Eight forty-four, a bleary September sixth. We sat on the low wall outside D12, hands hugging nasty tuck shop coffees buzzing with four sugars each. It was too early. It was always too early. We couldn’t wait for life to never start that early again.
We watched them hurry by; the new kids, the younglings, the fresh crop. They looked just the same as last year. New shoes, snail-shell rucksacks, ties done up to here. Not a threadbare jumper in sight. We watched them peg it to their first lessons, the fear of tardiness and teacher’s wrath written across their red, chubby faces.
We wondered how long it would be before their bags shrunk, their ties dropped, their feet dragged behind them.
Before they became like us.
Maybe they wouldn’t. Maybe they were too far gone to be saved.
I mean, God: did we ever look like that?
She sat on the green plastic bench, watching buses splash past, and eating cold curry with a chip shop fork. Her eyes moved left to right, right to left, her hands shivered as the fork was filled, lifted, emptied, and filled again.
Black hair and black skirt whipped about her in the wake of the number 28 bus. She ignored them, kept picking at her curry. Rain stormed down onto her bare shoulders, her arms, the ankles exposed by the wayward skirt, but still she would not stir for it. Perhaps she didn’t even notice.
She sheltered her cold curry under the wide red brim of her hat. Rain rushed down her back, but her curry at least was dry. Perhaps that was all she cared about.
Fill, lift, eat, repeat.
‘Water!’ I gasped.
The barman couldn’t hear me, but he knew by the look on my face what I needed. He knew by the sweat rolling off my forehead, shining back the rainbow of lights overhead like petrol on the road.
I necked back my water and called for another. The sharp stab of ice in the back of my throat was heaven after the press of the dancefloor. I didn’t belong out there, in the Turkish bath of sweat and sambuca, where bodies writhed to a soundtrack of thudding kicks and cries of ‘Banter!’
I should have stayed at home, had some cocoa, gone to bed. ‘Go on, come out,’ they pleaded. ‘Live a little, you might enjoy it!’ How could anyone enjoy this?
I went back in to find my friends, to call it a night.
I told them I had work in the morning.
‘Don’t look!’ Jenny slapped away Claire’s hand as it reached for the mirror.
‘But I want to see it!’
‘You can see it when it’s done.’ Jenny rinsed her cloth and dabbed at Claire’s neck. The dye turned her hands as red as a surgeon’s. ‘Just give me a minute,’ she chirped, ‘and you’ll be as ginger as a Weasley.’
Claire’s heart skidded over a beat; her fingernail slowly scratched the arm of her chair. ‘I asked if you could do auburn, not ginger!’
Jenny paused. ‘Isn’t auburn just French for ginger?’ With a flourish she wiped off the last of the spilled dye from Claire’s neck and stepped back to admire her work. The red hair made Claire look so pale.
‘All done,’ Jenny said, handing back the mirror. ‘What do you think?’