1976. The hottest summer I can remember. The top juniors play rounders on the school field. For me, this means loitering by the fence, praying not to be troubled by the ball. When, inevitably, I’m forced to lollop after it, my thighs rub painfully together. When it’s my turn to bat I flap hopelessly at the ball until the teacher shouts at me to just run, anyway. On my way round, I cause someone else to be out, but have no idea why. By the end of the day my shoulders are as red and blistered as my inner thighs. This is known as having caught the sun, and is considered a good thing. No-one knows any better.
The hot weather makes everyone dress as though they’re on holiday. Even the teacher wears shorts. One particularly hot day I wear a new halter neck top. It is fashionable, and does not suit me. People sman. At playtime I sit alone on the field as usual. Kevin Harris creeps up behind me with his friends. As I turn, he points at my inadvertently exposed nipple and they run away shrieking with laughter. For the rest of the day I swelter in a cardigan which is itchy against my sunburnt shoulders. At home, I hide the halter neck under my bed.
Before leaving primary school we have medicals. A doctor takes a cursory glance at me and informs my mother that I am overweight. My mother agrees, although it’s the first time she has shared this apparent knowledge with anyone, least of all me. The doctor recommends a diet excluding bread and potatoes. He also says I am bow-legged and will need an orthopaedic appointment.
At the end of June, two months before my eleventh birthday, I discover that my childhood is over. The relentless heat has made me bad tempered and I have stomped to my bedroom. My grandmother defends my behaviour as childlike and my mother explodes. I am not a child,she says. I will start secondary school in September. I am appalled. One of my favourite activities is cutting out the paper dolls from the back of my Bunty comic and making up stories about them. I worry that I will have to stop doing this.
I play the flute. My teacher is called Mr Truly and he is the nicest person in the whole world. The school band puts on a concert and a photographer comes from the local newspaper. Mr Truly stands behind me as we squint into the sunshine. He tickles the back of my neck and I smile. When the photograph is published I cut it out and cover it with sticky backed plastic. I pin it to the wall next to my bed. I think that Mr Truly is my only friend.
In the last week of term I have my orthopaedic appointment. An elderly doctor with sticking-out white hair, like a mad professor, observes me walking up and down. He makes me lie down and manipulates my legs. I feel hot and mortified because he can see my knickers. He says there is nothing to worry about. He looks at my notes and weighs me, which no-one has so far bothered to do. He tells my mother that although my top leg muscles are heavy, I am not overweight. On the way home she fails to apologise for wrongly labelling me as fat. I store this to use against her at some later date.
I leave primary school with no regret, and no enthusiasm for what lies ahead, which I assume will be more of the same, on a larger scale. The summer holiday is to be used to prepare me for my transition into the adult world. I am equipped with a roll-on deodorant and a bulky pack of sanitary towels I will not need for another eighteen months. Seemingly oblivious to the scorching weather, my mother suggests I get used to wearing tights. The packet describes these as flesh coloured, though I have yet to meet the person whose flesh they match. My legs itch and sweat and the crotch travels down almost to my knees. I feel like crying, but lack the energy. My mother gives me a green pamphlet entitled ‘The Facts Of Life For Children’. I shove it in my underwear drawer and grunt when she asks if I have read it. I cringe every time she calls me a ‘young woman’.
Mr Truly has offered me private music lessons at his house. He says my talent needs to be nurtured. My parents are concerned that I will make a show of myself. My school report has described me as ‘taciturn’, an adjective which deeply wounded me when I looked it up in the dictionary. My parents worry that I will disgrace myself by remaining silent, communicating only by nods and shakes of my head. They love me, but struggle to find things to be proud of. I am ordered to be on my best behaviour.
Mr Truly, however, does not expect conversation. I probably say no more than a dozen words to him throughout our relationship. He perches behind me on the sofa arm as I play and I worry that I will poke him in the eye with my flute. At the end of the lesson we have orange squash and pink wafers and sit side by side, our legs almost touching. When my mother comes he tells her I have been a livewire. This is a description so clearly ridiculous when applied to me that my mother snorts before she can stop herself. Mr Truly squeezes my shoulder and winks as we leave.
Between my first and second lessons, my mother almost kills us both. Blinded by the sun, she pulls out of a side street into the path of an oncoming car. I am jolted from my seat onto the floor as she tardily brakes, rear seat belts being a thing of the future. From this position I am showered with glass as our car is shunted onto the opposite pavement. There is a moment’s silence before we realise we are still alive.
Over the course of the next few days my mother relates this story many times, never once taking responsibility for her carelessness. Each time, I feel my face redden, knowing the listener is imagining me sprawled on the floor with my underwear and chunky thighs exposed. My mother says I have been badly shaken. I have not. I am angry and humiliated, but it will take more than this to shake me.
At my next lesson, my mother warns Mr Truly that I may not be myself. For the umpteenth time she relates the details of our trauma. She leaves to do some shopping and, for a while, I plough through the pieces I have been practising. Mr Truly assumes his position behind me. I notice that his breathing has become noisy, as though he’s been running. I finish the piece I’m playing and wait for him to say something, but he doesn’t. He just keeps breathing. He takes my shoulders and turns me round, pressing me to him. My flute is sandwiched awkwardly between us, my nose touching a button on the waistcoat he always wears.
We stay like this. His hands are shaking. Eventually I hear him say something about nearly having lost me and it takes me a couple of seconds to realise he’s talking about the accident. I stay still, not knowing what else to do. It’s almost the end of the lesson when Mr Truly lifts my chin and asks if he can give me a little kiss. I nod, expecting the kind of peck on the nose I get from Grandad. But Mr Truly’s kiss is different. His dry lips stay pressed to mine. His hands are still shaking. When my mother rings the doorbell we both jump and he is suddenly normal again. He tells my mother I’ve excelled myself.
During the week, I think about this from time to time. I haven’t realised until now how much Mr Truly likes me. Being liked by someone to whom I am not related is a new experience. My mother takes me to buy my school uniform, which she makes me model when we get home. In my regulation length skirt, tights and sensible shoes, I have pensioner’s legs. Even worse, I have a hockey stick. For PE I will wear a too short skirt with matching knickers. My enormous thighs will be on show. Lying awake through endless, stifling nights I imagine the embarrassments ahead.
At the end of my next lesson, Mr Truly kisses me again. This time there is no shaking. I do not kiss him back, but stand patiently until he has finished. Just before my mother arrives he opens his jacket and points to the inside pocket. I recognise the envelope of the card I gave him last Christmas, carefully decorated with stars and candles. I think how babyish my writing looks. He says it was the only card he kept. I blush with pleasure.
I have my eleventh birthday. One of my presents is a bra, white with blue polka dots. This seemingly pointless garment is to be the most uncomfortable item of clothing I will ever own. None of my gifts are toys. I struggle to conceal my disgust.
At the last lesson before school starts, something changes. I am halfway through my favourite piece when I realise that Mr Truly’s hand has somehow travelled up my leg and inside my knickers, where it rests confidently, as though it has a perfect right to be there. This time it is my breathing that goes wrong and the notes I am trying to play warble and squawk. I stumble on to the end of the piece. Mr Truly removes his hand and goes to fetch the squash and biscuits.
September arrives. It begins to cool down. My new form teacher says we should read newspapers, keeping ourselves informed of world events. Eager to please, I do. For several days the tabloid my parents buy is dominated by a once famous actor accused of some mysterious wrongdoing involving two schoolgirls. I read on. I consult my dictionary. I ponder. I begin to understand.
I wear trousers to my music lessons, hoping Mr Truly will get the message. To my surprise, he does. He changes. He stops perching behind me as I play. When I make mistakes he occasionally gasps, raising his eyes to the ceiling in exasperation. There is no more orange squash. I feel oddly hurt.
At school, something amazing happens. I make a friend. Or rather, I am inexplicably befriended. My friend’s name is Heather Breen. Her most noteworthy attributes are a tendency to perform the splits at random moments and an ability to recite the lyrics of the entire Abba back catalogue at incredible speed. My bedside photo of Mr Truly and the band is replaced by a magazine cutting of the Swedish four. There are trips to the cinema, shopping expeditions, giggling sessions in bedrooms. I feel normal for the first time ever.
One day, Mr Truly regretfully tells my mother he no longer feels able to take her money. My talent has, sadly, failed to blossom. I have not put in the required effort. My head is too full of clothes and popstars. They both look down at me and sorrowfully shake their heads. Yet again, I have disappointed.
I tell my mother I will make a thank you card for Mr Truly. I am proud of my creation, an intricate design of musical notes. Inside the card I insert one of the articles I have stashed under my bed about the once famous, now imprisoned, actor and the schoolgirls. I write no message, for I know Mr Truly is a clever man. Like me he has no need of superfluous words. As I address the envelope, I think how grown up my handwriting has become.