by Amy Slack

1.

WE SLIDE INTO the pool, the water belly-warm and singing with chlorine, in costumes our mothers made us wear to school beneath our uniforms. Our hair is tucked into rubber caps that pucker like the nape of a bald man’s neck. It is our choice, Mr Golightly tells us, whether we sink or swim. Instead, we choose to float, arms spread open like Jesus on his cross. Those of us who have not yet learned the rough value of a razorblade dare to spread our legs as wide as Mr Golightly instructs us. Bubbles dance beneath our bodies, struggling to be free.

Three girls sit on the benches, pleading their tampons in red P.E. shirts.

There are boys in the pool too. We open our eyes underwater and watch them in their shorts: chests rib-bare or plump with fat, backs long or short or knobbled of spine, legs treading water with inelegant kicks. Divorced from heads that belong to the air, their bodies are alien to us.

One pair of eyes stare back, unblinking. He kneels on the pool’s tiled floor, among the unstuck plasters and fists of hair. One hand raised in greeting; his fingertips are aged with water-wrinkles. Older than us, older than the boys above whose legs kick through him. He opens his mouth and no bubbles emerge.

The water releases us. Our limbs are heavy and the air makes us shiver. Mr Golightly tells us to be quicker, quicker. He knows what girls are like.

We do not know how the boys towel themselves off and change into their uniforms so quickly. All we know is that we struggle with our skin: drying it, concealing it, feeling it resist as we drag knickers and trousers over pool-damp flesh. One girl’s towel falls and we see what we are meant never to see. We laugh. It comes out of us like a tremor, then a quake, until Mr Golightly rattles the door that protects us and warns that we are late. She will forever be known as the girl who exposed herself. We are eleven, some of us twelve, and we do not know what forever means, but we know that it is easier to give voice to cruelty than to admit to ourselves what we saw beneath the surface of the water.

2.

On the road between the hostel and the town stands an abattoir; beside the abattoir, a pet shop. We point and laugh each time we pass. C’est absurde, we say; and then, because the language needles its way into our throats, we conjugate ourselves into the absurdity: nous sommes absurdes, elles sont absurdes. Je suis. Tu es.

Our mothers pressed mobile phones into our hands before we boarded the coach, insisting we call if we found ourselves in trouble. What kind of trouble a mother could mend from another country, we did not know. Still we took them, and then Miss Mulgrew took them from us, dropping them one by one into a box she had brought especially for the purpose. If our mothers called, she said, she would be the one to answer.

Lights out. We creep through the hostel’s corridors, our feet double-socked to muffle our step and keep out the chill. We gather in the bedroom at the furthest end of the corridor, as far as we can roam from Miss Mulgrew’s alert ears, though we suspect she pays little heed to what girls do with one another. So long as we do not step past her door and down the stairs to meet with boys in shadowed spaces, she will sleep easy, our uncharged phones tucked beneath her bed.

Our voices mingle in the dark, finding new ways to whisper while still being heard. Someone suggests a game of truth or dare. Its potential sits potent between us, the thrill of what we may ask one another knotted with what we fear may be asked of ourselves.

This is what we learn: two girls hate their mothers; three, their stepfathers. One wears second-hand knickers, boiled—we are told—of all trace of their former life. Eight have been kissed by boys; three, by men. Two girls kiss one another for a dare, although the darkness is so complete it would be impossible to know how many kisses were shared in that room. Three have acne so painful, they have begged their doctors to help; one has been prescribed the pill. She promises it tastes sweet. Four have not yet bled. Two claim to have touched, and to have been touched in return. Another would rather eat a tube of lipstick than confess to anything; the crimson will stain her teeth for the rest of the trip, no matter how hard she brushes.

We are not friends in daylight, but here—in the room, in this country, in these dark hours that fold between sense—we can be something else. Nous sommes absurdes. We lose our names, ourselves. We do not notice that there are more voices in the room than there are bodies to contain them, that we hear truths spoken with something other than breath. We are twelve, some of us thirteen, and we dare to believe that a secret, once shared, will trouble us no more.

3.

They tell us we must make choices now. There is only so much a mind can hold, and we must decide where our passions lie.

No: not our passions, not completely. It is fine to dream, we are told, so long as we keep our feet planted firmly on the ground. We may choose one creative subject—music, art, drama—but no more. Let the rest be sensible, in preparation for sensible futures. Miss Mulgrew hands each of us a slip of paper, a list of boxes waiting to be ticked. The sheets hot from the printer, and ever so crisp; more than one of us loses a drop of blood from the clean bite of a paper cut.

A sensible future can only be built upon a sensible present, and so it is easy to see, looking around the room at one another, who among us will succeed and which of us will fail. See the girl in the corner, her hand resting upon his thigh where she thinks no-one will notice: she knows passion. See the girl with her hair cast down, the love-bite across her throat: she has known passion, too. There is no future to be had in passion.

Most of us, those without passion, have had their mother sit down beside them upon their childhood bed and instruct them about boys, about men. Though we know all of this already (and much more besides), we listen mutely and nod, bilious at hearing such things come from a motherly mouth.

Think, our mothers say, think on that girl in the year above, the one whose belly swelled and swelled beneath her school jumper until her seams began to burst. Or the other one—before our time, or so we’re told—who fell in with the wrong crowd and found that her passions were limitless, stretching far beyond the physical. Think of her poor mother, to find her own daughter so cold and still.

Such a shame, they say. So much potential, but so little sense.

We have all heard our mothers say these things, all the while searching in our eyes for some trace of the passions they fear so very much. While they search, we search too. We are thirteen, some of us fourteen, and for the first time we realise that within each mother there is a woman, and within each woman a girl.

4.

The route is set out for us: twice around the football pitch, out through the rear gate, down the lane and through the woods, then back up the main road to the school. Mr Golightly is deaf to excuses, blind to notes signed by mothers or else forged in the scrawl of a non-dominant hand. He knows the dishonesty of girls, how they use their bodies to get their way. He will not hear of cramps, of bleeding, of weak hearts, of fear. He puts the whistle between his lips and blows.

We move as one: red PE shirts, navy shorts, slender-soled plimsolls.

We move as one, but not for long. Time has shaped us differently, and soon divides the lean and slender from the fat and slow. We pass by the boys on the football field, and note how time has changed them too. They stand straight, chests wide and proud, a smirk set firm on each raw, shaved face. We look away.

Rain breaks and cools the flush of our panting cheeks, turns the route to mud. The fastest among us slow their pace as they enter the woods, sensing wolves among the trees. We clot together, watch our step. Our lungs burn and our limbs tremble, and the slip-slap of filthy plimsolls casts beads of dirt up bare, stubbled legs. Though we would never admit it, we are each of us tempted by that generous parting between the branches, the one that promises a shortcut back to the main road. It smiles, baring teeth. How easy it would be to slip away, to break the route Mr Golightly gave us and the rules that our mothers whispered into our bones. How easy to be free.

A flash of red between the branches; the soft crush of leafmould underfoot.

We turn sharp and count heads, but we are weary and do not know how many we are. Less than we once were, certainly. All we can do is press on, follow the route to the road and pray that the trees give back whoever they have taken. We are fourteen, some of us fifteen, and if nothing else, these woods teach us how to run.

5.

Beneath dust motes caught in the sunlight that streams from the high windows of the old sports hall, we write our names, doubt ourselves, check spellings.

We watch the minute hand stretch upwards, wait for the signal.

Begin.

Two hundred chairs protest the glossed floor; beneath our feet lie the faded, bisecting lines of half-a-dozen sports whose languages we do not speak. We hunch over solitary desks etched with the scars of former students. The graffiti is faint, in places scuffed mute by sandpaper, but here and there we see traces of names and dates that thread the decades. Somewhere, within this wood, our mothers’ names.

Behind our backs, unobserved yet observing, the invigilators prowl. Imagine Miss Mulgrew, her lipstick bleeding into the corners of her mouth as she tells you to cough quieter; imagine Mr Golightly’s breath at your shoulder as you ask for another pen. Imagine it.

One desk is unoccupied. The girl’s absence is startling, her seat a distraction as we pour out equations and conclusions upon the page.

It is hot in this space, and as each hour passes we shed more of ourselves, until all that shelters skin from sight are our shirts, shirts which struggle to contain us. See yellow moons under outstretched arms. See the shift of a bra—hot pink—beneath the too-thin fabric. See the wide plane of that girl’s back, studded with droplets of acne-fresh blood.

An empty chair, an exam paper untouched. We see her for a moment: ankles crossed beneath her seat; unwashed hair a curtain over her face; one hand flat against the table with fingers spread wide, as if holding onto the surface. And her pen in her other hand, ballpoint poised over the page, ready.

It is Miss Mulgrew who steps softly up the aisle and, without breaking her stride, takes up the paper. How awfully bare the table looks now.

We turn away. We carry on.

Tomorrow, we will begin the act of forgetting. First our answers, then the questions. We will receive our marks, hoard and recite them; these too, one day, will slip away. We will forget Miss Mulgrew’s lipstick, Mr Golightly’s whistle, the woods, the chlorine, the classes, the crack of the plastic water bottle sipped to suppress a cough, the squeak of a chair against a parquet floor, the answers and the questions, the plimsolls, the boys, the feeling of bodies spread open upon warm, blue water.

Nous sommes absurdes.

We lay down our pens, vacate the sports hall in orderly rows. Those of us who pass by the unoccupied desk find ourselves reaching for it. Our fingertips graze the surface of the wood, but we do not let it break our stride. We are fifteen, some of us sixteen, and what will cling to us from this day, from these days we have all spent together until the days when even our own names will be forgotten, will be the hauntings we have seen and unseen.

oOo

Amy Slack is a writer and editor from the north-east of England. A graduate of Queen’s University Belfast, she has just completed an MA in Creative Writing at Birkbeck, University of London. Her short fiction has been published by Fairlight Shorts, the Mechanics’ Institute Review, and Flashback Fiction, among others. In 2020 she was shortlisted for the Belfast Book Festival Mairtín Crawford Award and the TSS Cambridge Prize for Flash Fiction. Twitter @amyizzylou.