He goes back home to lose his virginity: to the kind of sea town that is always disappointing on arrival, whether you come by train into the city centre, or by shuddering boat, dropping anchor under the gaze of sky-wheeling, grumpy seagulls. Whichever way, it’s always shades of brown and stained white walls, always a series of shops too graffitied, kicked and vomited-on to be special, and the smell of good fish in the air.
He was reminded, as everyone is, returning to a place like this, how unutterably small it was. It would be smaller each time he came back. Perhaps he wouldn’t return after this, so he could permanently avoid the feeling of being bigger than every building around him and every person here; avoid the suspicion that he smelled so much better, now.
But there was the matter of this virginity.
He was a tall young man, with a large Adam’s apple and matching, bulging knuckles and knees, such as happens to tall young men who never seem to outgrow the occasional flood of acne, in odd and sudden places like the hip, or under the right ear, where they pulsed, angry against his pale flesh. But he had pleasant, thick brown hair and eyes so black, they’ve always made the girls giggle. The business of the virginity had become a point of pride among his generation: it was a grave error to go South before ejaculating inside one of these small-town lasses. It was owed to them, everybody knew it. The girls here were not actually superior to girls anywhere else, but the boys had decided they were, so it had become a fact. That their girls were better-bosomed for a start, and blonder. The tall young man remembered sitting with his friends, clinking glasses in their local, drinking to their blonde lasses with the great tits. He missed the particular stink of that pub and the amber colour of their peaty, bitter beer and the faded red of the pub seats.
Yes, if you were stupid enough to leave a virgin, you had to find the time to come back to make it right.
The long young man has returned with another boy – someone even more satisfactorily and evidently self-conscious than him. Thicker, shorter, uglier. They were at the same university, but not on the same course, having only spoken a handful of words in hallways, and not much more on the train journey up, the uglier boy buried in the pages of an Economics text book, core on the reading list he said, and the first young man who’s come back to lose his virginity can’t remember quite how he made this pact with the second young man to do the same. He remembers seeing him in the shared kitchen, his cheap pasta boiling on the hob. The boy came in to make tea. A moment of recognition: the same reference points, the same streets ambled down drunk, probably the same school, and they’d thrown bits of kitchen things at each other to acknowledge their local pride. It was a kind of intimacy he supposed, as the pasta pan boiled dry. They ate it burned, with a can of cheap red sauce. ‘Fucking minging,’ said the shorter boy, and creased up with laughter, clearly just grateful for food.
‘I’m going back’, the tall boy said. ‘You know.’ He didn’t want the uglier boy to whoop or leer the way others might have. The uglier boy stared at him, and didn’t say or do anything, but he did look less ugly, and thanked him for the pasta and somehow, they had agreed that they would travel together.
The young man reflected on the girls around him. It seemed faintly ridiculous that anyone had remained a virgin, what with the blatant confidence of the young women they’d known growing up. Some young woman had been rubbing herself against him for most of his life, as if they had to go first in case they weren’t chosen at all. If everyone got off with everyone else before the night was over, no one had to ever keep score, compare or feel left out, but simply fold themselves into the humping, grinding, sweating, tired and drunken tissue of inevitability up against the wall on the Friday night, then come back on Saturday for more. So he’d had a fair few breasts in his palms, and he’d been fumbled, breathed on, arched against, heard awkward pornography in his ear, come on then, darling. Most young couples ended up out by the pier, grinding and mashing on the cold-shine beach, or back behind the place where the annual fun fair set up carousels and tilt-a-whirls come June; it seemed to him the fair peeled and shivered more every year. He’d wanted a bed. His long legs weren’t meant for spontaneity: he didn’t adapt well to the hidden, furtive places of other ruttings, nor the crook of a woman’s neck. When he tried to fit, he became irritable, troubled by the differences between their bodies, muttering excuses, losing his erection. If one of those women sociologists who wrote big fat books on people’s sex lives had interviewed him, he was sure he’d make a shameful confession: that he wanted something nice: clean, easy. Maybe someone to wake up with. He might confide in the sociologist about the malaise — a university word he liked — of his peers, how they seemed like crawling things in a dim and shady world, where girls said they were wet between their legs, but didn’t seem happy to him.
They were met at the station by three other boys, who’d stayed and never gone to uni: two friends of his companion, and Dickon, one of his mates from school. It was good to see the handsome Dickon, blinking, already tipsy, and funny as hell. He might have made excuses for a pint or two with his friend, but there was too much backslapping, silly laughter and expanded chestiness to go back on it now, and they’d paid, they said, already. It was all arranged. Someone had borrowed their sister’s car, and that was the kind of effort you had to appreciate.
They drove until they weren’t driving any more, not far by his reckoning, but there was a drum of blood in his ears and he wished it was later in the year, and the fun fair was there, not this bitter April. The house was a two up-two down, a stone’s throw from the cold beach, and when they got out of the car, he wanted to crunch away, across the cold shore, facing the steel-cut waves. One of the uglier boy’s friends knocked on the door, number 32, and shoved them forward, closer to the blonde girl beckoning them into a slender, green-carpeted passage.
‘Who is it then,’ she said, and his companion was gone in a twinkle, so fast that the tall young man blinked and found himself straining to remember the boy’s face. Another female form shuffled forwards, laughter at his back from the others, a girl he could barely see, because it was a grimy dark afternoon, and she seemed to disappear into an interior of shadows. He realised there must be a hierarchy of choice among the girls, that the one remaining had drawn the short stick somehow, that the first girl had bullied her way to the front so she could choose her customer first. Ordinarily, it wouldn’t have bothered him to be chosen second, or rejected, whichever it was. The carpet was green and the lampshade over the bulb was dusty and all of these things were just fine, almost expected, just that the remaining girl’s head was jutted up, regarding him, one hand stuck out like he was a little boy, ready to lead him upstairs, and she was a coloured girl.
‘Ahhh fuck,’ said the boys behind him, patting and shoving.
He knew he wasn’t supposed to think coloured, much less say it, remembering his confusion when one of the coloured girls at uni insisted on being called African-American, even though she’d grown up in Kensington, daughter to a greengrocer made good who didn’t, as far as he knew, come from anywhere in America or Africa. He knew he should say black or that acronym he kept forgetting.
He had expected a lass smelling of Boots lotion their mam bought them at Christmas. He shouldn’t be standing in a hallway with a black prostitute, thinking about having sex with a black prostitute, because you didn’t come back home for a black girl. His head hurt with the outrage of it all, swore he could hear even louder laughter on the other side of the now-closed door. Could Dickon be in on this?
He ignored the hand she was holding out, trod upstairs where she pointed. She fit a key into a lock and he thought again of the waiting trio outside, of the stupidity of it all: someone was throwing a bottle against a wall, murmuring like some Shakespearean chorus, leaning against the car smoking rollies, thinking about what? Thinking of him? Surely not. So what were they there for, except to celebrate, he supposed, though it felt a curious thing to celebrate, the emptying of someone else’s balls. And he was conscious of being rampantly, unexpectedly hard.
The girl sat on the edge of the bed and pulled off her shoes. They were flat and pink, the kind fastened by a faux side button, and as she pulled them off you could see she was going to lose one of the buttons, because the stitching was loose. She took off her dress and took down her ponytail. She had lots of that springy hair that seemed to bounce like a trampoline, and as she lay back on the bed – which he saw to his relief was quite a long bed – he was surprised at how naked she was, and not a word yet said between them. Could she even speak English? Had Dickon paid? How long did he have? Too many questions. He undressed, too fast, to get it over with, this sudden abomination, this odd act of exposing bare flesh to someone whose face you could hardly see for the grey walls.
She seemed happy enough, smiling as he joined her on the bed, and the heat of her skin was a shock, in the April-ness of the world. Nothing was easy, or navigable, and he felt that his skin, on and in her was too much like raw meat, perhaps chicken, a kind of white and yellow exposure that made him feel sick. Her sex was a moist and pleasant-smelling thing, but shaven and he thought he might have preferred natural as the shaving had given her two matching ingrown hairs. She opened herself and he was surprised at the bright pinkness of her insides, had never realised he assumed they were black all the way up to their wombs. As they jockeyed position on the bed, as he held on, found his cheek against hers, noticed the roughness of the back of her heels and the vitality of her flushed chest and neck, impressed by the swift efficiency of the condom application, the sweetness of her nipples, he became conscious of a tenderness between them. He didn’t understand its source. They were strangers, his balls aching for wanting, and he was seconds away from entering her, she clambered above him, crouching, the slenderness of his hips an advantage he’d never considered, and she was about to climb on cowgirl, but he wanted to see her face, so he turned her around and rubbed her clitoris clumsily, marvelling at the similarity of their skin. Past the colour, he could see the same bumps and textures, the same pores, that occasional bruise you got but you didn’t know how, his on his knee, hers matching and fading on her knee, and then that feeling was gone, replaced. A pumping; her breathing not altered at all, but he couldn’t care, because inside her was pink and new and he was almost angry. He found himself pulling her into him, pistoning upwards as hard as he could, she wincing, rage filling his chest, his thrusts mercifully, shamefully few.
‘Fucking you,’ he muttered in her ear. ‘Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.’
Shame. Her eyes, the sheets, his shoulders, walls, grey. And sorry, sorry, he said afterwards. She stared at him, a peeled thing. He could hear the ocean outside, licking pebbles. His mouth was dry, his penis sticky. He realised he was panting. She passed him a plastic cup of water and he tried not to think about whether someone had drunk from it before him.
‘First time?’ she said.
‘No,’ he said.
‘I mean first time with a black girl.’
He kept his eyes forward and wondered why she thought she had the right to ask.
‘No,’ he said.
She laughed. Like a normal girl. Local accent, the soft intake of breath on vowels.
‘You don’t live here then?’ she said.
‘Not any more,’ he said, realising it for the first time. It made him dizzy. Home was a small room with beige curtains, a desk, a cheap flatpack bed and the incessant whine of young people having bad sex through thin walls, girls pretending to orgasm. He lifted himself onto his elbows.
‘You didn’t come, did you?’ he said.
She laughed again. ‘Don’t be a muppet.’
‘I thought prostitutes were supposed to be nice.’
‘Why are you going on about it?’
‘I saw your face.’
He scratched his cheek. ‘What about it?’
‘Reckon you looked pissed, mate.’
‘Well I wasn’t.’
The hum of the sea. He remembered sitting on the beach with a girl he’d been seeing, three weeks before uni, and her telling him that when a male penguin fell in love, they chose a special, perfect stone and presented it to the female penguin, and she put it in her nest and that was them, engaged. Sorted. She’d obviously wanted him to pick a pebble and give it to her, to make a promise before he left, and he’d considered it, making that promise: to Skype and text regularly, to save money, heroically telling new mates why he couldn’t go on the piss. Saving for my lass, he’d say. Imagined coming back so frequently to see her that the shrinking town disappeared into the sea, like a mussel gone bad. His love, responsible for the obliteration of a whole seaside town. And then she’d laughed too loud, and farted and pretended it wasn’t her, so they lay down on the stony shore and he kissed her, and he didn’t promise anything, just pushed her shoulder blades deep into the pebbles and sand, knowing that he was gone, angry that he was done.
‘Penny for them,’ said the prostitute. She was plaiting her big hair off her face.
He gesticulated. ‘Is that like dreadlocks?’
She rolled her eyes. ‘Are you stupid?’
He surprised himself by spitting into the corner of the room. The black girl jumped, as if he’d slapped her. He hadn’t spat in public since he was a young boy, mimicking his Uncle Thomas, a loud and red-faced and confident man, who hawked and spat so much, eventually you were surrounded by globs of it. He’d taken up the unashamed spitting until he forgot himself and did it in front of his mam, right in her kitchen no less, and she looked so sorrowful he never did it again, even when the men said he should.
‘That’s disgusting,’ the black girl said. She had her arms up and out, like one of those come-to-Jesus freaks, and her small breasts were shaking. Again, he considered the incongruity of flesh exposed, as if normal, as if nothing. Women should cover up, he thought. They were so powerful. They should cover everything. Didn’t they know what men were? He’d been wrong to think they had the same flesh: hers was so much better, suffused with that curious light he’d seen on most brown and black girls on campus.
The girl was still angry: rifling around in the bedside drawer, pulling out cheap lotion, condoms, lipgloss, a bottle of oil, wet wipes. She tossed a full packet at him. It hit his bare chest.
‘Wipe it up!’ She was near yelling, eyes wide, clearing her throat as if she had tasted something nasty. ‘You can’t just come in here and spit at me! You can’t just spit!’ He knew that what he’d done was disgusting, but wasn’t this what she was here for, to indulge him in everything? Rage again, and he fought it down, breathing in through the nose, out through the mouth like the uni counsellor said he should do when things got difficult. He picked up the packet and stalked across the room to the spittle. Bent, conscious of his bare arse, his hairy arse, his cold bollocks, the fact that he felt the most unhappy and the least sexual he’d ever felt in his entire eighteen-year life, and scrubbed at the bare floor.
‘Wrap that in another piece and put it in the bin,’ she instructed querulously. ‘And take it with you, when you leave.’
He straightened, followed her instructions. The used condom was already in the bin where she’d tossed it. A portion of liquid him.
‘Aren’t I leaving now?’
She checked her phone, crossed her arms over her chest. ‘You have twenty-seven minutes left. But make sure.’
‘Make sure what?’
‘To take it with you when you leave!’
‘But not the condom? Just the wipe?’
‘Since I’m clearing up all my bits.’
She stared. ‘Do what you like.’
Why did he feel like crying? Like curling around her and begging her to be quiet, to let him be, to be obedient and peaceful and rub his head? Why couldn’t she just be still, like a perfect thing on a shelf?
He got back into bed, drawing the thin sheet around him and up to his neck. She copied him, probably not realising it. He could hear the sound of her picking at her nails under the sheet. He waited; watched her shoulders fall.
‘You’ve stolen all the sheet,’ she said.
He unwound the excess from under his bum, shifted closer, so she could have more.
‘You’re the grumpiest prozzie,’ he said.
‘Don’t call me that.’
She looked amused for the first time. Rolled her eyes. ‘Shut up.’
He tucked the sheet around her shoulders. The feeling of tenderness returned, but he shrugged it away. Too costly, that.
‘Do you want a blowie, then?’ she asked.
‘Don’t trouble yourself.’
‘Since we’re here.’
‘It’s cold. Just shush a minute.’
‘If I was sucking your cock, I’d be quiet.’
‘You’re really not very good at this.’
‘You haven’t had the blowie yet.’
He wanted his penis left alone. Or he might want her thumb up his arse instead, but maybe that would take too long. He didn’t want to run out of time, interrupt his own orgasm with financial negotiation, worse, have Dickon come banging at the door telling him to get a move on. But he certainly couldn’t leave early.
‘How long, now?’
‘Can I touch your hair?’
She wrinkled her nose. ‘Fuck off, mate.’
‘But why not?’
‘I said no.’
He burst into laughter. ‘You can’t.’
‘What? Fuck off.’ She looked outraged. ‘Of course I can say no. Who the fuck do you think you are? Long piece of piss, you’re like a fart in a trance, all balls and eyes, man. Fuck off. Fuck off with that rapist shit.’
‘Because I want to touch your hair? What’s the big deal? I mean, I . . . already, you know . . .’
‘We already had intercourse.’
‘You learn that long word at uni?’
‘That’s not a fucking long word.’
‘Now that’s a uni word.’
‘Well, I go to fucking uni, man.’
He was surprised. ‘You do?’
‘Just fuck off.’
He pondered. Everyone was always going on about money at uni. Spent all of it in the first three weeks of the month then went around cadging cigs and drinks off everyone else. Most people worked. It hadn’t occurred to him that a girl might do this. Laura Eastman, who sat behind him, on her phone all the way through the lecture, he’d thought she was just a social media freak, but it turned out her dad was quite sick and she was the eldest and her mam got rid years ago. He wondered about Laura tying up her blonde hair to suck off a man with more money than him. Laura was a nice girl.
‘You home for Easter break, then,’ he asked.
‘What are you studying?’
He was impressed. Shifted under the sheet.
‘Well that’s good. Why do this, then?’
‘None of your business.’
They were silent. He shouldn’t have come. She held her phone, limply. He could see the seconds counting down on the screen. Checked in with his emotions, like the counsellor said to do. It wasn’t easy to tell what you were feeling. Not horny. Not angry anymore, either. The black girl who did architecture had gotten cuter, with her neat black body and that gleam and the tantalising, puffy hair. If she’d looked like Laura Eastman might he have been all over her for seconds? If she looked like the girls he felt up on the beach and against the pub wall? Here he was in a bed, a bed. He stretched, wanting to make the most of the flailing seconds. Felt his back arch. Yes, it was a long bed. A good bed. He sighed. The black girl was looking at her hands. He wished she could relax, too.
‘Could you come here?’
‘You got less than ten minutes.’
She scooted closer, watching him carefully as he beckoned. Curled into him, let him tuck her into him, spooning.
‘What do you want?’
‘Let’s just be still.’
‘I need a condom in case you get ideas.’
He pressed her closer. ‘Feel that?’
‘What? I don’t feel anything.’
‘Exactly. Shut up.’
‘If you go over the hour, you pay for the next hour, you know.’
‘Yes, alright. Can we just . . .?’
He sighed. Maybe he should talk to her like she was Laura Eastman.
‘Listen to the sea.’
That’s what he’d say to a good girl. Or something.
Nestling, rustling, huffing. ‘I . . .’
Small laughter. Snuffling. Could have sworn she sneakily wiped her nose on the corner of the sheet. Like he was the only disgusting person here.
‘Did you just blow your nose on the sheet?’
‘We got six minutes. If you go over . . .’
‘Jesus Christ, woman. Be still.’
She stilled. They breathed. There was condensation on the window. He couldn’t hear the sea now, but pretended he could. She nestled back into him, like a pup. Like a girl. He sloped an arm around her waist. Her hair was soft against his face. Like every girl he’d ever spooned who forgot that you got a faceful of hair. He hoped he wouldn’t sneeze. Fingers itched to touch.
‘Don’t touch my hair.
‘I’m not. Shush.’
She wriggled further into him. ‘Did you ever go to the fun fair up Marcher’s Vale?’ she said.
‘Did you get candy floss or a toffee apple?’
‘Both,’ he lied. They’d never had the money for all that and beer and chips on the way home.
‘It was good, wasn’t it?’
‘Nah, not really.’
He could feel her smiling against his face. ‘It was good. My mam used to take me and dad, and we’d go on all the rides. Lined up for everything. They were very patient. Goldfish in a bag and hit the coconuts off that stand, won me a Paddington Bear.’
Her hair smelled of something sweet. Coconut? Was that politically correct, to guess that? Smelled like between her legs. He wondered who he would marry, or who his first real girlfriend would be and whether he would say fuck in her ear and whether she would be shaved or smell sweet.
‘They’d dress me up in bright colours. Said they matched my skin and that. People looked.’
He wasn’t sure what she meant.
‘Looked at me. Like I belonged to the fair.’
‘Well. You are . . .’
‘Just around here.’
Sighing. He could smell the sea and the coconut and his own groin: like oysters and pennies. The top of his mouth stung. But his arms felt good around her.
‘Every year the same bloke said he’d bring me a golliwog next time, he’d bring me a nice wog, where’d you get her from then, he asked my parents. People don’t seem to understand fostering. He made the same joke, three years in a row.’
He’d wanted something easy, clean. But he recognised something in her voice.
‘There’s a National Fairground Archive, you know. I just did my first essay on the history of carousel construction. I love carousels. I used to get on them and go around and around . . .’
He smiled against her cheek.
‘That’s what they do.’
‘Oh, shut up.’
‘If you say so.’
‘You’re such a shit prozzie.’
‘Do you like it?’
‘What do you think?’
She sounded sleepy.
There was a tap on the door. A shuffle he recognised. Another tap. The sound of his name. But he wasn’t ready yet. His limbs were heavy, like the moment before a deep and sweet sleep and he wasn’t ready yet. He supposed someone should tell the chorus outside. But that would mean moving and he wanted to lie here, in the bed that fit him. In the town that he belonged to. Not having sex, like usual. She talked on, the black girl, drowsily, and he didn’t know her name, but he couldn’t remember the name of the girl on the beach whose shoulders he bruised against the salted pebbles and he hadn’t known the name of any of those blonde girls with the perfect globes for boobs, and he became aware, as the black girl talked on, that he knew nothing at all, that he was as small as this town, but that there was time. Time to lie here, and listen to the history of carousel-making and think of nothing at all, but the feel of a girl’s thighs against his, hugging her closer and willing sleep to come, time for the sound of the sea that had risen now, and the ocean wind with the smell of fish, lying down and ignoring the knocking and knocking in a bed that was long enough for him.
Leone Ross is a Jamaican/British fiction writer, editor and academic. She writes literary fiction, magic realism, horror and erotica. She is a two-time novelist and short story writer. Her work has been translated into Spanish, French, Slovak and Turkish. Her first novel, All The Blood Is Red (ARP) was longlisted for the Orange Prize for Literature. The Washington Post described her second novel, Orange Laughter (Picador) as “delicious…”; it was chosen as a BBC Radio 4 Women’s Hour Watershed Fiction favourite and named by Wasafiri magazine as one of the most influential British novels of the last 25 years. Her first short story collection, Come Let Us Sing Anyway published in June 2017 (Peepal Tree) was widely acclaimed: the Times Literary Supplement called her “a pointilliste, a master of detail”. The Guardian called the collection ‘remarkable…searingly empathetic, outrageously funny…”. BBC Radio 4’s Good Read programme said it was “incredible…so sexy.” Ross’s short fiction has been listed for the V.S Pritchett Prize, Salt Publishing’s Scott Prize, the 2018 Jhalak Prize and the 2018 Saboteur Award for Best Collection. Ross has judged several international writing competitions. She is a senior lecturer in Creative Writing at Roehampton University in London, where she is Commissioning Editor for their imprint, Fincham Press.