Ah, sweet Alice. So long gone now that I’m sure my memory of her, though vivid, is nothing but a mirage, a golden dream, now nothing like the real. Alice Rackham, fiercely bright and all knife-edged bangs and glasses, gingham and mischief. Top of the class in everything, and great at hockey, tennis, netball. Is it any wonder I was hopelessly besotted? All through school I drifted just outside her orbit, the face of my teenage longing turned in toward her, a distant sun. For years I knew not why I found her fascinating – why did I blush that time she spoke to me on the stairs waiting to go up to double maths? By my fourteenth birthday and three years into my infatuation I knew exactly why. It was love of course. The best and purest kind. Unrequited.
Naturally, this being the early eighties, I had considered this no object. So, weaned on a diet of knights-errant and faint hearts that never won fair ladies and the curled insolence of Han Solo and with my waxy, half-forming self draped across the vast and unseen armature of twentieth century masculinity, I pursued her anyway. Thankfully, I was a fat wheezy kid who knew poetry and art so my pursuings – the awful poetry, the sketches of those bangs and so forth – were largely invisible. There were no aggressive approaches, or lifted skirts, or accidental touching, just a lot of mooning and clumsily rushing to open doors and, I’m sorry to say, a little light stalking. I can still see me now, my big moon face and rounded shoulders, handed down scuffed blazer, peering at the netball courts from the shadows.
Thankfully, a broken voice and a little more height and being in sixth form and being a little older and playing cricket, all these things had their vague transformative effects and time came when I could see Alice and not blush. I even noticed other girls. Don’t get me wrong, I was still completely awful. I couldn’t talk to any of them, not in any normal way, and I’d adopted a peculiar, haughty character armour, a sort of revolting amalgam of Biggles and Lord Peter Wimsey (another pursuer of initially unwilling women. I tell you, we don’t stand a chance). I took to wearing my cricket sweater instead of my school one and would call every one “old chap” and “my dear” and did lord knows how many other risible things.
Well. Who knows what might have happened had childhood’s end not come? If Dad hadn’t fallen off a cliff and bust his head just before my mocks? And had Mum not made me chase off the old sheepdog who’d come to visit me every night after his master died? Those two things so close upon each other and the approaching wall of The Rest of Our Lives, those things drove all of that ridiculous play-acting right out of me, and somehow by the time the eighteenth birthday party season came around I wasn’t such a dick. I even remember having conversations with people where I didn’t show off. Those parties were fun. That summer was odd. All that knowing, that soon, some weeks away we’d no longer be children. I remember nothing but sun, and one thunderstorm. And it’s in that thunderstorm where Alice joins the pages of my story.
It was the last, the very last of the parties, long after school ended and results were in, right at the back end of August and staring down the barrel of an adult September. It took place in the back room and terrace of a pub which the parents of one of the girls ran, and it looked out over the harbour of one of the scatter of little fishing villages that crowded our patch of sea. I forget which one, but it was a huddle and stumble of white painted cottages with occasional accents of blue, and yellow, pink or green; slate-roofed and sturdy, that lay in the hook of a narrow bay and spilled down its slopes to a wide sandy beach and a long seaward mole beyond which was the castle, an obligatory feature along this part of the coast. The pub overlooked all this, and had a wide stone paved terrace with a wall at its edge, and I was leaning on this, imagining myself on the bridge of a destroyer setting out from Scapa – or something like that – when a voice spoke at my right elbow. It was Alice.
Of course, when I looked round and saw it was her, I assumed she was talking to somebody else and looked to my left to see who that was. This caused her to giggle delightedly. It made her nose wrinkle and her freckles danced a bit and her hair swung and I felt a little peculiar. She was wearing a bright white dress shirt, probably her Father’s, with the tails out and a pair of burnt orange shorts and sandals. The shirt had those horizontal ribs, those bars of folded cotton, like a washboard. As they crossed her chest her bosom pushed them out of shape, accentuating their presence, it seemed to me, rather than concealing them at all.
“Yes, I was talking to you”
she said, laughing, but then took a sip of her drink – a small glass of white wine – and continued more solemnly, joining me in leaning on the wall.
“Thinking about the end?”
She looked out to sea, eyes crinkled against the glare and the freshening wind, the black wings of her hair in motion, flicking about her cheek and the nape of her neck. I wondered if it was salty, there, in the hollow by her throat. And growled at myself and looked out to sea. Beyond the castle the sky was filling with cloud. Clouds piled upon clouds from white boiling thunderheads that reached the vault of the evening sky, tumbling down through unimaginable heights and deep crevasses all steadily darker to battleship grey and the black bar beneath them where they met the sea.
“Yes, I was. It’s like that, isn’t it?”
And I rolled a wrist, pointing flat handed at the onrushing storm. Bunting rattled on the pub wall behind us, and the rigging of the boats began to hum. On the castle the long streamer of flag straightened with an audible crack. Alice gave me an appraising look.
“We should go and meet it.”
I must have looked unwilling I guess, although I was merely shocked, because she continued with:
“I’ll bring the wine.” And.
“I’ve got a joint.”
“Come on. It’ll be fun.”
And she disappeared indoors. This had to be some kind of joke, right? I’d go in after her and they’d all be pissing themselves laughing or something. You don’t spend six whole years being a laughable dick without some payback, after all. So I turned back to the sea and my fantasy naval command and the awful cheap lager of 1985. Until she took my hand.
She. Took. My. Hand. That’s right. Alice Rackham took my hand.
There were stairs at the back right hand corner of the terrace, narrow steep stone stairs that raced down the back of the wall to the cobbled lane, and she led me down those like a donkey down a mountain, my eyes fixed on the swing of her hips in those burnt orange shorts and the spring of muscle and tendon in her bare, summered legs. Her hand was small and long, warm, firm and dry, and her fingers were twined in mine in a way so affectionate.. As if we’d been friends all this time and I just hadn’t known.
Side by side we walked down the street and she passed me the wine, which was awful, this being 1985, cheap and off-dry and eggy with sulphites but it tasted like goddam nectar in those faint far-off moments. And while I gingerly sipped and wondered what a joint was she spoke.
“I’m glad you came to this one, Costello, because I’ve wanted to talk to you about this,”
and she waved an expressive hand around at the village, the sea and the sky,
“I don’t think anyone else gets it, you know?”
A fierce glance from under her bangs.
“We’re used to being the smartest in the room, aren’t we? You and I?”
And I felt at once horrified at her, and ashamed that I agreed, and, well, ‘seen’ – as we say today. So, being one of the smartest in the room I said,
And took a more generous sip.
“Two things, Costello. They -”
and here she jabbed a thumb backwards at the receding terrace and our no-longer classmates –
“they’ve got no idea that this is all over. That we’re done, gone, finished. In three months we’ll all be…”
“Exactly. We’ll have homes that aren’t here, and new big friendships and lovers and maybe.. cars, some of us. Do you ever worry about it?”
I didn’t even have to think about it.
“Nope. Not at all. Can’t wait to leave. Can’t bloody wait.”
She looked at me, not hard, not exactly, but firmly. Clearly.
“That’s what I thought. Me too.I’m off to Shrewsbury tomorrow.”
Shrewsbury. Of course this brilliant creature was going to Cambridge. Already she was putting on a different costume, her college identity. Tomorrow, as soon as suppertime, this Alice Rackham would have been annihilated. She seemed to follow my chain of thought, and as she took back the wine she said;
“Tonight is this Alice’s” – an expansive gesture down her body – “last night on earth.”
She gave the bottle a good long pull and wiped her mouth with the back of her hand.
“Other thing is, though. And this does scare me.”
Another swig, and she passed it back.
“It’s easy to be smart here. But where we’re going, you and I, that’s going to be normal. Smart. Smart will be normal. Can you imagine that? There will be people cleverer than us.”
This would be no surprise to me. As a former fat wheezy kid I was accustomed to falling short, and was already unconvinced that my intellect was a gift. A privilege certainly, but sometimes, even now, I’d settle for an ordinarily placid brain. To some extent, it would be nice not to be the smartest brain in the room. Not that our mates were thick. That’s not what she meant. What she meant was that we didn’t just learn stuff. We knew stuff. And we really enjoyed it. It was fun to think of those impossible things before breakfast and, you know, there’s sport in creating that sense of baffled hostility in your teachers as you remark that;
“…well, of course it’s facile to think of Keighley as some kind of backwater out on the moors and that the Bronte sisters were remarkable talents that just sprang into the world fully armed, when in fact it was a prosperous town with a thriving cultural sphere and the Brontes were well-off middle class educated women who in effect created their own corporate identity out of literature that isn’t really all that great.”
Good on them, I say. But that was the sort of thing that Alice and I used to do, blissfully unaware of course that nobody likes a smartarse. And Alice had a very smart arse indeed.
We’d reached the tarmac road that looped around the head of the harbour and crossed it and walked across the spiny grass to the sand. The rising wind was picking up the dry above-tide sand and whipping it across the beach and over our toes. Out on the salt, the boats were all heaving at anchor and the air was filled with light and awash with scent. The sparkle of late evening sun off the short-choppy water, reflecting off the white hulls of the boats and their tall aluminium masts and the glass of their wheelhouses in a hundred little flickers, as if they were jewelled with diamonds, and all this light set against the towering black sky behind. We could smell the storm coming, too. Here, in that late summer shore-fug of rotted down bladderwrack and kelp and the savage stink of the crab-boats – only just leavened with the warm briny smell of the sleepy harbour and the dry grass — above it all, and moving fast, the bright cool metallic marine smell of the storm. Ozone and salt and new knife-blades and the mineral violence of clouds.
The wind painted the long white shirt over her body and I could see the outline of her bra behind the shirtfront and scallops of lace and the dark hollow of navel where the cotton moulded to her stomach like the hands of a lover. She saw me looking and looked down and laughed, and turned away. Walking off, her words were nearly taken off by the wind, but she seemed to say follow and didn’t mind when I did. She climbed up the granite lumps of the harbour mole in front of me, and I took in the jump of muscle in thigh and the curve of her calves, the magical shape of the backs of her knees and the sand scuffed skin of her heels and, and, god almighty, the rest.
Of course her arse was magnificent as I think I have said but it wasn’t just that. No well-thumbed magazine, or well-written prose had prepared me for the fact that legs, bum and bosom, all fine in themselves, are connected together and move. It didn’t matter where I looked, the view led on to other vistas. Her bum to the swell of her hips and the narrow of waist and the groove of her back, and the two dimples at the base of her spine… I’d never seen those, had I? And, up her shirt her stomach curved from her hips and vanished into her ribcage and there were her breasts, cupped in a white bra with arabesque lace. Then there was the business of legs. The business of legs. I hadn’t known then how many curves there could be, in so many sizes and so many places. The shorts were very short indeed and to some extent, baggy. I watched fascinated the way her inner thigh swelled and narrowed again and ran in to her hip. This folded space that was neither bum nor leg or hip but all of those things conjoined in a fig-shaped secret, veiled in burnt orange, and beneath that, white lace. I swear that in my marvelling at all this sacred geometry it took me a good few seconds to realise what I was looking at, and then I saw her hair. Tiny curls of it peeking in black spirals and curls, some pasted with sweat to the tops of her thighs. And at that point I nearly fell off.
We reached the top and had a drink and I tried to turn away slightly to hide what was going on, but she saw it anyway. It wasn’t difficult, my khakis were baggy and offered little support. She smiled a little ruefully, and giving me some kind of bland, empty, guess-your-weight kind of gaze slowly knotted her shirt tails under her breasts, and with a sideways nod of her head, said,
“Let’s go down the other side, to the water.”
Here the water was wild. There were cross-currents in the outer bay and the sea was cross-hatched with long breakers and boiled along the bottom of the mole, the air half-full of spray. It was fairly terrifying, but she scampered down the rocks with just as much grace as she’d gone up the other side, so I followed her, trying not to fall in and the mild terror caused my cock to subside.
At the back end of the mole Alice found a hollow where it melded with the castle rock and she curled herself into it, spray damp shirt clinging and handing me the wine while she rummaged in her back pocket. While I drank and wobbled she produced a long thin battered cylinder of paper and a cigarette lighter.
“Is that, is that – a, a drug cigarette?”
She eyebrowed me then, and full of solemnity said,
“No, Costello. This is a joint.”
And she lit it with reckless abandon, huffing and puffing and there were bright flames that burned out and clouds of white smoke that were snatched off by the wind and a thick smell, both green and musty, slightly sweet. She took the wine back and drained what was left and said,
“Now you can kiss me.”
So I did. Her lips tasted cool and tart from the wine and then she opened her mouth and dear god, what was that like? Unexpected and frightening, dirty and fun. She tasted of wine, sure, and smoke, but also of her. Breath and skin and salt and, and, glory. My mouth and nose were filled with extraordinary sensations and I was just thinking this is incredible when she moved her tongue. The sharp pointed tip of it flicked at my lip and I flinched and pulled back and broke the spell.
I tried to go back, but she pushed me away and passed me the joint, as the first bullets of rain came whistling in, fat drops that exploded on stone and on seaweed and on skin and on shirts. I shielded the thing and with ginger inexperience, took a drag. I nearly choked, but fought it and managed to draw it in and suddenly felt all of the blood in my body begin to vibrate and thus tickled, I laughed. And we hunched over the joint keeping it dry while the rain soaked us completely and we laughed like mad things and tried another kiss. After that one we were both soaked to the skin and I was deliriously erect, and her clothes and mine clung to everything and Alice said:
“We might as well be naked”
and we laughed unconvincingly and she said:
“Do you wank, Costello?”
and while I dissembled and elided the truth she said:
and unzipped her shorts.
She rolled them down around the top of her thighs, a wet dark orange binding below her white knickers. These were soaked and transparent and I took a huge dizzying draught of the joint as she rolled them down, too.
Her hair was black, dense and glossy, neatly contained in a broad triangle that ended a fingers breadth from her thighs.
she said dreamily,
“I want to show you”
And I stumbled right up to her swaying, almost blown away by the wind and the roar of the storm and the spray at my back. And she took my hand and turned it palm upwards and placed it over her hair, with my fingertips resting on the smooth skin below. In the whirling cool of the storm, she was as hot as new coals and she slid her hand between mine and herself and began to probe, to part and to whisper dark noises into my bended ear.
Then, as she shuddered and grunted and butted against me, there was a new smell, as salt, rich and fecund as the raging sea, but hot and alive and it made my knees weak and she reached for my fingers, the two in the middle and pressed them into her hair which parted around them and she slid them into her heat and she gasped and taking my ear in her mouth spoke through clenched teeth.
“This is what I do, Costello, in and out, gnff, and round-about rrrgh. Nnnnff. How about you?”
And she released me and pushed me away, and she took the joint and a big drag and handing it back, said:
“Finish it. Then we’ll both wank.”
She was standing there utterly soaked with the rain beating down, hair plastered to skull and to cheek, water running down her face and over her soaked shirt, bra and breasts showing through transparent cloth, knickers at mid thigh, hand in her muff and mouth slightly open and full of abandon. She should have been vulnerable, but to me she seemed as inviolate as the sea that swirled behind me and the storm overhead. Elemental somehow. I composed a profound speech on the subject while I took the last big hit from the joint, and then was promptly violently sick. And again. And again.
Alice took care of me. She pulled up her things and with one arm round my waist guided me back to the pub, and they put me to bed upstairs, retching weakly into a bucket to excuses of food-poisoning, gave me a glass of water and left me alone.
When I woke in the morning Alice had gone. I would never see her again.
The last memory I have of her is her scent under my fingernails while I ate a mechanical breakfast of pancakes and sipped my coffee and stared out to sea.
Find other good stuff below the line!
Which should need no introduction