Find a partner . . . are you kidding me?
The tall woman from administration smiled at each and every one of the hundred or so new students now gathered in the rather musty gymnasium, the sporty odour only barely masked by the liberally scented cloud of Paco Rabanne’s Pour Homme and The Body Shop’s White Musk that hung in the air. She handed out large sticky labels for them to write their names on and pop on their chests. She then told everyone to find a partner.
The instruction was added almost casually, something so incidental it required no more build-up than that; whereas in reality the very idea of trying to seek out a partner among these strangers was enough to send sixteen-year-old Rae-Valentine into a spin. She leaned back against the wall and tried to hide her nerves, though she felt like throwing up.
‘Anyone will do,’ the tall woman yelled, encouragingly. ‘Don’t overthink it, just grab someone, anyone! Shake their hand and introduce yourself and share some fun facts!’
The college induction was turning out to be one of the worst days imaginable. Grab a stranger? Shake their hand? Exchange fun facts? She was certain Debbie-Jo, her gregarious older sister, would thrive in this environment, probably pirouetting around the room and delivering her fun facts through the medium of song. But Rae wasn’t sure which part filled her with the most dread – touching a stranger or trying to think of fun facts. Either way her heart beat loudly in her throat and her legs felt like jelly.
It was Debbie-Jo’s words that came to her now, uttered on a dull afternoon over a decade ago.
‘There are only two sorts of people, Rae,’ Debbie-Jo had informed her, as Rae sat on her bed, watching her big sister, who, with their mum’s make-up mirror propped on a stack of books, brushed her thick, dark hair, practising how to twist it into a tight bun for when she was a prima ballerina. ‘Those who are memorable and those who are not. It is important in a sea of people to be the one everyone remembers, the one who stands out in the middle of the room, the star; otherwise you might as well be like furniture, the girl in the corner. And who wants to be that? No one. That’s who.’
The words had crystallised in Rae-Valentine’s mind, forming a fragile platform on which her confidence would teeter for a lifetime. As she clung to the wall and eyed the sea of people, she spied the exit and wondered if she could make it without being approached. She was in half a mind to grab her bag and run, to simply go home and tell her mum and dad she had had a change of heart and that college might not be for her after all.
She watched as people darted about in front of her, running this way and that, seeking out those who had earlier caught their eye. Pretty, fashionable girls now linked arms with their lookalike counterparts, giggling with relief that they were among their own, manicured kind. One self-assured, good-looking boy with a New Romantic-style haircut and a smidge of kohl around his eyes sauntered up to a confident-looking, trendy girl wearing a bunch of Madonna-inspired bangles, his hand extended. Rae couldn’t help but imagine what their kids might be like: world leaders, probably, with long fringes, firm handshakes and eyeliner.
As she considered this she caught the eye of a girl with a shock of red, backcombed hair and severe make-up. She was striking, her features big, a fleshy nose, pillowy lips and wide eyes. Rae would not have described her as pretty, but she was certainly memorable and that, in her book, was just as attractive – and, according to Debbie-Jo’s worldview, a lot more important.
The girl approached with an outstretched hand, against which Rae anxiously slid her shaking palm, and pointed at her large sticky label, which read simply ‘Dolly’.
‘My name is Dolly Latimer, I’m sixteen and you look like the only other person in this room who thinks this whole introduction thing is as lame as I do. I saw you looking for the door and so I picked you.’ The girl was loud, and Rae blinked rapidly and stepped back in response. ‘Fun facts: I am planning to lose my virginity within the next few weeks to the most gorgeous boy you have ever met. His name is Vinnie and he’s twenty and has his own car. And another fun fact would be that during her whole welcome speech, I fantasised about taking lanky admin woman’s clipboard and whacking it over the top of her head.’
Rae placed her free hand over her mouth to stifle her laughter and looked at the girl.
‘Now it’s your turn!’ Dolly Latimer instructed. She gave a maniacal grin while still pumping her hand up and down.
‘Oh! Okay, well, my . . . my name is Rae Pritchard.’ Rae faltered. ‘Rae-Valentine, actually, but no one calls me that, not really.’ She cursed the dryness of her mouth, which was making her words sound sticky as they left her lips. ‘I failed my O levels. School wasn’t really my thing – I could never seem to get started on studying, even though I actually found the subjects easy – and time kind of ran out, so my mum and dad have told me to come here to learn typing. I wanted to learn to cook, but they said typing would be more useful.’
Dolly threw back her head and laughed loudly and Rae felt a flush of joy that she was capable of eliciting this response.
‘Jesus, Rae-Valentine! Way to sell yourself! You failed your O levels? Good! O levels – in fact all exams – are shit! And be under no illusion: this college is not the scrapheap for those of us who couldn’t get to university,’ she boomed.
‘It isn’t?’ Rae asked softly, taken aback by Dolly’s loud, loud voice and finally managing to extract her hand and looking around to see if anyone was listening in.
‘Hell, no!’ Dolly shouted. ‘This place is the portal through which we enter as kids and leave as adults with tits, driving licences and typing skills – and we do it without pressure, because no one expects anything from us, meaning we can’t actually fail. This place is fucking Nirvana!’
Rae noticed that Dolly already had tits; and as she looked around the room, taking in the wooden, multicoloured-tape-riddled floor with its myriad scuff marks, the polystyrene-coated, cream-painted ceiling tiles and the blue plastic chairs lined up around the walls, she had to admit it didn’t look like fucking Nirvana. If anything it looked quite depressing; though she had the feeling that with Dolly by her side it would be anything but.
‘You got brothers and sisters?’ Dolly asked.
Rae was sure this hadn’t been part of the task, but answered anyway. ‘One sister, Debbie-Jo, who works on cruise ships. She’s a dancer and a singer. Really pretty. And when she’s not on the cruise ships she works in Woolworths, part-time.’ She smiled at the image of her glamorous sibling, who sent photographs back home of her on a mini-stage with a plastic palm tree, wearing sequinned low-cut frocks and very red lipstick. Her mum propped them up on the shelf in the kitchen above the toaster.
Dolly laughed that rasping laugh again. ‘Debbie-Jo and Rae-Valentine? Are your parents country and western geeks? Please tell me your house is strewn with gee-tars and that your dad plucks a banjo on the porch wearing a cowboy hat and a bootlace tie and your mum has full skirts with petticoats underneath, answers to the name Mary-Beth!’
Rae stared at the girl, who was quite unlike anyone she had ever met before. She thought about their little house in Purbeck Avenue with the paved driveway and her mum’s collection of cement frogs, which lined the path. She pictured the front room, with its mustard-coloured Dralon sofa and two matching chairs and the bookshelf that instead of books housed a collection of glass. Bowls, cake stands, tumblers, all inherited from her gran or her great-aunt Millie or bought on the cheap by her mum from jumble sales.
Not a gee-tar in sight.
‘No, my mum is called Maureen and my dad is called Len, short for Leonard, and they’re not really into country. But they do like Simon and Garfunkel and Bread. They’ve got their cassettes.’
Again for some reason this struck Dolly as the funniest thing ever said. Rae liked the way she felt when Dolly laughed like this: elevated and interesting. This in itself was a rarity for a girl who was used to being in the background, sitting in the corner.
When the induction day finally came to a close, the two new friends sauntered to the bus stop. Rae-Valentine stood at the bus shelter and pushed her hands down into the pockets of her jeans.
‘So,’ Dolly boomed, ‘let’s get straight down to business.’
Rae stared at her. They had been friends for approximately six hours and already Dolly was making plans with an air of assumption that was as flattering as it was enticing.
‘Have you got a passport?’ Dolly asked, prodding Rae in the arm.
‘Yes! That little blue book that means you can leave this bloody dull country and go in search of fun in Majorca!’
‘Yes, my dad’s got it; he keeps them all in his folder in the wardrobe with our birth certificates and stuff.’ Rae looked at her feet, worried that this snippet of information might be the wrong thing to say; afraid that she might be giving too much of an insight into the mediocrity of her very average home life, which she assumed to be in stark contrast to Dolly’s.
‘Good. That’s the first hurdle out of the way.’
Rae would soon learn that this was how Dolly operated, working methodically through any potential problem until all she could see was a shining obstacle-free path towards achieving her goal. And her goal right now was apparently figuring out how she, her new friend Rae-Valentine, Dolly’s brother Howard and his mate Vinnie, the boy with whom she had decided to lose her virginity, could go to her family’s apartment in Majorca for a week without parents. Rae had been abroad only once: a day trip to Boulogne, on a ferry with her family, where they ate proper French bread and stinky cheese on a bench overlooking the beach and her dad did cartwheels in the sand to make them laugh, and all the francs fell out of his pocket and they had to scrabble around on the hard, wet sand trying to find them. She found many more than Debbie-Jo, who was sulking that day because she couldn’t have her ears pierced and wanted to change her name to Barbara Gordon, the real name of Batgirl. Her parents had given a definitive no to both requests.
Going to Majorca felt like an audacious plan, if not impossible. Rae was not allowed to go into town without getting permission from her mum and dad, couldn’t take a bag of crisps from the cupboard without asking, let alone head off to Majorca – with boys! But she went along with it for now, not wanting to be the one to put a damper on the discussion and rather enjoying the plotting, even if it was only pretend.
‘I know!’ Dolly yelled suddenly, leaping up as an idea formed. ‘You could tell your parents that my mum and dad are taking us!’
‘I . . . I’m not sure I could.’ Rae hitched her book bag up on to her shoulder. ‘They are quite strict on the detail; they’d probably want to speak to your mum and dad before deciding if I could go or not, and they’d want to come and wave us off, and would probably write a card to your parents saying “Thank you for taking her” and send sweets for the journey, that kind of thing.’
Plus I could never lie to them! Not about something big like that! Not about anything, really – lying is the worst. Supposing something happened while we were away; supposing they found out? I would not enjoy any trip that was underpinned by such a big lie. I’d be worried sick every single moment I was away . . . scared . . . She rolled her eyes at Dolly to show the crappiness of it all.
‘God. Way too involved. Kill me now.’
‘Yep, way too involved.’ Rae liked this phrase and its use in this context; she stored it away to use with any other words and themes she might pick up from her confident, worldly friend, trying in her head to perfect the languid, indifferent, yet heavily negative tone that conveyed as much as the words themselves.
Rae decided she wanted to be just like Dolly – or more specifically, she wanted to be like the girl Dolly saw her as: funny and confident, the kind of girl who might just be capable of lying to her parents and gallivanting off abroad, to Majorca no less, with Dolly’s brother and her brother’s mate, Vinnie, so Dolly could have sex.
The reality of Rae’s existence, however, was very different.
She might have been sixteen, but she was in fact the kind of girl who felt as if the whole wide world were a party to which she wasn’t invited, a girl who sat between her mum and dad on the sofa, wearing pyjamas her mum had warmed in front of the fire. She was a girl who more often than not went to bed early with a good book. The kind of girl who liked nothing more than the Sundays when they visited her nan and grandad in Essex and enjoyed a roast dinner along with a good reminisce about the old days, poring over the yellowed pages of the photograph albums that contained snapshots of her heritage. Not that her family had done anything remarkable – there were no pictures of Great-Grandad Walter on top of Everest, and her great-grandma Alice had not been a suffragette. But Walter did play the spoons, and there was a grainy picture of them both on the back of donkeys: Weston-super-Mare, she believed, circa 1900. Proof that her ordinariness went way back. She could only imagine Dolly’s reaction were she to find this out.
Kill me now . . .
‘Where is that bloody bus? I am actually going to die if it doesn’t come in the next five minutes!’ Dolly threw her head back and closed her eyes.
‘Yep,’ Rae agreed with one word, while desperately trying to think of something interesting to say.
‘Plus I swear, Rae, if I don’t get to spend time with Vinnie I am actually going to kill myself,’ Dolly announced.
Death, Rae noticed, seemed to be a bit of preoccupation with her new friend. She watched as Dolly took her slender packet of ten Marlboro Lights from her coat pocket and tapped one from the packet into her palm, lighting it with a nifty single strike of a match that must have taken some practice. Dolly took a long, deep lug on the cigarette and handed it to Rae, who hated smoking, hated cigarettes, hated everything about them: the smell, the taste and not least the terrible rasping burn it left at the back of her throat and in her lungs. She took it coolly between her fingers and sucked on it, hoping she hadn’t sogged up the filter – a cardinal sin, apparently. Unable to take the smoke down and speak, like Dolly – a natural when it came to inhaling the noxious cloud – Rae held it in her mouth, trying not to gag; turning her head casually, as if she were looking out for the bus, she slowly blew it out in a plume above her head. She felt cool and she felt older, both things very much on the wish list of this sixteen-year-old girl whose parents were way too involved.
‘Why don’t you just tell your brother you like Vinnie and get him to ask if he likes you?’
‘Are you actually mental?’ Dolly looked at her aghast and Rae felt the flutter of rejection in her stomach. She didn’t want to get things wrong, not in front of Dolly. ‘That’s crazy talk! If I told Howard I liked Vinnie, he would not only take the piss out of me, like, forever, but he’d also tell Vinnie, and the one way to scare a boy off is to tell him that you like him.’
‘So how will he ever know, if you don’t tell him or can’t say?’ It was a genuine question.
Rae watched as Dolly placed the cigarette between her scarlet lips and took another long drag, throwing her mane of Titian hair back in laughter. ‘You crack me up, Rae. You are hilare!’
This, another word to be stored away, was apparently short for ‘hilarious’. Rae smiled. It felt good to be hilare.
‘He’ll know, don’t you worry. At least, he will if I can ever get him to Majorca! The sight of these puppies in a bikini and he’ll be all mine.’ She cupped her breasts over her T-shirt and the two girls howled. ‘I mean come on, Rae, I might not have the face of Madonna, but I have immense bosoms.’
Rae shook her head in mock disapproval.
‘What?’ Dolly stared at her. ‘A girl’s gotta do what a girl’s gotta do!’
Rae stared at the twin humps sitting snugly inside her friend’s V-necked T-shirt and had to admit her bosoms were indeed immense. She hunched her shoulders forward, trying to create some kind of cleavage, but it was impossible; hers were . . . deflated.
‘Bus!’ Dolly called out and stamped her cigarette into the pavement with the pointed toe of her grey suede slouch boots. ‘Right, double dare.’
‘No! No! I don’t want a double dare!’ Rae caught her breath.
‘Yes!’ Dolly screamed. ‘You have to say to the bus driver, “I want to have sex with your brother!”’
‘No way. I’m not saying that!’ Rae felt a blush rise on her cheeks. Her voice had gone up an octave or two.
‘Come on, it’s a dare! It’s being brave and putting something out into the universe and good things will come back to you, like getting to go to Majorca!’
‘Yes, you can! Come on, it’ll be hilare!’
‘No! No way! It won’t be hilare!’ She shook her head and fished in her pocket for her bus pass. ‘I would actually die. You do it!’ Rae felt brave, throwing the gauntlet back to her friend.
Dolly shrugged and hitched her khaki ex-army satchel over her shoulder, waiting on the kerb for the bus doors to wheeze open. She held up her bus pass and looked the elderly driver in the eye. ‘Iwanttohavesexwithyourbrother, thank you!’
The first words, strung together and mumbled, were barely decipherable, but the ‘thank you’ was loud and clear.
‘You’re very welcome, dear!’ The driver smiled, delighted by her manners.
Rae felt the laughter explode from her. With one part nerves and two parts amusement, she shook with tears in her eyes as she held up her bus pass. The driver looked at her quizzically as she scooted past and ran up the stairs to join her friend on the back seat of the top deck.
‘Oh my God! I can’t believe you just did that!’ She collapsed into the seat and the two girls bent double, with their heads touching the back of the seat in front, laughing so hard they could barely catch a breath. The more they laughed, the funnier it became.
‘Stop!’ Dolly yelled, punching her friend on the arm. ‘I am going to wet myself!’
‘Me too! I’m going to wet myself!’ Rae gripped her stomach, trying to think of sad things to stem the hysteria that held her fast.
Over the next three weeks the friends fell into a comfortable routine, and now at the end of another giggle-filled college day they tripped across the pavement laughing, as they did at most things, because nearly everything in their world seemed hilare and it took no more than one word or a particular expression loaded with secret meaning to set them off. They lived wrapped in a giddy bubble of closeness that gave purpose to even the most boring of days and meant that Rae went to bed with a fizz of anticipation in her gut at the prospect of seeing Dolly the very next morning.
Being so very softly spoken herself, Rae thought it probably the plan of the universe to match her up with the very loud Dolly, meaning that the noise they collectively put out into the world was about level. Her mum often commented that she could hear her friend squealing from the moment they got off the bus and all the way to the front door. And Rae liked it, the way they as a duo punched a hole in the quiet, making her mark, she felt, for the first time ever. Part of a team, a twosome.
They walked closely in step, each with a pair of headphones plugged into a Walkman and listening to Black singing ‘Wonderful Life’ on repeat.
‘I have decided I want you to meet my brother,’ Dolly announced, her tone suggesting it was a rare privilege.
‘Who? Howard?’ Dolly had mentioned him the day they’d met.
‘Yes, Howard! Well, it wouldn’t be my other brother, Paul, would it? He’s old and married.’
Rae shook her head, certain her friend hadn’t mentioned Paul. ‘I couldn’t; I’d be too shy.’ She pulled her friend’s arm and looked at the pavement, embarrassed by the idea of meeting the wonderful Howard, whose many qualities Dolly regularly extolled.
Howard is so funny!
Howard is really good-looking!
Howard has met Simply Red, Bryan Adams and the woman who cuts Annie Lennox’s hair!
‘Well, you need to get over the shy, because he is sniffing around Lisa Hopkirk, who is good-looking but dumb; like, really dumb. She is very hair-flicky and she laughs all the time; like, all the time, this little giggle that drives you nuts. I swear you could say, “Oh look, Lisa, your house is on fire!” and she’d do that bloody laugh! Or, “Oh, Lisa, your tits have fallen off!” Hee-hee-hee-hee-hoo-hoo-hoo!’
Dolly’s description made Rae laugh and gave a new sense of urgency to the plan. She might be shy, but she didn’t want the hair-flicking, giggling Lisa Hopkirk getting in there first.
‘Anyway, I’ve already told him all about you.’ Dolly smirked.
‘You have not! Oh my God!’ Rae gasped, horrified and delighted in equal measure. ‘What did you say?’
‘I said you were quiet, pretty and nice and that you were my best mate!’
This description was enough to make her heart swell. ‘I’m not pretty.’
‘You are! Dumbkopf!’ Dolly rolled her eyes. ‘You are beautiful.’
Rae smiled at her friend. ‘What did Howard say when you told him that?’ Dolly had her interest.
‘He said he should probably take you out for a drink and I said he definitely should.’
‘God, Dolly, you can’t go making arrangements for me without checking first! Supposing I don’t want to go out for a drink with your brother? Or supposing I do go out for a drink with him and he is just disappointed and things get messed up and he doesn’t like me or I don’t like him? Then it would make things weird between you and me. I would hate that.’ Rae felt herself getting flustered, knowing that would be the very worst thing. This friendship was as precious as it was all-consuming.
‘I’m not saying that!’ Rae answered with haste. ‘I am not saying no; I am just saying you should check with me first.’
‘I am checking with you now, you wally!’
‘Well, okay then.’ She smiled.
‘So I’ll tell him yes?’ Dolly pushed.
‘If you like.’ Rae tried for nonchalant but both girls ended up squealing with excitement all the way up her mum and dad’s front path.
Her mum opened the door and stood wiping her hands on a flannel dishcloth, sniffing the air. ‘Oh dear, I can smell cigarettes. Has someone been smoking?’
‘Someone probably has, yes,’ Dolly answered instantly, with a pleasant smile and a well-spoken manner that Rae could see left her mum wondering if the girl was being sweet or taking the mick. Her mum shot her a particular knowing look and Rae knew her friend’s behaviour would be discussed when Dolly had gone home. She was, however, thankful that her mum didn’t say anything now, in front of her, as that would be the worst, way too involved. The girls raced up to the sanctuary of Rae’s bedroom.
‘So, back to Howard.’ Dolly sat on the bed with her legs crossed and applied roll-on, strawberry-scented lip gloss from a bottle whose contents, once clear, were now decidedly murky, tinged with the residue of red lipstick. She continued with her matchmaking. ‘It would be so cool if you went out with him, and then me and you and Vinnie and Howard can go clubbing together or whatever. I will marry Vinnie and you can marry Howard and we will be best friends as well as sister-in-laws and we can have our kids close in age and they’ll be cousins and we will be one big happy family and it will be bloody brilliant! Then we can go to Majorca for sex whenever we want!’
‘Yes, but if we are all married, we won’t have to go to Majorca for sex. We will be able to have sex at home whenever we want to.’ Rae kept her voice down; even saying S. E. X. when her parents were on the floor below felt awkward.
‘Good point.’ Dolly nodded. ‘Seriously, though, you are going to love Howard – everyone does. He’s wonderful!’
Rae felt like fireworks were going off in her stomach. She had yet to meet Howard, but the picture her glamorous friend painted more than excited her. It sounded like a wonderful, wonderful life, a million miles away from cement frogs and day trips to Boulogne.
It wasn’t that Rae didn’t love her ordinary family and their modest suburban home – she did. But she knew she was never going to reach the dizzy heights of Debbie-Jo, who worked on a cruise ship that sailed the high seas. They tended not to mention the off-season, when her sister worked in Woolworths; she dated her floor manager, Lee, and the two would spend the evenings on the sofa looking at pictures of Debbie-Jo aboard the cruise ship in her sequins.
Rae-Valentine knew she was different, one of life’s observers. She had spent her first sixteen years on the planet keeping most of her thoughts to herself, never being one to take centre stage, preferring the darker, quieter corner of any room. At least that was what everyone thought; but there were times when she wished she could be a bit more like Debbie-Jo.
Her sister had, throughout their childhood, dressed in a leotard and footless tights with her hair in a side ponytail, singing into a tape recorder or practising her Oscar acceptance speeches in the mirror. Their dad would often have to shout at her to ‘move away from in front of the telly!’ Debbie-Jo would wail and explain, ‘But, Dad, I need to practise my thank yous!’ with a stamp of her foot. ‘Heaven help us!’ he would sigh, and turn his attention instead to his newspaper or simply cock his head and watch the inches of screen visible to the side of his eldest daughter, who with tears streaming down her face would begin – ‘I never expected this! Thank you! Thank you all so much!’ – with a thoughtful, loving gaze at the rolling pin in her hand, a rather skinny Oscar substitute, followed by a grand sweep of her arm around the room, followed by more tears. ‘I would like to thank my mum, my dad and my agent; my amazing boyfriend, David Cassidy . . .’ Rae-Valentine noticed she never made the list. It didn’t matter; Rae loved her regardless. In fact she loved her whole family very much. But Dolly’s family? They were a whole new kettle of fish.
Rae’s dad, Len, drove a Vauxhall Nova and worked for British Telecom. He was a man who lived cautiously with the central heating on a strict timer; his insurance/TV licence/car-tax renewals were red-ringed on the RNLI calendar on the kitchen wall and he refused to eat out in restaurants other than when on holiday, as it was ‘a bloody waste of money’. Her mum, Maureen, was less cautious, but lived quietly and in judgement of anyone whose life differed too much from her own – and not just in the big things. Rae had seen her look bemused at her own mother when she expressed a desire for mashed potatoes instead of roast one Sunday. It was as if Rae could read Maureen’s thoughts: Mash? On a Sunday? What on earth is the world coming to? It made Rae smile and made her sad; she didn’t want to see inside the mind of her mum, who thought spaghetti Bolognese was the pinnacle of sophistication and who, like her husband, felt a flare of panic if there was a diversion to their routine.
Dolly’s family, by comparison, lived in a large sprawling house – with a swimming pool, no less! They owned three restaurants, an apartment in Majorca . . . It wasn’t only what they had, not only the stuff that impressed Rae; it was also how they lived. She had heard Dolly swear in front of her mum, Mitzy, saying ‘shit’, ‘arse’ and ‘arsehole’ on more than one occasion without her mum even raising an eyebrow. Why, this family, the Latimers, in comparison to her own, were rock stars – and Rae-Valentine, who didn’t have the confidence to cheek a bus driver let alone say ‘arsehole’ in front of her mum, wanted nothing more than to be a part of it.
‘We will need to plan when we have sex so our kids are the same age.’ Dolly broke Rae’s thoughts, drawing her back to the topic in hand. She pressed her lips together and smudged her lip gloss into place.
Rae looked at her and wrinkled her nose, still a little unsure about the whole sex thing; kissing with tongues still felt like a big deal, never mind anything more.
‘Oh my God!’ Dolly yelled. ‘You will have to say “Iwanttohavesexwithyourbrother” for real!’
And just like that, at the mention of that hilare afternoon on the bus, the two were reduced to giggling wrecks, with tear-smeared, foundation-streaked faces, as they bent double and laughed until they cried.