by Jane Bradley
It’s Friday, so the school bus home is bedlam; too hot even with the air-con on and the skylights open, letting the exhaust fumes in. People grinding on the back row, the radio blasting acid house. Metalhead Daniel painting his nails black in the seat behind, ready for the weekend. And Mark from Year Eleven, not taking no for an answer in truth or dare.
He kneels up in front; top button undone, tie knotted round his head like Rambo. Before we’re halfway home, he’s got Kelly to admit to getting fingered by his cousin. Then James has to drink pop rocks mixed with diet Coke; Mark’s heard it’ll make his stomach explode.
It doesn’t. But James grunts and retches in the aisle, the noise making our driver miss two red lights.
I’m not even playing, but when Mark decides it’s my turn, he leans down and pulls my book from my hands, checks the cover then chucks it down.
‘Alright, Steph,’ he says, licking his lips. Giving me a wink like some suave casino croupier giving me a chance to strike it rich. ‘What’ll it be?’
Metalhead Daniel’s got his headphones on. James lies in the gangway after his fake collapse, pretending to be dead.
‘Truth,’ I answer, and everyone groans. Two more stops from here to home.
Mark smiles like a werewolf and cricks his neck, slow. ‘Is it true what they’re saying about your little lesbo friend from St. Madeline’s?’ he asks. ‘That she got expelled for stabbing someone with a compass in a classroom fight?’
The others pretend they’re not listening, but all of a sudden it’s too still and quiet. They know, then, about Leanne. But not why she did it, or what the fight was about, though I didn’t mean it to go down like that.
‘Tick, tick, tick,’ Mark says. ‘Time’s up.’ Too cool for drama club but still theatrical when it counts. Kel rolls her eyes behind him. From the floor, James sneaks a look up her skirt.
‘It’s true,’ I tell them, fronting it out, shoving my stuff in my bag. Behind me, I hear scuffles that say Daniel’s doing the same. ‘So you’d better not talk about her anymore. Not if you don’t wanna meet the same fate.’
As I walk down the gangway and then the steps, the boys flicker lizard tongues and bang on the glass. I mime that they’re wankers before it turns off, then put my sunglasses on. Metalhead Daniel’s laughing at me, or with me, but I can’t tell which. So I give him this half-smile, just the corner of my mouth; might be genuine, might be sarcastic. Then it’s up to him.
But he smiles back, a big one, says something about the lads being knobheads, how they used to wind him up but then he battered Mark one weekend and since them they’ve left him alone. I fuss through my bag for nothing, letting him catch up.
‘Just as long as you didn’t break a nail,’ I say, in my smart-arse voice, grinning so he can tell I’m kidding. He laughs, holding out glossy Morticia talons.
‘I know,’ he says. ‘But I’ve gotta give my mam something to strop about.’
‘Mine’s given up on that tactic,’ I tell him, as he falls into step.
We head towards the estate, crisp packets skittering and little kids on the tyre swing hanging from the big tree. Chewing gum blobbing the pavement like paint spatters, pigeons fighting for someone’s dropped chips.
‘So where is your mate?’ he asks, rolling up his sleeves, showing skin to the sun. ‘Doesn’t she normally meet you off the bus?’
‘Grounded until she’s eighteen,’ I tell him, picturing Leanne in her uniform, leaning against the lamppost; racoon eyeliner, torn tights. How we have to sneak out now more than before, but there’s time between now and then.
‘My mam’ll be out ’til seven,’ he says, when we get to the corner. ‘Wanna come in mine for a bit, listen to music?’
And I tell him, ‘Only if you do my nails like yours.’
Because I wanna look good for Leanne tonight.
Jane Bradley‘s fiction has been published in various journals and anthologies, including Spoke: New Queer Voices (Dog Horn, 2015) and Convertible (Pankhearst, 2014). She has been longlisted for the Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize (2016) and the Young Enigma Award (2014). Her first play, The Curse, debuted in Manchester earlier this year. Jane is also the founder of For Books’ Sake, the charitable organisation championing writing by women, and the editor of anthologies including (RE)Sisters,Tongue in Cheek and Derby Shorts.