased like tissue paper she used at Sunday School to mek collage ut Archangel Gabriel. Pavement wa muddy wi half-melted snowflakes and shit off everyone’s shoes.
‘Gerrin, then,’ he said. Done wi her, he motioned tut lads behind.
One hand on her skirt, Kel bent at knees and grabbed her knickers, shoved them back int secret pocket. Wee mixed wi mud and rubbed gritty wet against bag’s fabric lining. She hurried through club doors before they swung shut, cutting off wind and leaving her in a dark foyer. UV strip lights blinked ovverhead, and a set of stairs led up. She could mek out a dud dud bass line vibrating faintly above her.
She couldn’t hear lads laughing no more but tears brimmed at sound of it in her brain. She wanted to go upstairs and find Rach and smoke their fags, but her bag wouldn’t close reyt. She pulled at zip wi trembling fingers but her knickers were caught in its teeth, slash of blue trim poking out.
‘Ay up, Fanny Flaps.’
Kel sucked her stomach in and looked up. ‘Alreyt, Ando.’ He cem down stairs toward her, and flesh on her arms tightened wi goosepimples. He hadn’t been int queue laughing. He hadn’t sin what happened outside. She shoved both palms ovver her bag, covering place where pocket gaped open.
‘Fried eggs med it in, then,’ he said, closing his hand around Kel’s left tit, squeezing like Kel reckoned you’d squeeze an old-fashioned car horn. She couldn’t push him off because her hands were glued tut bag, concealing her knickers. She dint know what would happen if he grabbed her fanny again, if this time his fingers slipped beneath skirt hem, found nowt but her skin. Her heart banged around inside her like Mam’s new jack russell, slamming into kitchen cabinets whenever doorbell went.
‘I wunt bother,’ Ando said, nodding ovver his shoulder at stairs. ‘It’s shite tonight. Nowt but babbies.’
Ceiling’s UV strips seemed to light their faces from below, casting hot white under their chins. He thrust a scratchy summat down into her boob tube and brushed past her back ontut street. Sweep of frozen air before door banged shut behind him. Kel shivered int half-dark and looked down. Tucked into her top, a scrunched up ten pound note. Below that, her knickers winked between her fingers a fluorescent glow. She brought thumb to chest, found V, pressed down. Her left nipple burned where his fingers had pinched and she wondered if tomorrow she’d find a starfish-shaped bruise.
Photograph © Martin Deutsch