A crack, and everything changes.
Miss Coakley appears in the window, a shrunken head framed by fizzes of grey-black hair. Behind her, the girls bob in unison, ponytails twisted on the top of their heads so you can’t tell who’s who.
Mike’s giggling with the sort of glee that bubbles into your words, climbing down to find more stones, and soon I can’t hear him, only the sharpness of that rock hitting the window. It sits in the dense quiet of an afternoon that is heavy with the weight of all the summer that has passed.
Coakley disappears, like the sun behind a cloud. I am a bird now, exposed, straddling my branch, sky blue in a football top that gums to my back and my armpits with sweat and listening to nothing, just the faint tappity-tap of their shoes, the piano trundling on.
I hear her before I see her.
“The two of you. Get here. Now.”
Then she’s there, right by the fence, eyes boring into me. The ballet school squats behind her like a frog, green-grey and knobbly, smeared in the flaking paint we used to pick off until our fingernails were ragged, exposing a pale, dirty pink.
“Get here now,” she says, anger spacing her words, “or I’m phoning your parents.”
I’m stuck to this branch like an idiot, but then I see Mike’s upturned face through the leaves, blazing with sunlight, cupping his hands to make a megaphone, and shouting, “RUN!”
He’s already off, already miles down the path, jumping the dried up dog poo, running a stick along the fence, whooping for me to follow the golden trail it leaves. He’s in red, but that’s OK. Everyone gets so wound up about football but I don’t get it, it’s just different colours. We all like the same thing underneath.
I slide one foot down the smooth bark but there’s nothing to hold on to and I judder to the ground, the trunk against my chest like a cheese grater. Down my side is a mess of raw pink dots of blood blooming through the fabric, but there’s no time to hurt, Coakley is banging on the fence, so I’m running and running towards our base, like we’d practised.
I run along the fence then through the undergrowth, where we sometimes find bits of muddy underwear and where Paul Whitelegg once dragged us, eyes gleaming, to reveal a single folded page, glossy with bare, curved flesh. I burst into the wide space of the park, past the swings, to the circle of trees where we hide our crisps and Coke under stolen crates and plan our adventures.
But Lee Oldham is there now, sitting on my crate, opening a can with an aluminium click as Mike pants, laughs, spills. Lee has no dad so that makes him hard, which is funny because you’d think living with just your mum would make you soft. Mike dared me to ask him where his dad was once and Lee punched me in the stomach, hard enough to bruise and fold me in two. Mr. Littlewood went mental, thundering across the playground like a bull and tearing him off. We’d never seen him like that before.
Mike’s stuffing in Quavers, three at a time, telling Lee how hard he hit the window, how angry Coakley’s face was, when he stops, suddenly, staring.
“Hey, man. You’re bleeding,” he says.
It’s just words, but they’re soft, and in the cool space between the trees he takes his hand and gently touches the rip in my shirt, my blood on his fingers.
This is worse than Coakley’s face, worse than my ruined top, but I don’t know why.
There is one moment, a pause in time, as Lee’s roving, imbecile eyes pass from me, to Mike, and then: “WHAT, IS YOUR BOYFRIEND HURT?”
Mike’s hand zips away. “Get lost, Lee,” he says, his face stinging with pricks of red.
“Yeah, shut up, Lee,” I chime, but Lee is roaring and jabbing at Mike’s ribs, staggering, drunk with delight at what he’s done.
“MICHAEL’S GOT A BOYFRIEND, MICHAEL’S GOT A BOYFRIEND.”
His song echoes out across the park, to the toddlers on the swings, to the teenagers clumped at the gates. It dances in the wind, circles the mums gossiping at the ballet school gates, ribbons through the knots of twittering, wriggling, pink-scrubbed girls, winds round the school then past Mike’s house, past the newsagents, past my house, back into the sky. His song soaks up the air like a sponge, getting bigger and heavier until it is everything.
I watch as he flings his Coke can into the bushes and burps, a pop of air. He turns. “Want to call on Paul?” he shouts, and I know I’m out. Done.
Mike jumps up from his crate, not meeting my eye, as if I don’t already know.
I am home in minutes, slippery and new with sweat, taking the stairs two at a time as the rain begins to spatter across a washing line pinned with blues and oranges and greens, my mum reaching to them, listening to a radio humming with voices that don’t sound like ours. I’m about to slam the door when I hear it.
My name. It’s a question, floating through a window cracked open with CDs and magazines I have pillaged and hoarded from my brothers, manuals on how to be.
The name is mine. I hold it in my mouth. It tastes like peach barley sugars, strawberry-red sunsets, the flutter of downy dander across soft hills. It tastes of rounded cheeks, sweet plump smiles, girlish blushes. It is a herald. “It’s a girl! You must be delighted!”
My mum sticks her head around the door. “Rosie?”
My voice is lost in her warm neck, in sodden sobs, as she holds my wet cheeks to hers and rocks, slowly, a ritual. It’s lost, but it’s still there, saying: “Robbie, my name’s Robbie, I don’t want to be her.”