RISE UP SINGING, An excerpt from a novel
A text by the 2014 Sozopol Fiction Seminars fellow Anna Wood
You do get hot summers in Bolton and we had one that year, for weeks on end as I remember it, although it may just have been a fortnight or so. This was a Friday so we had double English that afternoon with Mr Howard. Lisa and Claire had both had a full tab, but Janey and I had just taken half each.
"Who or what do you think is causing the friction here between Jane and Elizabeth?" asked Mr Howard. His hair was aglow and the walls pulsed gently.
Lisa put up her hand but then pulled it down slowly and shot it up in the air again. She did this a few times, mesmerised. Claire sat to Lisa's left, giggled and swooned.
"Lisa," said Mr Howard. An acknowledgement of her pumping arm.
"Mr Rochester," said Lisa, beaming.
It was impossible to know whether she had forgotten Mr Howard's name or whether she was simply talking about the wrong book.
Claire was stroking her copy of Pride and Prejudice and crying. "There's no need for any of this," she said, her voice quiet and bleak.
"Sir," my voice came out too loud. "I'm taking Claire out of class. She's not well."
But then the bell went, and class was over anyway. I had no idea where those 80 minutes had gone and suspected the clock or the school or the bell of some mean trickery. Janey and I were free now, heading away from our classes and classmates. We were only a little bit trippy – my ears were slipping gently and endlessly towards my neck, while Janey kept tapping her arm with her forefinger to see if it was solid. We waited 10 minutes or an hour for the bus then started walking into town, down long empty Deane Road. The pavement smelled dusty in the sun, the terraced houses were red and warm. We waved at cars, who occasionally honked back at us, and we sang "Say it's only a paper moon," at a passing Volvo Estate, "Hanging over a cardboard sea," at an XR2i. We'd been playing my parents' Ella Fitzgerald CD for weeks, all sophisticated.
It was so hot that we directed our feet to the shady side of the street, and even then we felt we ought to twist our T-shirts at the front and tuck them over into the neckline, our 16-year-old midriffs in the open air and our 32A bras showing.
Before we got as far as town there was Toys R Us, all solid and primary colours by the roundabout. A world of adventure.
"We'll go and play," I told Janey. "We won't steal anything."
Inside we found a corner with no apparent staff and mounds of plush, squidgy dogs and rabbits and cats. I plunged my arm into a pile of white puppies, right up to my elbow, and felt the softness and warmth. I compared my skin, the tiny criss-crosses and hairs, to the gleaming, lifeless fabric of the toys.
"Everything that is good smells and moves," I told Janey, hugging her, smelling her.
We gave the little circling helicopters a wide berth on the way out and ran the last five minutes into town. Sitting in the square, panting, I tried to work out where my lungs were.
"Higher than you probably think," Janey informed me. "Way up here," she patted my shoulder, more or less. "Remember you've got to have room for your liver and your stomach too, they're all protected behind your ribs."
I was besotted by the earnest teacherly tone in Janey's voice, but I knew better than to think for too long about my internal organs after taking acid. We sat there on the steps in front of the town hall, in the full sun, watching Bolton. We tracked cute boys across the square, gazed all giddy when Neil Curtains and Hot Colin, sitting on a bench just outside Superdrug with their legs sprawling, took off their T-shirts, stretched their arms along the back of the seat and let their heads loll back, eyes closed to the light. Their necks were muscly, lumpy invitations, curving and throbbing. All warm.
"Should we eat soon?" Janey asked.
"I've got spliff at home." I had most of a bag left in my sock drawer, although my house was a bus ride away. "How can we get there?" The journey for a moment seemed unthinkable, and then we forgot that it was.
We walked part of the way, through the park making a list of the worst haircuts in history, and which character from EastEnders, if we really had to, we would shag.
"Roly!" I shouted, to make Janey laugh, and it did.
When we saw the 617 coming we ran and caught it, the day still bright but now not warm enough for our silly bellies. We pulled our T-shirts back down, winked at a small grey-haired woman, felt rude, smiled.
"You'd know the world had been taken over by aliens," explained Janey, "If people got on the bus and filled up the seats in order, from the back corner, you know, one seat at a time."
Two girls who'd left our school the year before, dyed hair and Doc Martens, got on and gave us glancing smiles. Approval. They held on to the pole by the pram space, leaned back and swung gently.
My parents weren't home but we went straight up to my room anyway, stopping in the kitchen just to take a packet of chocolate digestives from the cupboard and to lift Clementine, our ginger cat, from the sofa.
"Who's got better coloured hair?" Janey asked, lying on my bed and tugging on her own copper hair, draping it over Clementine’s head to give our cat a kind of toupee. Janey's hair used to change colour, quite dramatically and quite naturally – it was brighter in the summer and some kind of red forest universe in the winter.
"Can you still feel that trip, Janey?" I didn't mind that mine was gone, as long as Janey's had too.
"My arms feel kind of stretchy," she observed, extending an arm and contemplating its length, her fingers playing an invisible keyboard. "But maybe they just are a bit stretchy. It's time for some alcohol anyway."
So we got ready to go out with a bottle of Cointreau from downstairs sitting on my table next to the stereo and the moisturiser and the make-up. We took sticky sips and had quick showers and decided what to wear (Janey borrowed my white jeans again). It was a gentle excitement. We were in no hurry because the night was waiting for us, full of people and music and happy unknowns.
We got off the bus a stop early when we went back into town, so we could go to the corner shop and buy a flask each of Pernod – £4.49, fits into the back pocket of your jeans and tastes good poured into a pint of blackcurrant for 50p behind the bar at Fifth Avenue.
After opening the Cointreau we never did have that spliff at my house, so we decided to take another half tab each before we went in. "Let’s not get fucked," Janey said. "But let's get a bit fucked."
The entrance to Fifth Avenue had two bouncers, just inside the main door, and then you pushed through big silver doors into a dark room with low ceilings and lights, blue, red, green, yellow, jerking and swinging across the people.
What do I remember? That night, or maybe another night, I danced to Sylvester with a man I didn't fancy but who danced all fast and hips and fun. I kissed a man called James with long curly hair who was at least 25. Which was old. I told him it felt like a film-star kiss, which meant, "Why didn't you put your tongue in my mouth? Idiot." Leanne was there with Unsy and Unsy's mate Clive. Clive talked a lot. He looked like a lizard, his eyes swung in their sockets and his skin was leather. While he talked, sitting down on the floor in the back of the room, the fire extinguisher behind him whispered over his shoulder, making it difficult to concentrate on whatever Clive was saying. The toilets were busy and we were desperate so we peed in the sinks. No one minded. Then later I went to the toilet again with Leanne's little brother who had cocaine. I thought he might kiss me but we just took the drugs. Christine and Rhona from Canon Slade didn't talk to me. They never liked me or Janey but I don't remember why.
Then "Let's go home," Janey said, and we did. It was a few years later that we got into the habit of staying to the end, or some way past it. On this night, we left early so we could miss the cheesy last song and get chips in pitta over the road without having to queue.
Anna Wood is a copyeditor for music and film magazines, and a creative writing PhD student at Goldsmiths in London. She has just about finished her first book, which began life as part of a creative writing MA at the University of East Anglia, and next she's going to write essays and more stories. She looks forward to the UK "becoming a fair and fun country again."
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