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Rise Up Singing

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 taken a full tab, but Janey and I had only had 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 started walking into town, down long empty Deane Road, away from our classes and classmates. 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. 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. A tee-kini!

Before we got as far as town, there was Toys R Us, all solid and primary colours by the roundabout. ‘We’ll go and play,’ I told Janey. ‘We won’t steal anything.’ Inside we found a quiet corner with mounds of plush, squidgy dogs and rabbits and cats. I plunged my arm into a pile of white puppies, up to my elbow, and felt the softness and warmth. I compared my skin, the holes and 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 steered well clear of the little circling helicopters on the way out and ran the last five minutes into town. When we reached 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 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, pulled 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.

‘Should we eat soon?’ Janey asked.

‘I’ve got a 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?’ For a moment the journey 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 she did. When we saw the 617 coming, we ran and caught it, the day still bright but not warm enough for our silly bellies. We pulled our T-shirts back down, winked at a small grey-haired woman, felt rude, smiled.

My parents weren’t home. We went up to my room, stopping in the kitchen to get 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 sort 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?’ Mine was almost gone.

‘My arms feel 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 makeup.

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.

We got off the bus a stop early, just outside the town centre, so we could go to the corner shop and each buy a flask 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.

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, and then you pushed through big silver doors into a dark room with low ceilings and lights, blue, red, green, yellow, jerking and swinging.

What do I remember? That night, or 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?’ Leanne was there with Briggsy and Briggsy’s mate Clive. Clive talked a lot. He looked like a lizard, his eyes tick-tocked in their sockets and his skin was leather.

While he talked, he sat 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 he 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. We left early so we could miss the cheesy last song and get chips in pitta over the road without having to queue.

The taxi place was quiet too. It was still warm and two drivers sat outside, smoking and watching the drunk people. ‘Where you headed, girls?’ I don’t recall his face but the sight of his belly, just the pale hairy roll of it between his T-shirt and jeans, lodged in my brain.

‘Markland Hill,’ Janey told him. She was not entranced by the belly but was stroking the front of her face as if it was a cat. ‘Just by The French Arms.’

‘That whole street was bombed years ago love, in the war.’ Not a glance to his mate, not a snigger, nothing. ‘We can’t take you there.’

Janey swung round, chin tucked down, and linked her arm into mine. She steered me away, taking short, fast strides. ‘What’s he on about? Wanker. He knows we’re fucked.’ She began to laugh, and I did too. We were singing again, ‘Summertime!’ Yelling really, at the stars and the chimneys. ‘And the living is e-e-e-easy!’ The thought of jumping fish made me itchy with pleasure. We were, I suppose, higher than the cotton. ‘My daddy is quite well off,’ I admitted to Janey. ‘And my momma is well fit,’ she said.

I started to cry when I remembered that this was the song my parents used to sing to me when I was very small. I felt lucky, I think, and guilty. I felt something, and I didn’t want it to be nothing just because I’d had some drugs. Janey sat down next to me on the pavement. ‘You’re a good girl,’ she told me, stroking my shoulders, squeezing me. ‘We’re good girls.’

For a minute I thought the growling was Janey, trying to make me laugh. I growled back, and she said, ‘What are you growling at, dafthead?’ Then, like slow-motion cartoons, we turned round to see a dog just behind us. Growling. He was just behind a fence, too, which was good news because he was a dog that looked like a furry muscle with teeth. The fence was tall.

‘Dogs know when you’re tripping,’ whispered Janey. This is true, I thought. The dog knows. He was in a frenzy of growling and twitching now. He was headbutting the fence. Janey had a look of delighted horror.

‘Just slowly walk away,’ I told her. This was a serious situation requiring a serious voice. The dog stopped growling, watched us clinging together and shuffling down the pavement. Then we saw that the gate was wide open.

‘Ha!’ Hysterical air shot from Janey’s mouth. ‘Fence high,’ she said to me. Whispered. ‘Gate open.’

‘Fence high,’ I repeated. ‘Gate open.’ We swerved into the road, across to the other side, did not look back, and ran. The dog was probably inches from us, perhaps jumping at our backs. We kept on up the street and home.

My mum and dad had left the hall light on for us. I unlocked the back door, enjoying the fit of the key in the lock, thinking about metal and wood and hinges and the weight of things. Janey was thinking about the dog. ‘Fence high,’ she repeated. ‘Gate open. Fucking hell.’

‘Fence high,’ I said, putting my hands up in the air to demonstrate.

‘Gate open,’ I stretched my arms wide and pulled a silly face of panic.

‘Shhhh!’ Janey told me, giggling, and we went in. Kettle and sofa and telly. Janey would sleep in the spare room same as usual. I had a pair of pyjamas that I didn’t wear anymore because I thought of them as Janey’s pyjamas.

While I made us Horlicks, Janey sat on the kitchen floor in front of the open fridge. She scooped houmous from a tub into her mouth, using two fingers. I whispered to myself, ‘Fence high. Gate open.’ In the next room, The Twilight Zone was just starting.

Then my dad appeared at the kitchen door in a T-shirt and boxer shorts. He blinked and shrank a little from the light. I was still lost in the magic of how kettles know when to turn themselves off. Janey was humming to herself, although there was no tune as such.

‘Did you two have a good night?’

‘Yes, Mr Marshall!’ sang Janey. She straightened her back and waved the tub of houmous as if it was proof of all the fun we’d had.

‘Yes, it was fab,’ I said, teaspoon clinking on the mug.

‘Good stuff. Sleep tight, then.’ And he stood for a couple of seconds in the doorway, his head tilted to one side, smiling.

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