I wriggled my toes, enjoying the feel of the warm sand trickling like fine baby powder between them. Digging my feet even deeper into the dry, yellow-white sand, I tilted back my head. It was such a beautiful August afternoon. Nothing bad could ever happen on a day like today. And what made it even better was the fact that I could share it – something rare and special in itself, as I knew only too well. I turned to the boy next to me, my face about to split wide open from the smile on it.
‘Can I kiss you?’
My smile faded. I stared at my best friend. ‘Pardon?
‘Can I kiss you?’
‘What on earth for?’
‘Just to see what it’s like,’ Callum replied.
Yeuk! I mean, yeuk!! I wrinkled up my nose – I
couldn’t help it. Kissing! Why on earth would Callum want to do anything so . . . so feeble?
‘Do you really want to?’ I asked.
Callum shrugged. ‘Yeah, I do.’
‘Oh, all right then.’ I wrinkled up my nose again at the prospect. ‘But make it fast!’
Callum turned to kneel beside me. I turned my head up towards his, watching with growing curiosity to see what he’d do next. I tilted my head to the left. So did he. I tilted my head to the right. Callum did the same. He was moving his head like he was my reflection or something. I put my hands on Callum’s face to keep it still and dead centre.
‘D’you want me to tilt my head to the left or the right?’
I asked, impatiently.
‘Er . . . which way do girls usually tilt their heads when they’re being kissed?’ asked Callum.
‘Does it matter? Besides, how should I know?’ I frowned. ‘Have I ever kissed a boy before?’
‘Tilt your head to the left then.’
‘My left or your left?’
‘Er . . . your left.’
I did as asked. ‘Hurry up, before I get a crick in my neck.’
Callum licked his lips before his face moved slowly closer towards mine.
‘Oh no you don’t,’ I drew back. ‘Wipe your lips first.’
‘You just licked them.’
‘Oh! OK!’ Callum wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. I moved forward to resume my original position.
Keeping my lips tight together, I wondered what I should do with them. Purse them so that they stuck out slightly?
Or should I smile to make them seem wider and more appealing? I’d only ever practised kissing with my pillow. This was a lot different – and seemed just as silly!
‘Hurry up!’ I urged. I kept my eyes wide open as I watched Callum’s face move down towards mine. Callum’s grey eyes were open too. I was going cross-eyed trying to keep my focus on his face. And then his lips were touching mine. How funny! I’d expected Callum’s lips to be hard and dry and scaly like a lizard’s skin. But they weren’t. They were soft. Callum closed his eyes. After a moment, I did the same. Our lips were still touching. Callum’s mouth opened, making mine open at the same time. Callum’s breath mingled with mine and felt warm and sweet. And then without warning his tongue was touching mine.
Yeuk!’ I drew back immediately and stuck my tongue out, wiping it with my hand. ‘What did you do that for?’
‘It wasn’t that bad, was it?’
‘I don’t want your tongue on mine.’ I shook my head.
‘ ’Cause . . .’ I shuddered at the thought of it, ‘. . . our spit will mix up.’
‘So? It’s meant to.’
I considered this.
‘OK! OK!’ I frowned, adding. ‘The things I do for you!
Let’s try it again.’
Callum smiled at me, the familiar twinkle in his eyes. That’s the thing about Callum – he looks at me a certain way and I’m never quite sure if he’s laughing at me. Before I could change my mind, Callum’s lips were already on mine – and just as soft and gentle as before. His tongue flicked into my mouth again. After a brief moment of thinking ugh! I found that it wasn’t too bad. In fact it was actually quite nice in a gross-to-think-about-but-ok-to-do sort of way. I closed my eyes and began to return Callum’s kiss. His tongue licked over mine. It was warm and wet but it didn’t make me want to heave. And then my tongue did the same tohim. I began to feel a little strange. My heart was beginning to thump in a peculiar, hiccupy way that made me feel like I was racing down a roller-coaster, roaring out of control. Someone was tying knots with my insides. I pulled away.
‘Sorry.’ Callum sat back.
‘Why’re you apologizing?’ I frowned. ‘Didn’t you like it?’
Callum shrugged. ‘It was OK.’
I was annoyed. I didn’t know why, but I couldn’t help it. ‘Have you kissed any other girls besides me?’
‘Any Cross girls?’
‘Any nought girls?’
‘No means no.’ Callum huffed with exasperation.
‘So why did you want to kiss me?’
‘We’re friends, aren’t we?’ Callum shrugged.
I relaxed into a smile. ‘Of course we are.’
‘And if you can’t kiss your friends then who can you kiss?’ Callum smiled.
I turned back to the sea. It shone like a shattered mirror, each fragment reflecting and dazzling. It never ceased to amaze me just how beautiful the sand and the sea and the gentle breeze on my face could be. My family’s private beach was my favourite place in the whole world.
Kilometres of coastline that was all ours, with just a couple of signs declaring that it was private property and some old wooden fencing at each end, through which Callum and I had made a gap. And I was here with my favourite person. I turned to look at Callum. He was looking at me, the strangest expression on his face.
‘What’s the matter?’
‘What’re you thinking?’ I asked.
‘About you and me.’
‘What about us?’
Callum turned to look out over the sea. ‘Sometimes I wish there was just you and me and no-one else in the whole world.’
‘We’d drive each other crazy, wouldn’t we?’ I teased.
At first I thought that Callum wasn’t going to answer.
‘Sephy, d’you ever dream of just . . . escaping? Hopping on the first boat or plane you come across and just letting it take you away.’ There was no mistaking the wistfully wishful note in Callum’s voice. ‘I do . . .’
‘Where would you go?’
‘That’s just the point,’ Callum said with sudden bitterness.
‘This place is like the whole world and the whole world is like this place. So where could I go?’
‘This place isn’t so bad, is it?’ I asked, gently.
‘Depends on your point of view,’ Callum replied.
‘You’re on the inside, Sephy. I’m not.’
I couldn’t think of an answer to that, so I didn’t reply.
We both sat in silence for a while longer.
‘Wherever you went, I’d go with you,’ I decided.
‘Though you’d soon get bored with me.’
Callum sighed. A long, heartfelt sigh which immediately made me feel like I’d failed some test I hadn’t even known I was taking.
‘We’d better get on with it,’ he said at last. ‘What’s the lesson for today, teacher?’
Disappointment raced through me. But then, what did I expect? ‘Sephy, I could never be bored of you, with you, around you. You’re exciting, scintillating, overwhelming company!’ Yeah, right! Dream on, Sephy!!
‘So what’re we doing today?’ Callum’s voice was tinged with impatience.
‘OK! OK!’ I said, exasperated. Honestly! The sun was too warm and the sea was too blue to do any schoolwork.
‘Callum you’ve already passed the entrance exam. Why do we still have to do this?’
‘I don’t want to give any of the teachers an excuse to kick me out.’
‘You haven’t even started school yet and already you’re talking about being kicked out?’ I was puzzled. Why was he so cynical about my school? ‘You’ve got nothing to worry about. You’re in now. The school accepted you.’
‘Being in and being accepted are two different things.’
Callum shrugged. ‘Besides, I want to learn as much as I can so I don’t look like a complete dunce.’
I sat up suddenly. ‘I’ve just had a thought. Maybe you’ll be in my class. Oh, I do hope so,’ I said eagerly. ‘Wouldn’t that be great?’
‘You think so?’
I tried – and failed, I think – to keep the hurt out of my voice.
Callum looked at me and smiled. ‘You shouldn’t answer a question with a question,’ he teased.
‘Why not?’ I forced myself to smile back.
Taking me by surprise, Callum pushed me over onto the sand. Indignant, I scrambled up to kneel in front of him.
‘D’you mind?’ I huffed.
‘No. Not at all.’ Callum smirked.
We looked at each other and burst out laughing. I stopped laughing first.
‘Callum, wouldn’t . . . wouldn’t you like to be in my class . . ?’
Callum couldn’t meet my eyes. ‘It’s a bit . . . humiliating for us noughts to be stuck in the baby class.’
‘What d’you mean? I’m not a baby.’ I jumped to my feet, scowling down at him.
‘Jeez, Sephy, I’m fifteen, for heaven’s sake! In six months’ time I’ll be sixteen and they’re still sticking me in with twelve- and thirteen-year-olds. How would you like to be in a class with kids at least a year younger than you?’ Callum asked.
‘I . . . well . . .’ I sat back down.
‘I’m fourteen in three weeks,’ I said, unwilling to let it drop.
‘That’s not the point, and you know it.’
‘But the school explained why. You’re all at least a year behind and . . .’
‘And whose fault is that?’ Callum said with erupting bitterness. ‘Until a few years ago we were only allowed to be educated up to the age of fourteen – and in noughts only schools at that, which don’t have a quarter of the money or resources that your schools have.’
I had no answer.
‘Sorry. I didn’t mean to bite your head off.’
‘You didn’t.’ I said. ‘Are any of your friends from your old school going to join you at Heathcrofts?’
‘No. None of them got in,’ Callum replied. ‘I wouldn’t’ve got in either if you hadn’t helped me.’
He made it sound like an accusation. I wanted to say sorry and I had no idea why.
Callum sighed. ‘Come on, we’d better get to work . . .’
‘OK.’ I turned and dug into my bag for my school books. ‘What d’you want to do first? Maths or History?’
‘Maths. I like Maths.’
‘Yeuk!’ I shook my head. How could anyone in their right mind like Maths?! Languages were my favourite subjects, followed by Human Biology and Sociology and Chemistry. Maths fought with Physics for the subject I liked the least. ‘Right then. Maths it is.’ I wrinkled my nose. ‘I’ll tell you what I’ve been revising over the last week and then you can explain it to me!’
Callum laughed. ‘You should get into Maths. It’s the universal language.’
‘Says anyone with any sense. Look at how many different languages are spoken on our planet. The only thing that doesn’t change, no matter what the language, is Maths. And it’s probably the same on other planets too.’
‘That’s probably how we’ll talk to aliens from other planets when they get here or when we get to them. We’ll use Maths.’
I stared at Callum. Sometimes when I talked to him, the seventeen months between us seemed to stretch to seventy years. ‘Are . . . are you winding me up?’
Callum’s smile was no answer.
‘Stop it! You’re giving me a headache.’ I frowned. ‘Can we just get on with the Maths in my book and forget about chatting with aliens for a while?’
‘OK,’ Callum said at last. ‘But Sephy, you should think above and beyond just us. You should free your mind and think about other cultures and other planets and oh, I don’t know, just think about the future.’
‘I’ve got plenty of time to think about the future when I’m tons older and don’t have much future left, thank you very much. And my mind is quite free enough.’
‘Is it?’ Callum asked slowly. ‘There’s more to life than just us noughts and you Crosses.’
My stomach jerked. Callum’s words hurt. Why did they hurt? ‘Don’t say that . . .’
‘Don’t say what?’
‘Us noughts and you Crosses.’ I shook my head. ‘It makes it sound like . . . like you’re in one place and I’m in another, with a huge, great wall between us.’
Callum looked out across the sea. ‘Maybe we are in different places . . .’
‘No, we aren’t. Not if we don’t want to be, we aren’t.’
I willed Callum to look at me.
‘I wish it was that simple.’
‘Maybe from where you’re sitting.’ At last Callum turned towards me, but his expression stemmed the words I was about to say. And then, just like that, his expression cleared and his easy smile was back. ‘You’re very young, Sephy.’
‘I’m only a year and a bit younger than you, so don’t start talking down to me.’ I fumed. ‘I get enough of that at home.’
‘OK! OK! Sorry!’ Callum raised his hand in a placatory manner. ‘Now then, how about some Maths?’
Still annoyed, I opened my school study book. Callum shuffled closer until his arm and mine were touching. His skin was warm, almost hot – or was it mine? It was hard to tell. I handed him the book and watched as the pages on polygons instantly caught and held his attention. Callum was the one person in the world I could tell anything and everything to without having to think twice about it. So why did I now feel so . . . out of step? Like he was leaving me behind? He suddenly seemed so much older, not just in years but in the things he knew and had experienced. His eyes were a lot older than fifteen. My eyes were different – they reflected my exact age, less than one month away from my fourteenth birthday. Not a day less and certainly not a day more. I didn’t want things to change between us – ever. But at that moment I felt as if I might as well stand on the beach and command the sea never to move again.
‘How does this bit work?’ Callum asked, pointing to an interior angle of a regular octagon.
I shook my head, telling myself not to be so silly. Nothing would ever come between me and Callum. I wouldn’t let it. Neither would Callum. He needed our friendship just as much as I did.
Needed . . . That was a strange way to put it. Why had I thought of it that way? As a friendship both of us needed? That didn’t make any sense at all. I had friends at school. And a huge, extended family with cousins and aunts and uncles, and plenty of great whatevers and greatgreat whatevers to send Christmas and birthday cards to.
But it wasn’t the same as Callum and me. Callum glanced up impatiently. I smiled at him. After a brief puzzled look, he smiled back.
‘It works like this,’ I began and we both looked down at the book as I began to explain.
’We’d better be getting back – before your mum has every police officer in the country searching for you,’ Callum said at last.
‘Suppose so.’ I picked up my sandals and rose to my to yours? I haven’t been to your house in ages and I could always phone up Mother once I’m there and . . .’
‘Better not,’ Callum said, shaking his head. He’d started shaking his head the moment the suggestion had left my mouth. He picked up my bag and slung it over his shoulder.
I frowned at Callum. ‘We used to be in and out of each other’s houses all the time . . .’
‘Used to be. Let’s leave it for a while – OK?’
‘How come I never go to your house any more? Aren’t I welcome?’
‘ ’Course you are. But the beach is better,’ Callum shrugged and set off.
‘Is it because of Lynette? ’Cause if it is, I really don’t mind about your sister being . . . being . . .’
I trailed off at Callum’s furious expression.
‘Being what?’ Callum prompted, fiercely.
‘Nothing,’ I shrugged. ‘Sorry.’
‘This has nothing to do with Lynette,’ Callum snapped.
I immediately shut up. I seemed to have an acute case of foot-in-mouth disease today. We walked back in silence. Up the stone steps, worn to satin smoothness by the procession of centuries of feet and along the cliff side, heading further and further inland, away from the sea. I looked across the open grassland towards the house which dominated the view for kilometres around. My parents’ country house. Seven bedrooms and five reception rooms for four people. What a waste. Four people in such a vast house – four lonely peas rolling about in a can. We were still some distance from it but it rose like an all-seeing giant above us. I pretended I didn’t see Callum flinch at the sight of it. Is it any wonder I preferred the laughter of his house to the dignified silence of my own? We walked on for wordless minutes until Callum’s steps slowed and stopped altogether.
‘What’s wrong?’ I asked.
‘It’s just . . .’ Callum turned to face me. ‘It doesn’t matter. Give me a hug?’
Why was Callum in such a touchy-feely mood this afternoon? After a moment’s hesitation, I decided not to ask. Callum looked different. What I’d thought of as a permanent teasing sparkle in his eyes when he looked at me was gone without a trace. His eyes were storm-grey and just as troubled. He ran his fingers over his short-cut, chestnut brown hair in a gesture that seemed almost nervous. I opened my arms and stepped towards Callum.
I wrapped my arms around him, my head on his shoulder.
He was holding me, squeezing me too tightly but I didn’t say a word. I held my breath so it wouldn’t hurt so much. Just when I thought I’d have to gasp or protest, Callum suddenly let me go.
‘I can’t go any further,’ Callum said.
‘Just up to the rose garden.’
‘Not today.’ Callum shook his head. ‘I have to go.’ He handed back my bag.
‘I am going to see you tomorrow after school, aren’t I? In our usual place?’
Callum shrugged. He was already walking away.
‘Callum, wait! What’s the ma . . ?’
But Callum was running now – faster and faster. I watched my best friend tear away from me, his hands over his ears. What was going on? I carried on walking up to the house, my head bent as I tried to figure it out.
‘PERSEPHONE! INSIDE! NOW!’
My head snapped up at the sound of my mother’s voice. Mother came hurtling down the steps, her expression dour and fierce – as always. She’d obviously not had as many glasses of wine today as she normally did, otherwise she wouldn’t be in such a bad mood. I turned back to where Callum had been, but he was already out of sight – which was just as well. Mother grabbed my arm with bony fingers that bit like pincers.
‘I have been calling you for the last half an hour.’
‘You should’ve called louder then. I was down on the beach.’
‘Don’t be cheeky. I told you not to wander off today.’
Mother started dragging me up the stairs behind her.
‘Ouch!’ I banged my shin against one of the stone steps where I’d been too slow to pick up my feet. I tried to bend to rub my bruised skin but Mother was still dragging me.
‘Let go. Stop pulling me. I’m not luggage.’ I pulled my arm out of Mother’s grasp.
‘Get in the house now.’
‘Where’s the fire?’ I glared at Mother as I rubbed my arm.
‘You’re not to leave the house for the rest of the day.’
Mother entered the house. I had no choice but to follow.
‘ ’Cause I said so.’
‘What’s the . . ?’
‘And stop asking so many questions.’
I scowled at Mother but she was oblivious – as always. To her, my dirty looks were water off a duck’s feathers. The warm, wonderful afternoon was excluded from our house with the closing of the front door. Mother was one of those ‘refined’ women who could make the quiet closing of a door as forceful as a slam. Every time Mother looked at me, I could feel her wishing that I was more ladylike, like my scabby big sister, Minerva. I called her Minnie for short when I wanted to annoy her, because she hated it so much. I called her Minnie all the time. She loved our house as much as I hated it. She called it ‘grand’. To me it was like a bad museum – all cold floors and marble pillars and carved stonework which glossy magazines loved to photograph but which no-one with half a gram of sense would ever want to live in.
Thank God for Callum. I hugged the knowledge of how I’d spent my day to myself with a secret smile.
Callum had kissed me. Wow!
Callum had actually kissed me!
My smile slowly faded as a unbidden thought crept into my head. There was just one thing that stopped my day from being entirely perfect. If only Callum and I didn’t have to sneak and creep around.
If only Callum wasn’t a nought.