NEW FICTION: ‘Underneath the Blue Skies’ by Jamie Woods

The new girl cuts across the sunken garden, late for class. Lit by the sun’s nascent summer haze, she almost looks flustered, she certainly looks lost. As she gets her bearings, there’s grace and poise, a balance in her run: she skips and glides across the grass like an okapi or a gazelle. We watch her through classroom windows in anticipation. There’s always something special about new kids joining a school midway through the year: not only that, but we’re just back from Easter holidays today, so we’re already over-excited and over-stimulated and pent-up.

The girls are immediately at their scornful jealous best: Nicola Harrison calls her a stupid bitch, Aisha Davies says that she’s a dyke, Lauren Chapman shakes her head with an incredulously dismissive Oh-My-God. The boys are worse: Adam Phillips reckons she’s just got her period, and Calvin Malone comments on the way her tits are jiggling. Josh Clarke – a boy who will happily fellate anything phallic just for kicks – grabs his crotch and indicates that this is what she’s running for to the fourth-form chorus of cheers, jeers and leers.

But to the quieter pupil, the considerate day-dreamer; to the red-blushing cheeks of the shy boy, and to the girl hiding beneath her fringe who hasn’t said anything in public for over three years: there comes an awakening. And inside the more vocal amongst us, we are hit instantly, adolescently, pheromonally and hormonally, as lucidity and clarity tear down the veneer of teenage posturing. Within every sneer, every put down, there lies nothing but lust: to be her; to touch her; a lust for this new student to allow us to love her, or failing that, just to know our names.

She opens the door to classroom G32 as if nothing has happened, apologises to the teacher, and sits down. Mr Spencer introduces her. Chloë Atalante. We listen, we watch, and we pay even less attention to Old Spencer and his dull History class than we normally do. Her heart-rate is barely raised, she doesn’t take any extra breaths, and she fails to wipe any tiny droplets of glistening sweat from her forehead. Her cheeks aren’t tinged with red: her scattered freckles lay undisturbed by over-exertion. Her right hand goes up to answer a question. Her right arm is beautiful. Long, thin, but just the right side of gangly. Lightly freckled, pale and we’re sure that it’s equally as soft as it is firm. We sing that old song that goes ‘I wanna hold your ha-a-an-a-an-a-and’ in our heads. Around her wrist there’s a beaded bracelet, and two of those brightly-coloured threaded friendship bands. Maybe they’re presents from a boyfriend, or a girlfriend, or just completely innocuous and only in place due to the carefree and colourful look they have. We’ve no idea, we don’t know anything about her. But we all know, collectively and individually, immediately and eternally, that she’s the one.

Walking home from school, up against walls and bus-stops and sitting in parks the boys kiss their girlfriends, and pretend their lips are hers. And what lips: anaphylactic is what Steven Hunter calls them; blowjob lips, according to Mark Thompson, and he should know, ‘cos he’s had blowjobs from at least three girls that will admit it. The girls kiss their boyfriends, and are pulled between heightened eroticism and Sapphic desire. Some, more tentatively than others, imagine kissing that beautiful soft face, looking deeply into those huge eyes, and the stare being returned. Others feel their lipstick being sucked off ravenously, their bodies looking and feeling so much curvier, skinnier, delicate, strong. Those of us without external outlets for Chloë’s fresh presence wait for the comfort of darkened teenage bedrooms and locked shower cubicles before, eyes closed, deifying her at our own personal, private altars. She gives us all confidence, and, at the same time, insecurity. She’s clearly too good for all of us.

Over the course of the first three days we find out that she goes home from school on the 194 bus to Forest Hill, she’s taken Single-Science, PE, Art, History and French as her GCSE options, and that her school books are intricately covered with biro – a mess of spindly, spirally cobwebs; beautiful, big-eyed lost girls; logos of alternative rock bands that have long since split-up. She’s smarter than all the boys in Maths, she’s better than the girls at English. But it’s in PE on Thursday afternoon that she becomes more than just our ideal crush.

Tying back her long strawberry-blonde, her ginger, her sunflower-yellow hair; hiding her quirks and her personality under the cover of the compulsory school PE kit; her legs and arms now functional and defined; we watch as she stretches and jumps and takes off, lap after lap of amazing pace. Danni Reed-Harper recognises this middle-distance Chloë straight away, and colours in her sketchy outline: I ran against her in the England Schools last year – Danni is our best athlete – and shit she’s good, she’s quicker than everyone, even quicker than the boys in the under-17s. She’s in the GB team for the Euros this summer, obviously. I thought I recognised the name, yeah?

The rumours start spinning in the playground, in the lunch-hall, and in each classroom. Slant-truths and half-facts scatter, the felt-tip bleeds through the paper. She’s adopted; she was reunited with her Dad after he saw her on Newsround, no, Grandstand, no, they were on The Jeremy Kyle Show; she’s a future Olympian: she shot a bear, she shot a man in Reno just to see him die….

The one thing we can’t tell, the one thing we can’t probe, is her unavailability. Her dad is like well strict claims a knocked-back Tim Poynter, she’s concentrating on her running says a rebuffed Ani Kapoor. A bitterly jealous Katie Serwotka tells everyone that that Chloë bitch, yeah, she’s sleeping with her coach, but we all know Katie did it with the bloke who works on the deli counter of the Tesco in Elmers End, so she’s hardly one to talk.

Even Danni can’t get close enough to speak to her, as Chloë is, at 16, already too professional in her athletics approach for the school changing-room antics and politics. Danni says she heard at the regional try-outs that Chloë was forced to move schools by her dad, as she was too involved with a boy at her old school in Sussex. Too pregnant, more like is what Andrew Adeyemi (Boys 100m high hurdles) was told by a long-jumper from Brighton. Too popular, in the wrong way, if you know what I mean was how she was described by a former teacher to Michael Jones’ mother, well within earshot of our 4x400m girls relay team. And although she said she didn’t want anything to do with it, fluttering those lashes, with some girls these days, you just know that they do.

One-by-one, we make blustering, stumbling attempts at asking her out. But we fail at eye-contact, we fail at getting past initial niceties. One-by-one we stutter into soft smiles, an embarrassed shrug and a mumbled sorry I’ve got to go. And Chloë, for just a second, for just long enough for us to notice, but not long enough for us to know for sure, looks as awkward and as embarrassed as we do.

Each day, of this summer term, she heads out underneath the blue skies, ties her hair back, and steels herself with the pact of ambition she’s made with herself. She finds her bliss; she finds her calm, not in a self-help manual or the headphones of an MP3 player, but in the time-honoured rhythm of the ancient hunter. Her Nike running shoes pound the asphalt in her monotonic pursuit of personal bests and regional glories. Breaking our hearts with every stride, she runs and she runs and she runs, and she knows that we will never catch her.

Copyright © Jamie Woods, 2015   


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Banner Image: copyright © Jo Mazelis, 2015