My First Time

by
Soundless and slim, her boyish haircut was blow-dried and fluffy, accentuating the faint buckshot spray of freckles on her bronzed cheekbones.

I was in a South American hospital, waiting to get my ears syringed, when my phone vibrated with one of those messages that makes your heart contract.

“Hi, stranger,” it said, “how are you? ;-)”

On the face of it, perfectly innocuous—except, this was a message from an ex, “reaching out”. She been thinking about me lately, she said, wondering how I was. I felt kind of bad, because I hadn’t thought about her for ten years, and at first, I didn’t even recognise her name. I’m fine, I told her; still alive, living on the other side of the world. She said she was married now (“to The One”) and that she’d recently quit smoking. I congratulated her, and we wished each other well, promising to “meet for coffee or something” when I’m next in London, though it’s doubtful we’ll ever communicate again.

We first met on a quiet, dimly lit cobbled street in Marylebone. She was sitting alone outside a pub, drinking vodka over ice, a cigarette in her other hand. Her platinum hair was bobbed, messy and thick, and her alabaster skin contrasted perfectly with her very plump, very scarlet lips, which had me spellbound. She’d paired a rippling silk blouse with some sort of cropped tuxedo jacket that clearly cost either £1 in Oxfam or £10,000 in Prada. Despite it being ten thirty at night, her eyes were hidden behind jet black sunglasses. I slid onto the bench alongside her, saying, “May I?” and her fashionably bold eyebrows lifted high above her Wayfarers. She twisted round to drink me in. I was about to introduce myself when she said, “What on earth are you wearing?”

I say, “she said,” when what I really mean is, “she shouted”. To this day, I often catch myself turning her opening salvo over in my head as I stare out of windows or measure out coffee grounds. Back then, I was reasonably confident that I counted as cool—chic, even—and her loaded question knocked the stuffing out of me, as it was surely designed to do. I gestured helplessly to my getup: ironic, battered brogues, sans laces or socks; trendy, low-cut T-shirt; casual blazer, short and fitted so that the stitching was straining around my shoulder blades; gossamer-thin trousers rolled modishly above my ankles. Who was this woman and what more could she possibly want?

It turned out she wanted a cigarette. “Do you have one?” she asked in a sharp, performative voice.

I frowned, gazing at her hand, which was ringless and pleasingly elegant. “But you’ve already got one,” I told her.

For a moment, we sat in perfect silence. I couldn’t see her eyes, but I could sense she was watching me as she sucked ravenously on her lipstick-stained Marlboro. “And after this one,” she said, tapping ash into a dirty plastic tray, “I’ll want another.” Which I had to admit made a surprising amount of sense.

“Are we seeing each other now?” she asked two days later, lying in bed with a different cigarette. “Because I think that we’re seeing each other.” Her name was Alex and she was 61 and the last person she was “seeing” ended it because he thought she was too tall. “He called me a circus giraffe,” she said. “But I don’t think giraffes are even in circuses, are they?”

And I said, “He was probably thinking of elephants.”

It was never exactly clear to me what she did. Officially, she worked as “a stylist,” but whenever she’d show me her credited work in obscure fashion magazines, I’d flip through the stories, confused. “But…”

“What?”

“Well, the models…”

“What about them?”

“They’re all— you know, naked.”

And she’d huff despairingly, rolling her eyes at my incurable naffness. “Jesus,” she’d say, lighting another cigarette. “The nipple ring?”

I’d hold the magazine close to my face, squinting. “Oh. That was you?”

“Of course that was me. What exactly is it that you think I do?”

And we’d be back to square one.

When we broke up, one month later, she thought it was because of all the smoking. “It’s not that,” I said. “Honestly, I like that you smoke so much, always.”

She started to cry behind her sunglasses. “I know you do. Most people hate it. Why is that?”

It’s possible, I suppose, that she meant, “Why is it that most people hate that I smoke so much?” but I took her question to mean, “Why do you like that I smoke so much?” Which set my mind racing. We sat across a tiny table in the corner of an Old Street café, drinking coffee like adults and agreeing like adults to stop seeing each other, but my thoughts were now firmly back in my childhood.

I grew up in an Edwardian house with stained-glass windows, an ornate wooden porch and large front and back gardens. Inside, mahogany display cabinets housed my great grandmother’s tea sets, while bookshelves sagged under the weight of leather-bound Regency novels. To a kid in the 1980s, this was all about as cool as those sweater-vested dorks in The Chronicles of Narnia. I was jealous of my friends who lived in flashy, identikit new-builds on private estates. Their forecourts were blue-bricked and floodlit, and to enter their properties, you had to punch passcodes into bleeping, futuristic keypads. Get the combination right, and you stepped into a swank dominion of glass top tables, tinted skylights and basement saunas. One such friend was Jared Chalker, who played a limp left-wing for my Saturday morning football team, but whose modern suburban home looked more like the Manhattan penthouse of a junk-bond financier than a family semi-d in Hertfordshire. The first time I talked to Jared, he made of a point of boasting that his parents had VHS and Betamax. “Which’ve yours got?” he asked, and when I said neither, he called me mentally handicapped. I knew instantly that we’d be friends.

In Jared’s house, stacked hi-fi systems had compact disc laser trays and graphic equalizers with glowing spectrum analyzers.There were satellite dishes on the roof and TVs in every room, from wall-mounted jumbotrons in the soft-furnished, spot-lit lounge areas, to micro Trinitron screens in the state-of-the-art kitchen and five bathrooms. In lieu of a back garden the property boasted an Olympic-size swimming pool that I never once saw anyone use, with a hexagonal, resort-style wet bar on the split-level patio that Jared and I would raid for refrigerated Coke and Fanta, both of which were banned in my house. “That revolting junk will rot your teeth,” my mother hissed. “You’ll drink water and like it.”

At first, I paid Jared’s youthful mother the same amount of attention that I paid anyone else’s mum. Which is to say, zero. Then one day, as if struck by lightning, I developed a crush on Mrs. Chalker quite unlike anything I’d felt before. I’d watch her bringing us white bread sandwiches with the crusts cut off, or glimpse her curled up girlishly on her salmon, shell-shaped loveseat, and wish to God that she was my mum. I liked how she carried herself, how she took care of my silly pre-teen needs with minimal fuss or interest. She had an inscrutable quality. Not thoughtful, exactly; more like there just wasn’t any great need for words. I never once saw her with friends or talking to anybody on the telephone. Soundless and slim, her boyish haircut was blow-dried and fluffy, accentuating the faint buckshot spray of freckles on her bronzed cheekbones. She wore tight, high-waisted jeans, always with bare feet, her long toes painted and impeccable. Occasionally I’d see her run a vacuum over the place, but most of the time she sat smoking Dunhill cigarettes and, according to my investigations, did little with her days beyond return videotapes to the rental store, tan herself on the sunbed in the play den, and read the Sun.

My own mother was large and bossy, a university lecturer with a wardrobe full of woollen Marks and Spencer cardigans, skin that burned pink in the sun, and a hairdo like Queen Elizabeth II. She’d never smoked a cigarette, didn’t allow us to rent videotapes, and read the Times Higher Education Supplement. Smokers, she said, were “filthy, disgusting yobbos.” Videotapes “dirty.” Sun readers “thick as two short planks.”

Once, while she drove me to orchestra practice, the analogue car radio tuned like always to a dreary BBC news programme, I tried explaining to her that I wasn’t much bothered about brains. I’d rather hoped she’d see my side of things, but instead she yanked the volume down and speared me with a sideways glance. “Maybe not,” she said, a distinct note of danger in her voice. “But you will be. Mark my words, buster. You will be.”

I groaned. “Alright, Yoda.” And she lifted one of her hands from the steering wheel of her Mini Metro, using it to belt me round the ear.

It was no surprise, really. Reactionary bigots like my mother couldn’t be expected to understand the enlightened, sophisticated lifestyle I had my eye on. Mrs. Chalker wore tissue thin, cashmere sweaters without a bra, so that the pointy nipples of her hard, tennis-ball-sized breasts jutted through the fabric. For all I cared, the lady could chain-smoke three packs a day and score 48 on an IQ test. She’d catch me ogling her chest and bat her permed eyelashes, smiling sympathetically as I blushed beet red. You couldn’t buy class like that.

Jared’s dad once boasted that he had sex with Jared’s mum every single night. “Did you hear me, boys?” he barked from the front seat of his newest Porsche. “Every. Single. Night.”

It was the first time I’d heard an adult use the word ‘sex’ and I was shocked at how tame it sounded, given all the fuss. “Wow,” I said, unsure what else to say.

Jared gazed vacantly out of the window at the passing fields, his chin resting in his palm as he picked his nose with his pinkie. “Nice one, dad,” he mumbled, reaching back to wipe a bogey on my sleeve. “You told us before.”

“Not him I didn’t,” Mr. Chalker said, meaning me. He admired himself through his amber-lensed Aviators in the rear-view mirror, styling what little hair there was on the side of his head with his fat, stubby fingers. The sleeves of his bomber jacket were rolled up to his elbows and a heavy gold chain-link bracelet slid from his wrist down his forearm. The sunbed had baked his skin the colour of a carrot.

At night, I’d lie awake under my space rocket bed sheets in my slatted single bed, lamenting my own parents’ crap choice of cars, while trying to imagine Mr. Chalker having X-rated sex with his wife. I’d wonder what positions they did it in and how long it took. Was it always just the once, or did they sometimes do it ten, twenty, or even thirty times? And what about Mrs. Chalker: was she an active partner, or did Mr. Chalker force himself upon her, like one of the randy gorillas on the nature documentaries they made us watch at school?

For convenience sake, I took to regarding Mrs. Chalker as a victim, trapped in an abusive marriage, silent and sad,desperate to be rescued by a fresh new lover. A young paramour who was not only entirely non-ape-like but scored wicked diving headers for his football team and did rad endos on his chromoly BMX. Me.

One afternoon, after cycling to his house after school, I followed Jared into his parents’ bedroom. “Are you sure we can do this?” I asked, closing the door behind us.

“We’re doing it, aren’t we?” Jared said over his shoulder. “They don’t care.”

The room was warm, airless and impossibly neat. It looked more like a stock photograph of a 1980s bedroom than a place inhabited by living adult humans. The top of the dressing table was bare, and there was no sign of any bins, books, laundry baskets or clothes. Sunrays streamed through the wooden shutters, falling in waves over the burgundy silk-sheets of the king-size waterbed, while the plush cream carpet felt thick and decadent under my socks, like we were walking through cotton wool. Onyx wallpaper featured a geometric finish in shimmering gold, while an abstract nude hung suggestively above the upholstered bedhead. The painting depicted a large-breasted nymph sat astride a headless male torso. The nymph’s head was thrown back in ecstasy, her long curly hair caressing the curve of her buttocks, while electric blue lightning bolts zapped from her nipples.

Committing the scene to memory, I turned slowly away from the bed, pausing outside the en suite bathroom to gawp through the partition at the multiple pastel-coloured fixtures. There were two sinks, a customized steam-shower with bordering benches, a raised corner jacuzzi, a bidet and two toilets: his and hers. But no door.

I closed my eyes, breathing in the heavy scent of pot pourri. The whole set-up was exactly as I’d imagined it.

“Check this out,” Jared said, breaking my reverie.

He pointed a remote control at a built-in wardrobe and its doors glided smoothly open.

“Cool,” I said.

“That? That’s nothing,” Jared said. “Wait ’til you see what’s inside.”

From my vantage point, all I could see were hanging shirts, perfectly folded jumpers and a shelf crowded with gold watches and assorted men’s jewellery. Big deal, I thought. But then Jared pranced over towards the open cupboard, squatting down to reach for something heavy.

“What is it?” I asked. “Do you need a hand?”

“Nah, I’ve done this before,” he huffed. “Loads of times.”

Bent double under the weight of a fat pile of pornographic magazines, he staggered back into the room, arms trembling and short of breath. He dropped the mags, which fanned out over the wobbling bedspread. “See?”

I stared.

“Dad uses them to get mum in the mood,” Jared explained.

Your mum?” I asked.

He pushed his tongue under his lip, slapping his cocked wrist. “Duh! Who else, you spastic? Dad says mum’s well up for it whenever he shows her his collection.”

I thought this over. “How come?”

There was a pause. “Because of all the tits and fannies.”

“Right, but…”

“What?”

“… aren’t these all women?”

“So?”

I shrugged. I had absolutely no idea what we were talking about. “Don’t women like to look at nude blokes?” I ventured.

“How should I know?” Jared said. “Dad says it makes her horny. Then she’s wet and ready to get bonked.”

It sounded complicated. I didn’t know about Mr. Chalker and his wife, but when it came to me and Mrs. Chalker, I’d pictured our lovemaking as purer, somehow. Less reliant on pictographic assistance. Not that I had anything against the pornos. They looked like good ones to me.

“Dad’s got everything,” Jared said proudly. “Playboy, Penthouse, Knave, Mayfair, Club—even a Razzle. Check these ones out.”

We sat cross-legged on the bed as he showed me a curated selection of his favourite spreads, explaining his choices in commendable detail. I listened and learned, utterly rapt, agreeing that he had tremendous taste. “So, which birds do you fancy?” he asked, putting me under significant pressure. The models all had golden skin, red lips and V-shaped pubic hair. More often than not, they were glistening wet, with firm, goose-bumped breasts, and the best were shot beside or in swimming pools. I didn’t mention it to Jared, but the geography of their underparts came as a bit of a surprise; I’d imagined the hole to be more to the front, less directly between the spread-eagled legs. But whatever. I was thinking how I’d like to marry two or three of the big-haired starlets someday, once I had pubic hair of my own, when Jared unzipped his flannel school trousers and pulled out his dick.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

“Having a wank,” Jared said, looking at me like I was insane. “Have you ever had one?”

“Of course!” I said, unsurely. “I think so.”

I turned my attention back to a copy of Penthouse, leaving him in peace to uselessly whack away.

Ten or so minutes passed. “How’s it going?” I asked, engrossed in a glossy photo essay starring a busty blonde draped over some sharp-looking rocks.

“Brilliant,” Jared said. He thrust his hand out towards me. “Smell that.”

I smelled his fingers. The odour reminded me of athlete’s foot. “What is it?”

“Cum,” Jared said.

“I thought cum was white,” I said, confused. “Like bath foam.”

He shook his head. “Not always. Dad says when—”

The bedroom door opened.

For what seemed an age, there was a stage wait, like someone had forgotten their line. I looked at Jared and he looked at me. Then, to my astonishment, he waved his free hand. “Hi, mum!”

Mrs. Chalker stepped barefoot into the room. She blew her fringe out of her eyes, hands planted on her bony hips. “Just what are you two up to in here?”

I looked at Jared again. “Nothing,” he said, winking at me. “Are we?”

“No,” I said, shaking my head. “Nothing.”

“Come on, put those magazines away,” said Mrs Chalker, fluttering her fingers. She moved forward to gather them up, and almost in a daze, I handed her my open copy of Penthouse, like it was a prayer book. She glanced momentarily at the centrefold, saying, “These are your father’s property—not for you and your friends to play with.” Then with what I thought was a half-hearted tut, she leaned over the bed to tidy the magazines into a pile. I could see all the way down the front of her top. She ignored my rubbernecking, and gave a disapproving sniff at Jared’s rapidly-collapsing stiffy. “What are you so excited about?”

“Nothing,” Jared said, still gripping it.

“Well, you’d better put that away, too.” She shook her head. “Honestly, you boys.”

She turned her attention towards me. I tried smiling, but her eyes strayed downwards to check my fly. It was a seminal moment: albeit one which had played out a little differently in my dreams.

She pointed at my crotch. “I’m glad to see at least one of you has been behaving himself.”

Me? I wanted to cry. I hadn’t been behaving myself — couldn’t she see that? For starters, I’d leered into her bathroom, visualizing her naked and soapy in the jet-powered steam-shower. I’d then spent a quarter of an hour rifling through her husband’s extensive grot collection. After which, when she’d caught us red-handed, I’d stolen the opportunity to peek down her top again.

What more did this impossible woman want?

She nodded at the magazines. “Put all of those back where you found them and come downstairs.” She tutted again. “Really, I ask you.” Then—unbelievably—she beamed at me, exiting the room.

Jared uncorked a world-weary sigh, jamming his willy back into his pants.

“We’re so dead,” I said, suddenly remembering my own mother.

“Eh? Why?”

My mouth fell open, my eyes bulging. I gave a caveman-like grunt as I gestured towards the pornos, then towards the door, then back towards the pornos. “Hello? Are you mental?”

Jared waved his wanking hand. “Frankie say relax. Happens all the time.”

My eyebrows jumped into my fringe. “It does?”

“Yeah. Like, whenever she’s washing my hair. For some reason, I always get a hard-on. And she always says, “What are you so excited about?””

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. “Your mum washes your hair?”

“Yeah, so?” For a moment, he appeared almost self-conscious. Then whatever slight amount of embarrassment he may have been feeling swiftly evaporated, and he grinned toothily. “Want to see something else?”

“I guess,” I said, though I really didn’t.

He leaned backwards, twisting himself like a gymnast in mid-flight double tuck. Rummaging through a bedside drawer, he extracted a long pink dildo.

“Oh my god!” I shrieked. “Whose is that?”

He pulled a face, slapping the dildo three or four times against his wrist. “Duh! Whose do you think, you dopey spaz?”

“Oh my god,” I repeated—this time in an awestruck whisper.

“Want to hold it?”

I nodded madly and he handed it to me, like a relay runner passing the baton. Not knowing what else to do, I rolled it between my trembling fingers, as if it was a fine cigar.

“Why does she need this?”

Jared shrugged. “I dunno. For when dad’s not here, I reckon.” He started to collect up the magazines.

“But I thought they did it every night?” I said, studying the sex toy, which I now held up to my face, like an archaeologist who’d unearthed an ancient occult artefact.

“Dad’s not here in the days though, is he?” Jared said.

I swallowed, the full weight of what that meant washing over me. After returning the various erotic objects to their rightful places, we pounded back downstairs, where Mrs. Chalker fed us cheese sandwiches with the crusts cut off. She said nothing about the scene upstairs, and we ate fast, in silence, gulping our Cokes. A plan was forming in my mind.

Against the approval of my mother, I started spending more time at Jared’s house, inventing all manner of excuses to cycle over there. I’d enter via the side gate and drop my BMX on the carefully manicured grass, next to the topless fountain sprite. Mrs. Chalker would see me and wave for me to come in.

“Hello,” I’d say, kicking off my shoes.

“Hello again,” she’d say, reaching for a cigarette. “Are you here to see Jared?”

I’d shrug.

“He’s upstairs,” she’d say. Or sometimes, “He’s not here.”

Either way, I’d stay.

“Is Mr. Chalker home?” I asked one afternoon, perched in the newly installed breakfast nook.

“He’s at the office,” Mrs. Chalker said.

“All day?”

“All day,” she said, blowing a thin trail of smoke towards the air vent. “Like always.”

I nodded my understanding as Jared walked in on us.

“What are you doing here?” he asked.

“Waiting for you, you Joey,” I lied. “Where have you been?”

For a split second, he looked suspicious. Then his eyebrows began to dance, and he pulled a bag of sweets the size of a kitten from his jacket pocket. “Paper shop.”

I leapt up off the cushioned bench. “Give!”

He danced around me, stuffing one of my sandwiches into his mouth, and we legged it outside to bunny hop and skid our bikes around the parks.

It took me three weeks to perfect my message.

I replaced “I CAN” with “I WILL”, which sounded more explicit. “RESCUE” wasn’t quite right, but “SAVE” I liked. “LOVE” sounded too soppy, and I didn’t want her to think of me as not up to the task. So I went with “TAKE”, which sounded like it meant sex, which after all was the goal here—wasn’t it?

I wrote the words, left-handed, on a scrap of paper—“I WILL TAKE YOU”—and carefully folded it into six tiny squares.

She watched me arrive, as usual, via the side gate. I felt amazingly confident as she smiled, waving me inside. Certain my scheme would work, I left my trainers on the patio, entering the sunroom via the French windows.

“Hello,” she said, barefoot as usual, caught in a sharp diagonal shadow. “Whose house is on fire?”

“Eh?”

“You. You’re all out breath.”

“Oh. I’m just… excited.”

“I can see that. What about?”

“Nothing.”

“A girl?”

“A girl?” I shouted the word. “No!”

She laughed, waving her hands in front of her. “Alright, calm down, I was only asking. Sheesh.”

I was angry now. Couldn’t she tell? I was ready for women, not girls. Well, one woman, anyway, at least. A woman who had turned her back on me and was heading to the kitchen to fetch me sandwiches and a Coke.

I stood motionless, scanning the sunroom. Three ashtrays, homes to small hills of cigarette butts. But no packs of cigarettes. Damn.

I heard her open a can of Coke in the kitchen and toss the ring pull into the bin. “Ham or cheese?” she shouted.

“Pardon?”

“Ham sandwich or cheese sandwich?”

“Both,” I said, not caring.

Then I spotted my target: an open pack of twenty Dunhill tucked into the crevice of the loveseat. In a flash, I whizzed over to grab it. Lifting the lid, I said a quick prayer of thanks and slotted my folded note in front of the foul-smelling, cork-filtered cigarettes.

“What are you doing?”

I nearly tossed the pack against the double-glazed ceiling. She’d floated into the scene like an apparition, demonstrating a lightness of footstep that only made me want her more.

“Nothing.”

“Nothing?” Her eyes fell on my hands. “What are you doing with those?”

“I… wanted to try one,” I said weakly.

She lifted an eyebrow. “Oh?”

“Are they nice?”

She padded over, replacing the pack of cigarettes with the cold can of Coke. “Boys your age don’t smoke.”

“I’m eleven,” I said, as if that meant something.

She stood close now, watching me carefully. “Do you really want to try one?”

I nodded. “Mm-hm.”

“Well, alright,” she said. “I suppose it’ll teach you.”

“Teach me?” I didn’t get this. “Teach me what?”

She laughed to herself. “Not to smoke.”

I took a swig from the Coke can, one eye watching her lift the lid of the Dunhill packet. She pulled out two cigarettes—ignoring, or not spotting, my note.

“Here.” She pushed one of the cigarettes between my lips. The other hung from her mouth. My heart started to race.

Her big eyes probed the room, then she moved with long, playful strides over to a mantelpiece, picking up a slim, gold lighter. “Are you ready?” she said with a mischievous grin.

I wasn’t, at all. “Yes. What do I do?”

“Just relax. I’ll show you.”

She held the flame to my face, her other hand caressing my bare forearm.

“There you go,” she said. “That’s it. Go on.”

The stench was foul. My eyes, already smarting, started to water. I blew outwards. Nothing happened, except for a wet, spluttering noise.

“You’re supposed to breathe in, you silly thing. Suck on the end and inhale. Understand?”

This was news to me. I’d never given smoking much thought, and the prospect of breathing in smoke appealed to me about as much as sleeping on a bed of nails or eating dog shit.

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, I’m sure. You can do it.”

I nodded. Then I sucked and inhaled, as instructed, and immediately crumpled backwards onto the carpet, hacking my insides out. I felt sicker than I’d ever felt in my life. Worse than the time Simon French had explosive diarrhoea in our tent at school camp.

Mrs. Chalker retrieved the burning cigarette and knelt over me, rubbing my chest. “There, you see? I told you. Your first time is never good.”

She lifted my head, cradling me like a child.

“Dearie me, you’re all green.”

“I’m going to puke,” I said, gasping for breath, my face smooshed against her taut left breast.

“Oh no—not on me, you don’t.” She dragged me to the tiny loo hidden under the stairs, where she stuck her hand up my T-shirt to rub my back, saying, “There, there, that’s a good boy, get it all out,” as I heaved violently into her sparkling, jasmine-scented toilet bowl.

I don’t know if she ever found my note. If she did, she never said anything, or gave any sign an eleven-year-old could interpret. For weeks afterwards, I tossed and turned at night, wondering, waiting—and then one day, just like that, I not only forgot about the note, but all about my crush on Mrs. Chalker. In grand tradition, I had moved on, and was now completely obsessed with Lucy Hartwell, who was six months younger than me, and snogged me with her eyes closed behind the bike sheds of her preparatory school. Lucy Hartwell and I made a date to see Teen Wolf Too at the cinema, and I didn’t yet believe in two-timing.

What I do know is that Jared and I had a big falling out one year later. His sudden, violent hatred of me was peculiarly vindictive, and I never got to the bottom of what it was all about. Jealousy, my mother said, but that never made a whole lot of sense. Jealousy of what: our stained glass windows?Jared turned the majority of our mutual friends against me, while I remained blindly oblivious to his plotting. One afternoon, as I cycled around one of the local parks, wondering where everyone had got to, I spotted them racing towards me from all directions, as if in slow motion. It was suddenly so clear to me what had happened, and what was about to happen, that I made only a half-hearted attempt to escape. They chased after me for a while, around the lakes, ducking under branches, dirt jumping over some of the rougher terrain. Then I gave up and skidded to a halt, dropping my bike. I managed to throw a few punches, but after that, beaten to the ground, I felt strangely reconciled to the painful pummelling I had to take, curled up in the foetal position, one side of my face pressed into the cool, patchy grass by a Reebok High Top, the metallic smack of blood in my mouth.

I have only one photograph of us together. It was taken a few years later at a house party in Goff’s Oak that ended up being raided by the police. In the photo, Jared and I have our chests thrust out and our arms wrapped around each other’s shoulders. We’re both holding open cans of Budweiser, and both wearing billowing white shirts, unbuttoned to our navels and tucked into our beltless Levi’s. We’re smiling for the camera best we can, as half-smoked cigarettes dangle uncertainly from our boyish-red lips.

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