An extract from Tom Benn’s fourth novel Oxblood, published by Bloomsbury in April 2022
But that spring she was fourteen and would do anything. She would take off her knickers and gift them to him there if he asked her. She slipped out of the now to imagine this and her smile went, her whole face slack as he talked at her muted. His talk blew cool and stale. It rushed up her neck and reached her nose. The smell of menthol cigs brought back her hearing. He was laughing so she laughed along. This was upstairs towards the back of the bus that leaned out of town on a blood-hot Sunday in March of ’84, at teatime, quarter full, a weird red sky at Jan’s window, clouds like babies’ fingers. Below, as the bus wound her home, were cars and streets and shuttered shops and pavements of lugging, stooping, strutting funny-peculiar people – things that meant summat to Jan, but she wasn’t sure what, even though she was mithered enough to recognise when she felt it. Yet whenever she turned to see town from a bus window her gaze would drift up. She chased between buildings, checked if the sky had a colour.
And then he’d got on alone two stops after them and she had looked out at town and looked up and down and seen nowt and looked harder when he sat opposite her, and then in front, making her feel all things at once since he was black and beautiful, since he turned and spoke to her. He was old: seventeenish. He lived in Longsight so was getting off again soon.
Ten stops about. Jan counted them.
She watched him talk and shook her head. She answered back, sweating. Her eyes wouldn’t roll at his teases – of the ones she heard she’d heard before – and were tearing up. His features went runny. Her feet kicked for him whenever she made him laugh. White thighs glued to the prickly fur of the bus seat; her left hip jabbed Alice’s right. Tiny Alice, trying hard: kohled, earringed, sitting bolt straight next to her, for once not drowsy but shy and wary, even with head hair as short as the bus seats’. He ignored Alice, for now, whose chest was bigger but disguised thank fuck by a stripy lad’s shirt lifted from a box of swag outside a shut Oxfam, two Sundays gone. Jan’s red Benetton pinched from the same box. It was clinging to her front now with sweat and tugging. Her white shorts were once Alice’s. They’d finished long on Alice’s legs – legs now bruised into the aisle by Jan’s. In Alice’s mouldy bedroom Jan had made her cut the white shorts. Although Alice’s mam was unshockable and a decent seamstress she’d been out for the night and Jan had mithered till Alice cut them herself. She cut them so fast and high she snipped the pockets and wouldn’t wear them again. But they fitted Jan just right.
By now Jan could only breathe short. The bus hissed and voices ran upstairs. He looked round at who’d got on and she re-posed and pulled her Benetton tight to offer herself as he faced back.
‘D’yever go Caribbean Club?’ he said.
‘Fridays are dead good. Have I seen yous there?’
‘Might have.’ She split her white thighs and put her hands in the hot space. Then she straightened her arms, shifting most of her weight and rocked forward. He was already leaning over his seat and his menthol cig-smell rushed her again. She tasted it. She wanted to lick the day’s grease from his face. The bus bounced past Ardwick Green, accelerated in fits; she toppled back into her seat; he finished whatever he was saying and watched her, watching how things settled.
In this Jan showed him that these pale Wythenshawe girls had bloomed early, and that this was accidental only in Alice, who was still indifferent to her own power and not quite afraid of it or able to direct it, which neutered her to some lads, Jan had noticed, and for others doubled Alice’s power over her own. So Jan grinned at him still and grinned in pain.
‘How old a’you two, then?’
Alice looked at Jan. Jan refused to look at Alice.
‘Have a guess,’ Jan said.
‘. . . Seventeen?’
Her ribs swelled apart with pleasure. Things inside her unhitched.
Jan breathed just fine.
Jan could have him.
Jan would have him.
‘This is me next. You and all.’
She drummed his seat with more kicks.
‘. . . Jan?’ Alice whispered close.
‘How you gunna get back? When your mam rings us, what am I saying?’
But the bus hissed and he stood and she stood and she knocked past Alice’s bruised legs, grinning back: ‘See yous tomorrow then, yeah? Ta-ra.’