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Authors: Kate Long

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‘Bad taste overload!’ cried Juno. ‘It’s
too
much. I’m off to look at the aquarium.’

I told Tom I’d join them in a minute.

‘Poor Ally,’ he said, bending to look in my face. ‘Still suffering from vertigo?’

‘Yes,’ I said, because that was easiest. When they’d gone, I rested my arms on the rail and gazed around at the ornate ceiling lamps, the bunting hung at my eye level, the
Sixties-style tables and chairs dotted around the parquet dance floor. It was beautiful and sad at the same time, like a violin note.

Below me, the couples danced on.

*

Pascale
– Look at that, Dad, a real palmist.

Manny
– Depends what you mean by ‘real’.

Pascale
– She’s seen all the stars. Look; Myra Forsythe, Colin Dovedale . . .

Manny
– Who?

Kim
– Shall we give it a whirl?

Sophie
, – Oh, yeah. Cool. Can I go first?

Manny
– No.

Kim
– That’s right, Soph, age before beauty.

Manny
– I mean, no, they’re not going in. It’s an utter rip-off.

Sophie
– Dad?

Kim
– It’s only a bit of fun. Lighten up. I went to a woman in Salford one time and she was brilliant, knew it all.

Reckoned I’d be moving into choppy waters but I’d sail through.

Manny
– I said no.

Pascale
– Please, Dad. It’s social research. We could go, check it out, and make up our own minds in an adult way.

Sophie
– Go on.

Kim
– Yeah, let them have a turn, you old meanie. It’s three against one.

Manny
– I’m not, no. I’m not going to give my permission for you to go and listen to some charlatan who’s probably laughing all the way to the
bank. Look, I don’t mind giving you money for books or to go and see a film, but I’m not funding this rip-off. Christ, I’d rather you went and blew your savings in Top Shop,
then at least you’d have something to show for it.

Pascale
– Yes, please.

Manny
– That wasn’t an offer, by the way. Your savings are staying where they are.

Sophie
– But it’s our money.

Manny
– Yes, and we’ve been through this—

Kim
– Aw, Manny, let them have a go. It’s harmless. You said you wanted them to have a load of different experiences.

Manny
– Good God. Look, right, I’ll tell you want I’m prepared to do. Sophie, Pascale, here’s twenty quid each. It’s yours to spend on
clothes while you’re here. You can buy any rubbishy old tat you want. But you don’t go into the palmist’s, OK?

Sophie
– Wow, yeah, excellent.

Pascale
– Cheers.

Manny
– Christ. What a carry-on.

Kim
– Ooh, Manny Kingston. That’s blackmail, that is. Juno won’t like that.

[To camera]
She won’t like that at all.

*

If Juno had some sort of agenda in Blackpool, I couldn’t work out what it was. She refused cockles, but bought a paper plate of egg-and-bacon-shaped rock; we did the
amusement arcades but not the waxworks.

‘Why should we always have to do
worthy
things?’ she said, when Manny tried to persuade her to take a look at the Sea-Life centre.

I exchanged glances with Tom. That’s rich, his expression said.

Later, when Juno and the girls were strolling ahead and Ben and Manny were examining some vintage slot machines, he said to me, ‘Can you not see what she’s doing?’

I shrugged. ‘How do you mean?’

‘Everything Kim did, she’s turning her nose up at. She’s slagging off all the places Kim went with Manny.’

‘Oh, I don’t think so.’ In front of us, she linked arms with the girls, her head moving animatedly.

‘You watch. I never had Juno down as petty.’

The next attraction we visited was the Pleasure Beach.

‘Didn’t you come here with Kim?’ asked Tom, his face innocent.

Manny shook his head. ‘Kim doesn’t like fast rides. She was in a bad car accident as a kid.’

‘I want to go on the bumper cars,’ said Sophie, holding an imaginary steering wheel in front of her and snarling.

I’ve always called them dodgems. Says a lot, that.

I waited alone at the bottom of the big wheel while they swayed a hundred feet above me on thin metal struts. To my right, a little boy was sobbing for a goldfish and his mother, or sister, I
couldn’t tell which, was giving him an earful. For God’s sake, I nearly said as she dragged him past, give him a bloody fish and be glad about it.

After the wheel, Manny bought us all ninety-nines and Pascale told us that a man called Richard Rodriguez had used the big dipper to break the world roller-coaster-riding record, staying on for
a total of five hundred hours.

‘They sell forty-seven miles of hot dog sausages a year, plus enough candy floss to returf Wimbledon Stadium four times over.’

‘Like you’d want to turf a tennis court in candy floss,’ said Ben, pulling the leaflet out of her hands so that she squealed and pretended to fight him for it.

‘I feel sick,’ said Sophie.

‘You
have
to go on the big dipper, though,’ said Tom. ‘You can’t go home without a ride on that. It’s the law.’

Juno looked concerned. ‘Soph? Do you think you actually are going to be sick? Do you need to go and sit down quietly somewhere?’

I surprised myself by stepping forward and putting my arm round her shoulders. ‘She can stay here with me, there’s no need to spoil your fun. We can go get a cup of tea and find a
bench somewhere – over there, by the helter-skelter, that’s where we’ll be. OK, Soph? And I bet you she’ll be right as rain in twenty minutes.’

‘It’s cool but the sun’s very bright. Try and get under the shade,’ said Juno, frowning.

I wondered whether she’d leave us, but I guessed she was bent on proving her fearlessness to Manny. Juno would have climbed on that roller coaster if it had been on fire. In the end she
patted her daughter on the arm, and joined the rest of them in the queue. Sophie and I had, at the very least, quarter of an hour on our own.

‘Well, madam,’ I said.

*

Kim [To camera] –
I’m not completely thick, me. I’m not Mastermind or anything, but I do have a brain. My school reports were always good, I could have
stayed on if I’d wanted. But I didn’t. I wanted a wage, some independence. That was my decision.
     I’m not saying he tries to make me feel stupid. He just knows so much. About all sorts.
     Except about enjoying himself.

*

‘What?’

‘You know. Have you got something you want to tell me?’

She looked blank.

‘Sophie, I’m not going to waste time here; are you, by any chance, pregnant?’

She opened her mouth to speak but she must have inhaled some saliva because she started a coughing fit instead. She clapped her hand to her lips and her eyes bulged in disbelief at me as she
struggled to get her breath. ‘
No
,’ she rasped finally. ‘God, Ally, what a thing to say.’

I walked her over the bench and all the while she was looking at me and shaking her head.

‘All right,’ I said. ‘But you can’t blame me for asking. Condoms in the bedroom; sudden feelings of nausea—’

And even as I was speaking, I was back in the old house with Ben banging on the bathroom door as I retched into the brown sink; gasping, Mummy’s coming, sweetheart! between heaves. Images
flicking through my head: pinning Joe’s scan photo up on the corkboard in the kitchen – Ben peering over the Moses basket – cutting someone’s tiny fingernails –
scalding my thumb on the steam sterilizer. Please, God, don’t let her be pregnant, I thought. I couldn’t bear to have a baby in my life again.

Sophie was laughing, actually laughing out loud. ‘Sorry, oh, Ally. I know it’s not funny.’

‘How do you know you’re not pregnant?’ Her face went serious and she answered in such a low voice I could only just make out what she said.

‘Because I haven’t had sex yet.’

‘Right.’

‘I haven’t. It’s true. I swear, God’s honest truth.’

But there was still the tiniest smile playing around the corner of her mouth. Should I believe her or not?

‘So what was the Durex in aid of?’

‘OK, what it was, right, I wanted to practise. I got them out of a machine—’

‘Which machine?’

‘In Bruno’s.’

‘The coffee house? They have Durex machines in there?’

She sniggered. ‘I know. In case you come over all horny in the middle of your latte.’

‘Was anyone with you?’

‘No way. I wanted to try it on my own. Oh,
God
, this is
so
embarrassing. Do you not understand? Ally, I haven’t even got a boyfriend, I’m
that
sad. Right;
I wanted to see, close-up, what a condom was actually like and what you did with it, so that when I did need one it wouldn’t be a complete—’ She waved her hands. ‘I did the
same thing with a box of tampons when I was about eight. I wanted to see how everything, you know, worked.’

The crowds flowed past me as I considered.

Suddenly she said, ‘How old was she, do you think?’

‘Who are we talking about?’

‘The girl on the train.’

I thought back. ‘About twenty,’ I lied.

Sophie looked disappointed. ‘Oh. She seemed younger to me. Thing is—’

‘What?’

‘It’s everywhere, isn’t it? Sex is all around you, you can’t get away from it. Even in the sweet shops on the front, did you see? All those rock willies? Don’t,
I’m trying to explain. It’s all over the magazines I buy, it’s on TV all the time, it’s in adverts for ice cream and cars and even bloody kitchen spray. It’s in the
Shakespeare we do at school and we talk about it in social studies, it’s in pop videos for the under-twelves, family bloody sitcoms, it’s on the Internet. It’s like, everyone in
the whole world’s doing it, this huge enormous
load
of sex, so why would it be such a big deal if I joined in?’

‘But you know the answer to that.’

‘Yeah yeah.’

You shouldn’t be so beautiful, I felt like saying. You can’t cope with it.

‘Ally – what was your first time like? Can I ask you that?’

I sighed. ‘No.’

‘Oh, God. Are you cross?’

‘No.’

To be truthful, I’ve had three boyfriends in my life. Proper ones. The first, Robin, I fell completely in love with, would have slept with, only he finished with me before I plucked up the
courage. Mark, my second, I slept with straight away, even though I didn’t care about him much. We lasted about six weeks. Then I met Tom, and I knew straight away I wanted to marry him.
I’ve edited out Mark from my history; as far as Tom’s concerned, it was him I lost my virginity to. I don’t like to be reminded of that painful twenty minutes spent barricaded in
the coat room at Des Farris’s party. I was eighteen, then: two years later I was a married woman. Far away, behind the thumping beat of S Club Seven, people were screaming. There’d been
an accident last year where a girl had fallen out of a roller coaster and died, but it might not have been here.

‘It’s good I’ve got you to talk to,’ Sophie was saying, head on one side, smiling one of those melting smiles she does.

‘You should speak to your mum, though.’

‘Oh yeah? And watch her have some sort of foaming-at-the-mouth-type fit?’

‘Juno’s not like that.’

‘She is with me.’ Through the crowds I spotted Manny’s tall figure weaving towards us. ‘Here they are,’ I cried, jumping up and pointing. I waved my hand in the
air.

‘Trouble is, you don’t know what she’s really like,’ I heard Sophie mutter.

*

We stayed till the lights came on along the sea front.

Ben wanted a last go on the Test Your Strength machine – ‘No way am I going home as a Lightweight,’ he told us – while us grown-ups drank bottles of cider and gazed over
the railings at the glittering black sea. Sophie and Pascale leaned against the iron street lamp like a couple of good-time girls, red highlights in their hair from the illuminated cupids
above.

‘Do you truly not have a boyfriend?’ I said to Sophie as we walked back to the station. She slowed down so we could be a little apart from the others.

‘Nope,’ she said. ‘It’s dire. I mean, I have been asked out, but only by dingo-boys. There’s no one in my class I fancy, they all act like they’re about
ten.’

‘Boys mature later than girls.’

‘You’re telling me. Paxo doesn’t have a boyfriend either, but she doesn’t want one. She
says
.’ After a moment she added, ‘Do you think there’s
something wrong with me?’

I shouldn’t think any boy can get a word in, I almost said. ‘I’m sure there are hearts beating hopelessly all over the place for you, but their owners are too scared to come
forward.’

‘Yeah?’ Behind her veil of hair she beamed. ‘Honestly?’

‘Very much so. Don’t wish your time away, it’ll happen soon enough. But do you promise me you’ll be careful? You know, with
things
.’

‘I promise, Ally-pally. I promise I promise I promise,’ she sang. ‘I pro-mise, I pro-mise.’ Then she leapt up onto a garden wall and started balancing along the top like
a tightrope walker. ‘Look at this girl go!’ she shouted.

I can’t say I felt very reassured.

Chapter Fourteen

There are some scenes in life you watch that your brain won’t take in. This isn’t real, it tells you: think again, this can’t be happening.

I’d been in Ben’s room making his bed. Tom had taken Ben out to Sealand to look at some Peugeots he was interested in test-driving, and I was using the Sunday lull to catch up on
housework. I’d stripped the sheets off and I was shaking out the clean ones when I spotted Sophie run out on her back lawn. She was wearing her dressing gown and Doc Martens, and she had her
violin with her.

First she put the instrument face-up on the grass and stood deliberately on the body. Without moving her feet she crouched down and began to pull the neck hard towards her. It didn’t break
at once; she had to stand up again and stamp on it. Then she twisted the neck away – it had been hanging by a few splinters – and I think she must have cut her hand because I saw that
there was blood on her palms. The main part of the violin dropped and hung by the strings, swinging. She booted it round the garden a few times, the way you’d kick a football, and then she
jumped up and down on it. Her hair was flying about her face.

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