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So after an hour in the biting rain and mud at Cherryvale we were driven back across town to the school gates. No time to change or anything. Because of this some of the boys used the bus as a changing room, though most just put trousers on over their shorts and whenever they opened their bags there was a stench of earth and damp sweat. We dried off as best we could but our seats still dampened. Sleet pummelled down and the city was a grey haze, which wasn’t great for those of us with things to do. I had to go to town to get my ears pierced. Christ. At least I didn’t have to go home for a while.
I couldn’t bear to listen to the boys with their awful jokes, so I put on my headphones and browsed Instagram. I mostly followed makeup artists: I liked the pop of colour, the fantasy. Someone was wearing a metallic blue eyeshadow and mustard lipstick and I thought, I could never. No way. No chance. I mean, I wish. I once tried Meadbh’s baby pink lipstick – I looked like a stern soccer mom, but it was exhilarating. I couldn’t buy my own or anything so I’ve to live through others. Makeup was too hard to hide. Earrings on the other hand…
Speaking of, the studio closed at six and we were stuck on the Westlink. Each time I checked the time my legs bounced violently. I convinced myself that we’d be there for an hour, if not two … in fact we could be there all night. I suppose I take after my mum. She goes from nought to sixty in no time. Recently she found pills in my room and thought I was on ketamine, which was the start of a slippery slope and very soon I’d be on the streets. I couldn’t tell her what they actually were, so I said sorry, I’d never do it again, and anyway it was Meadbh’s friend Emma that gave me them. She didn’t like Emma so that was that.
My phone buzzed. It was Dad. He wanted to go to a match at the weekend. I felt nauseous. It was something we’d done for years but I’d stopped going. He still tried to get me to go, which I didn’t really appreciate, but I couldn’t do much about him until I moved out. Okay, I still played Gaelic, so I guess that gave him a reason to keep at it. I mean, I’d rather quit, but people would then think something was up, and I wanted to avoid that kind of scrutiny.
I checked the time again. A few minutes had passed. We had moved and were on the offramp close to school. There was an Orange Hall with a statue on top blocked out by a curtain of sleet. I messaged Meadbh to let her know I’d be a few minutes late. The three of us had planned this for a while so I really didn’t want to be the one to mess it up. Someone threw a sock at my head, but I ignored it as usual.
I checked inside my blazer to make sure I had money with me. I did. £50. I had saved for a while, which wasn’t easy when your parents controlled your finances. It started on my birthday when an aunt gave me £50. She visited from Spain and said I should stay with her for a week or two, that it’d do me good to get some sun. That money was set aside and after a month or so went on oestrogen. I knew I’d have to explain changes eventually but, I thought, puberty was good cover for a while. If I’m honest, the idea of social transition worried me more. It would be near impossible in school. Like, there is no way. No chance. But I could at least do a few small things in the meantime, so I needed to save for clothes, to get my ears pierced, and to continue medication. I got some pocket money each weekend but most of that went on food or sweets during the week. So, I needed an income.
I liked to draw and in the past did a few profile pictures for Discord friends. I had a decent reputation, I guess, so it didn’t take much to get the word out that I was open for commissions. I enjoyed the routine I got into: I would come home from school, do any homework I had before dinner, then work on the commission after. Some nights I would be up too late with it, listening to music, talking to friends. My parents knew that I did this, although not that I got paid, so they left me alone, which was nice. Getting the money itself was difficult because of my age. I was afraid to open an online bank account in case my parents found out, so I had the money sent to Meadbh’s sister’s PayPal. She was at uni so I only got cash every month or so. It wasn’t ideal but it was better than nothing. I saved around £150 between July and January, which was more money than I ever had.
The bus finally reached school. I shuddered at its grey cast-iron gates. The sky had darkened and the sleet remained. I went downhill toward St Anne’s Cathedral and the city itself seemed unfinished, as if the textures would pop in as they would in a game. I phoned Meadbh but she didn’t answer. She and Emma were probably kissing somewhere. They both went to the girls’ grammar up the road and we had all been friends since childhood. We went to the same primary together then split up for secondary, which upset me a lot. Sometimes I’d think about when Meadbh came round in her bright green pinafore after her first day in the grammar, and how I burned inside, like really burned, as if I’d been told off for something I didn’t do. I thought about that feeling a lot too.
There was a shop next to St Anne’s so I took shelter and phoned Meadbh again. The inside smelled of warm bread. Meadbh answered and said she was in Claire’s picking up a few things. We agreed to meet at the piercing studio in ten minutes. I bought a small cinnamon roll and hot chocolate from a machine then walked toward High Street. I didn’t go to town often. The last time was before Christmas, when Mum took me after school to shop. It rained heavily that day and it was every bit as grey and bleak. Mum was in a mood because Dad, as usual, didn’t want anything but expected a miracle. That’s how she put it. The shops were open late and they glimmered with festive lights and frosted window panes. We heard the same Wham! song at least five times. Mum sang along each time she heard it. Reminds me of when your da and me met, she said. Though don’t tell your da, he hates George Michael.
In every store she’d ask me to go and pick something out for myself. I browsed the rails in T.K. Maxx, M&S, Debenhams, you name it. Couldn’t find a thing. There were some oversized hoodies that I thought could come in handy, but that was about it. Men’s clothes were so dull, really, just sections of navy and grey, aisle after aisle of muted tones and everything smelled like suitcases.
We stopped for dinner in Brights. Mum was desperate. I’d kill for a curry chip. She’d almost got everything, just needed a record player for Dad, and she said I really should pick something out or I’d be walking the streets in a bin bag. I said someone did that to the Baftas last year but she wasn’t impressed. I got a chicken burger and a pepper chip but ate it too fast and felt a bit ill. I was anxious though I couldn’t say why. Well, she’d begun to ask questions about the future, about school, about life in general, and did so over dinner. She was never one to ask questions, so I guessed she noticed a change or maybe, worst case, saw my browser history. Okay, maybe not, but I became more cautious with what I said and made sure all my devices were locked. Honestly, you can never be too safe. I guess it’s possible she picked up on those changes. There was no winning. But I felt, in her company, always on the verge of slipping up.
We found a record player in a second-hand store so our last stop was Top Shop. When we got there I told Mum that I’d be fine with money for Christmas. She said she’d love that too, then went up the escalator toward Top Man to get a jumper for my brother. I watched her disappear upstairs and milled about near the door for a few minutes before I felt this urge, I don’t know how to explain it, I just saw the store in front of me and needed to look around. I paused at each rail and felt taken in by the floral patterns and glittering rhinestones, the pops of mustard, purple, salmon pink. Even beige was a new, wonderful colour. I spent far too long admiring the jewellery with its intricate patterns and the deep blue and crimson stones embedded in rose gold and silver. There was one pair of faux-pearl earrings that I held against my earlobes. I looked at my reflection and laughed, gently, as if someone gave me a compliment and I low-key agreed that, yes, I did look great. I loved how they looked. I felt so light. That was until I saw my face in the mirror and realised where I was, and started to panic. I dropped the earrings and rushed outside before Mum saw me.
Meadbh and Emma were already in the piercing studio and snacked on triple-chocolate cookies. I couldn’t help but smile when I saw them. Meadbh had her hair in a high ponytail because she had track after school. “Starving,” she said after we hugged. “Mum is on this health kick so I had pitta filled with hummus and red peppers for lunch. I hate hummus, seriously, it tastes like wallpaper paste. Anyway, are you not freezing? Here, take these.” She handed over tracksuit bottoms from her bag and I put them on quickly while the man at the counter looked at his phone. Meadbh continued, with her mouth full, “There are some wee girls in there already but your man says we should be fine for time.” She sat back down beside Emma, who had recently dyed her hair. It was now a pink wavy lob.
“I like your hair.” I said.
“Thanks,” she replied. “The school don’t like it but sure it’s too late to do anything about it now.”
She gave me a hug, then gently kicked Meadbh on the shin. Meadbh looked alarmed then smiled and said, “Oh, here.” She ruffled in her bag for a moment then said, “Before I forget. We got you something in Claire’s.” She lifted out a wide-panelled hairbrush. It was lovely, and awful. It was bright yellow. I wanted to cry, and I guess my face dropped a little like I was concerned because Meadbh said, “I can hold on to it if you want, just in case.”
“No,” I said, then smiled at her. “It’s fine. Better than fine. Like, it’s perfect. Really. Thanks a bunch.”
I checked out my hair in the phone’s camera. It was a bit untamed, to be honest. I hadn’t cut it in over a year and it had grown beyond the awkward stage into an unshapely brown bob. It was a start, but Dad hated it. I used the brush to set it into some kind of fringe that swept over to one side.
“Very Emo,” said Emma.
I laughed and said, “To be honest I just want to hide that right eyebrow, it’s a lot worse than the other.”
They laughed, then I guess I felt a bit overwhelmed because my stomach felt tight and my eyes stung a little. “I think I’m crying,” I said, then set my things down and went outside.
There was a man playing a guitar in a small archway that led to the entry we were in. I stood against the studio’s window and dried my eyes on my blazer’s sleeve. I felt nervous. I hadn’t told my parents about this. About any of this. Meadbh joined me soon after and stomped her feet to scare off a pigeon. “You don’t have to say anything,” she said, “just know that I’m here and I love you.” We stood in silence for a few minutes then Meadbh looked up the alley and pointed to some shutters and said, “Dad would always take me down this way, he’d park in that multi-storey just there and we’d walk through the entry to get to the shops. He said there used to be an arcade, like Queen’s Arcade with the posh shops, but this one wasn’t posh. He met my mum there. I swear, every time we walk here he says, you probably wouldn’t be here if I wasn’t watching the game in Morning Star and desperate for a few chips. He’s such a melter.”
I laughed, then turned to face the shop again and saw our reflection in the window. I wasn’t tall, but I’d grown passed Meadbh by a few inches and my body had broadened. I couldn’t bear to look at my face. I sighed. We used to be so similar. I turned to her and said, “I wish I looked like you.”
“I don’t blame you,” she replied and gave me a hug. Then, out of nowhere, I started to ball, real heavy, for like a minute. That’s rare, no joke. I don’t think I ever cried like that. I started to cry a lot more. Not in a bad way, and often it was just a sniffle. Nothing like that. After a minute or so Meadbh pulled herself away and said, “Okay? Okay. Now come get your ears done before you freeze to death.”
It was a Thursday and the shops were open later so we went to a food court to get dinner. We bought a spicy pizza to share then sat at a table beside an escalator. We all played with the studs in our ears. I liked the dull pain whenever I rotated the metal. Emma asked if my parents knew, and I said, “No, they don’t know anything yet.” Seriously, the thought of telling them made me nauseous. Dad especially. He was, well, something. A while ago he went off on one at a guy on TV. The guy had his ear pierced and Dad said he had a piercing in the wrong ear. He said, It’s fine for men to have them but it has to be in the right ear, this guy has it on the left. What do you think that says about him? Then Mum said, No, no it’s the other way round. Then my Dad got confused and switched over to the news. There were loads of things like that. I’m not sure what he’s going to make of me, to be honest. Different scenarios of when I got in played out in my mind. I noticed some time had passed and I’d picked the toppings from my pizza and put them all at the side of the tray.
“Did your mum ever tell you not to play with your food?” said Meadbh.
I shrugged and said, “Sorry, I was away.”
Meadbh reached across the table and said, “I can be there, you know, when you get in or whenever you tell them.”
For some reason I just couldn’t get the image of ripped earlobes out of my mind. When I closed my eyes it was all I could see. Emma reached over the table herself and held my hand and said, “Listen. Take them out before you get in, then put them back on before you go to bed.”
“Yeah,” said Meadbh, “and I’ll bring tape for you tomorrow as you’ll need to hide them from the teachers.”
I eased a little and looked around the food court. I noticed the colours in the signs and smelled all the different flavours in the air. There were people all around and none of them noticed me and I felt reassured. I thought of the pearl earrings in Topshop and soared. People laughed and for once I didn’t think they laughed at me. There were moments when I could just be and I forgot how I looked and sounded and the world became so full and I wanted to do everything there was to do because I could. Someone at another table played music on their phone and I stood up and danced, badly and with a full stomach, then the others joined in. Others may have watched or laughed. It didn’t matter. We laughed and danced until we ran out of breath.
After dinner we walked to the bus stop near City Hall and passed some construction work in the centre of town, where the old Primark building had burned down. “I was there,” said Emma. “We watched the whole thing happen from outside HMV. I thought it was gone,” she said. “Surprised they’re keeping it to be honest.”
“Yeah,” said Meadbh, “they should just knock it down.”
As we waited for the bus I thought about the commission I had to work on later. I told Meadbh I’d give her a call to let her know if anything happened. I wanted to stay out longer but the night was even less safe. At least I didn’t have to walk home. I looked at my earrings in the camera and enjoyed how the winter light hit them. I didn’t want to take them out. Eventually our bus arrived and sloshed through the puddles that gathered by the curb. I took out my bus pass and looked at the name on it over and over, and each time the name looked more and more like a stranger’s.