For an awkward teenage boy, a gap in a fence can be the thing that makes the difference. Not the sort of gap you could squeeze your body through, but the kind you could stand beside, and watch.
My house was like a child’s money box, Dad and me the only coins rattling around inside. The house next door was full – bursting, it seemed back then – with girls and women. Amy, from my class. Ellen, the year above. And two years above her, the twins, Sarah and Beth. All of them blonde and curved and slightly pained. The kind of pain the popular boys they went out with didn’t notice. Even their mother was a thing of wonder. Pamela. Pamela Stone. The Stones. All girl-next-door beauty, my girls next door.
Standing at that fence, I listened in to every conversation about faltering romances and dashed ambitions. Haircuts and hopes. Dancing and dreams. I heard it all, drank it in, kept it safe. Winters were long and hard, but when the weather turned, sometimes as early as April, they were out in the garden in pairs or threes, dressed in short shorts and bikini tops. Running through the sprinkler on the hottest of summer days, lying together on towels, whispering.
Everything I know about women, I learned from the Stones. When I go back to visit my dad, I take a packet of cigarettes, even though I gave up years ago, just to have a reason to be in the garden.
Pamela still lives there, and the daughters come and go with the failures and flourishes of their relationships. At least one of them always seems to be pregnant. Their blonde hair has faded and their skin is duller, but they are still the Stones. I still go to that gap, and stand beside it, hardly daring to breathe. And I’m rewarded, now and again, with a bit of information about Ellen’s lover (a bully) or Beth’s job (waitressing) or Pamela’s health (deteriorating).
I’ve been caught, once as a stuttering fourteen-year-old and once as a man. Both times, it was Amy who called my name and said she knew I was there, listening, watching. I didn’t deny it. I couldn’t, the first time. I opened my mouth but I had no voice. And the second time, last year, I didn’t need to. I shifted slightly, looked straight through the gap into her eyes. There was a grateful smile in them.
I needed them, when I was growing up. And now they need me. The men in their lives are fewer and fewer, and nobody’s getting any younger. I remind them of what they were. Golden. Glorious. Girls.
Laura Pearson lives in Leicestershire, where she blogs about having breast cancer while she was pregnant and writes novels and flash fiction. Twitter: @cancerandbaby Blog: breastcancerandbaby.com
Image: Alexander Shustov