He wore an All Saints leather jacket and baggy jeans safety-pinned at the ankles. You know the type. His tops were always low-cut and when he wasn’t wearing pointy shoes he was wearing black pumps, as is all the rage now in that particular brand of dive where you get a line of Special K with every drink. Top the image off with bleach blonde hair and a predilection for wearing sunglasses in the dark, and there you have him. The boy beautiful. A portrait of the young man as pretentious.
I should have known better.
I did know better; I was being optimistic.
There was something about his diminutive charm and his cute, puppy features that made me want to mother him. That’s a flaw I’ve had since nursery when I used to take the good looking boys their milk for them.
I took him for dinner, introducing him to squid and pigeon. Clearly he wasn’t that pretentious.
Being young, and dazzled by his own youthful looks, I thought he seemed different to the usual Vivienne Westwood clones undulating in the damp corners of warehouse nightclubs.
Sure, he liked to party, but he liked to lie next to me in bed, staring at the ceiling and talking for hours. He was more interested in having a good time than scoring his next fix of whatever party drug was in vogue. He made me feel younger, fresher, as though I hadn’t been through the motions with guys like him a million times before. (I hadn’t, but I was precocious, and I felt 80 even at 22.)
So I smiled and said all the right things, and occasionally swooned and choked and giggled.
He seemed eager. Every day, he’d text or call. ‘Can we meet up today?’ ‘Want to go shopping tomorrow?’ ‘How’s your day been?’ You know the routine.
It was fun. It was summer. Everyone else was doing it, so why not me?
‘He’s a tramp,’ I was told. ‘He’s a thief.’ ‘He’s a liar.’ ‘He’ll play you like everyone else.’
No, I thought. I’ll give him a chance. And for every naysayer, there was someone willing to sing his virtues: ‘He’s a sweetheart.’ ‘He’s lovely.’ ‘He’s not a slag.’ Unspecific faint praise.
We went to the beach. Took our shoes off and stepped out over the rough shingle. Together we hobbled, as if over hot coals, to the water, laughing and joking. The sea scythed inwards as though ready to swallow up the land, a deep, grey thing so unlike the blue waters I’d splashed in as a child on holidays. British beaches never quite live up to expectations, I thought.
We collected crabs in tupperware containers emptied of their sandwiches. Little presents left us by mermaids. We gave each other smooth stones and pretty seashells – tokens of affection passed between us like notes at the back of the classroom.
He made a face with the shells and stones and held my hand. His little fingers stroked the tender ball of my palm, tickling me. I switched my phone off and pretended we didn’t have to return home tonight or tomorrow. As if we could suspend whatever passed for reality and stay instead in this fun place, where such serious matters as paying my overdue bills were irrelevant.
I knew it wasn’t love. It wasn’t about that. He was energetic; he was delicious. His smile was as wide as the moon.
Yes, I thought. I’ll give him a chance. I’ll give myself a chance. I deserve it.
‘What are you thinking?’ he asked, dangling his legs into the limpid pools, his jeans rolled up to his knees.
‘Nothing much,’ I replied, beaming. ‘What are you thinking?’
He smiled, flashing the front tooth that overlapped its neighbour. ‘It’s just such a nice day.’
When he leaned over to kiss me, I bent in closer, to feel the warm zephyr of his breath against my neck. He planted it, wet and soft, below the cusp of my ear and I shivered, but it was still warm. I didn’t want it to end.
‘So what are you doing tomorrow?’ I asked. I wondered where next we could go.
‘I have a date,’ he said, making little splashes with his toes. Plain as a knife in daylight.
I almost backtracked and said, ‘Pardon?’ But I couldn’t. He was just confirming all the things that had already made me feel weary.
‘Oh, cool,’ I said, trying to keep my smile. I looked down at my own toes. They were pink and smooth, pumiced by the salty water, but the gaps between them were starting to get sore.
‘Shall we get back soon?’ he said. ‘It’s going to rain.’
I nodded. ‘Yes, it is,’ I said, and realised I would have to go back to pay those bills sooner than I thought.