My best friend’s nine-year-old cousin can’t decide whether she wants to be an astronaut or Prime Minister. When I was young, I used to want to be either beautiful or a farmer’s wife. I couldn’t be both because if I was beautiful, then there was no way I would settle for just a farmer. I would be good enough for my very own sugar daddy. I knew what a sugar daddy was before I had heard of an engineer or a chartered surveyor.
-See also Attitude; Bosses; Colin; Firefighting; Promotion; Ultimatumants
I was sitting in the park during my lunch hour when an ant crawled over my leg. I squashed it with my thumb and flicked off its body with my fingers. Then I carried on eating my sandwiches.
Ants have not always left me so cold. I must have been about eleven when I found an ant colony in our garden. You have never seen anything so marvelous. It was like watching algebra in action. The worker ants walked in straight lines everywhere and seemed to know exactly where they were going.
But then I remembered something I’d learned at school and drew a line with my black felt-tip right across their path. It threw them into confusion. They wouldn’t cross it even though it was just a drawing.
I told my father this at lunchtime. He said that we should respect ants for their innate civilization. They even milk aphids, he said, in the same way we milk cows. He went on and on about how clever ants were in a way he never talked about me.
After lunch, I boiled a kettle and poured the hot water over the colony. I sat there and watched the ants die. My eyes hurt from squeezing them together to make the tears come.
At supper, neither my father nor I said anything to each other. I was worried he might ask me what had happened to the ants.
-See also Dogs; Engagement Ring; Jealousy; Outcast; Revenge; Tornadoesattitude
I work as a secretary in the media. The company I work for specializes in writing and producing technical newsletters for small- to medium-sized industrial businesses. Working in the media is something I don’t always talk about because some people seem to think I’m showing off. This is something I would never do, but it’s hard when all everybody wants to know is what it’s like to have such an exciting job. Maybe this is why people in the media tend to stick together. But then again, the strange thing I have noticed is that when they’re together, the only thing they talk about is what they are going to do and not what they do do. It seems they are all just filling in time before they become writers or film directors or actors or painters. It makes me feel dull for enjoying my job because there is absolutely nothing else I can imagine myself doing.
-See also Dreams; Imposter Syndrome; Wobbling
My grandmother on my mother’s side was a young girl in Liverpool during World War II. She can still remember the night the Heinz factory was bombed and how for days afterward the city smelled of cooked baked beans. It made the people in the city even hungrier than they were already.
Her mother—my great-grandmother—once spotted an unexploded bomb caught in a tree near their house. For hours she ran round getting people out of their houses and down to the shelter, where my grandmother was hiding. My great-grandmother wheeled the sick down, helped mothers with little children, and reassured the elderly.
She must have saved many, many lives that night, so I can’t blame my grandmother for still being annoyed, years later, that they didn’t give her mother a medal for her bravery. Instead, they gave it to the lady who was in charge of making tea.
-See also God; Mystery Tours; Noddybest friends
At the age of twenty-five, my best friend, Sally, has become the mistress of a millionaire called Colin. This is not something that normally happens in our town. Just in films. She has given up her job, her nights out with the girls, and living in her studio flat. Because Colin has set her up in a flat near his office, she has taken a lodger to pay the mortgage on her own flat. And all this without a backward glance.
Recently, she spent five hours trying to find a dressmaker who was prepared to pick her jeans apart by hand and resew them so the tight seams would make no marks on her skin when Colin pulled them down.
We are no longer such good friends. She says she can’t bear the way I look at her these days.
-See also Danger; Friends; Influences; Ultimatum; Yields; Zzzz blackbirds, robins, and nightingales
Sometimes it is hard to distinguish between how you sound in your head and how other people seem to hear you.
For instance, I have noticed that I can make what I think is a perfectly pleasant comment but that it can still cause offense. I do not mean to have a sharp tongue, it is just the way the words come out.
Perhaps it is because I have such low self-esteem and do not think so much of myself as someone like Sally, for example.
Personally, though, I blame the nuns. At the convent school I went to, we were split into three groups for singing. There were the Nightingales, who could sing beautifully; the Blackbirds were all right; and the Robins were what Mother Superior called “orally challenged.” I was one of only three Robins in the whole school, although I had a cold at the auditions, so it wasn’t really fair.
The Robins were hardly ever allowed to sing in public and particularly not if the song had anything to do with God. We had to mouth along instead, which got very boring, and sometimes it was hard to keep in the words. Once, an unidentified Robin joined in on a particularly loud and lively hymn, one we all loved. In the middle of our Lord stamping out the harvest, Mother Superior held out her hand for silence.
“Hark!” she said, raising her other hand to her ear. “I can hear a Robin singing.” Everyone looked at me.
That moment has always stayed with me. One of the things I hate most about myself is the way I blush in public even when I am not necessarily to blame. It is the same feeling that makes you itch every time anyone talks about fleas.
-See also Captains; God; Outcast; Voicesblood
It used to be a craze at school to scratch the initials of your boyfriend into your arm with a compass and squeeze the skin until the blood came up. Then you’d rub ink over the graze so you’d be tattooed for life. Luckily, it rarely worked.
Once I was doing it with Sally, but as neither of us had a boyfriend at that time, we just dug the compass randomly into each other’s arms. It made me think of the time I punctured my aunt’s favorite leather sofa one Christmas with the screwdriver from the toy carpentry set I’d got from Santa. I did that again and again too.
It was Sally’s idea to mix the blood drops together. She kept flicking her cigarette lighter, and we sang “Kumbaya” as we did it to make it seem more meaningful. Sally said that we were sisters now and that nothing could separate us, not even a boy.
-See also Codes; Mars Bars; Vendetta; Yields; Zzzzbosses
The only trouble with my job is the bosses. My current one is possibly the worst I have ever had. His name is Brian. He is from Yorkshire and has a short bristly beard, which he is always fondling, and if I don’t manage to look away, I can sometimes see his little tongue hanging out, all red and glistening.
Brian won’t leave me alone. He seems to think we have a special relationship. He’s always telling me that I mustn’t mind if he teases me, that he does it to everyone he’s fond of. “It means you’re one of the family, Ver,” he says, putting his arm round me.
It’s funny, though, that while Brian is always standing too close to me, when it comes to work, he likes to dictate his typing for me into a machine rather than face-to-face. He’ll do it even when I’m in the room, and he’ll leave little messages to me as he’s dictating, which means I have to hear them twice. Once he said into the machine: “Good morning, Verity. You’re looking very nice this morning,” so I called across, “Thank you, Brian,” and he told me off for spoiling his dictation. He said he’d have to start again now. I left the room, and when I eventually listened to his tape, I noticed that this time he didn’t say I looked nice.
Another time he dictated a rude joke to me. A man in an office asked to borrow another man’s Dictaphone. The other man said no, he couldn’t. He should use his finger to dial like everyone else.
I listened to this through my headphones with a stony face because I knew Brian was watching me, hoping I would laugh.
-See also Ambition; Zeroboxing
I didn’t tell Brian that Sally and I had started going to a Boxercise class at the local sports center. It would have only turned him on.
I wasn’t very good at first. The instructor was American, a big man with a ponytail he was too old for. He followed me over to the punching bag and shouted out loudly that I was too much of a girl to box. He said it was because I was English and had been brought up to be polite. “Who would you like that punching bag to be?” he asked. “Who really pisses you off?” I couldn’t think of anyone. I wouldn’t really want to hurt Brian, even. Anyway, I told the instructor that I was half Irish. On my mother’s side. He said that in that case, I definitely had to hit it harder. Harder, harder, harder. Eventually, I swung at it so hard that I kept on spinning even though I’d thrown my punch. The instructor clapped me on the back then and called me champ. He even started to sing “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling.”
Sally and I couldn’t stop laughing afterward. When we went for a drink, I noticed that we didn’t hang back at the bar as we sometimes do. We made sure we got served straightaway, and then we took the best seats in the pub. When a man came to talk to us, Sally didn’t flirt and throw her hair over her shoulder. She told him directly to go away. That she wanted to talk to her friend.
“You gave it hell, Verity,” she kept saying, toasting me with her beer. “You gave it hell.”
The next day, I walked sharper, straighter. As if I weren’t a girl at all.
-See also Gossip; Lesbians; Mustache; Weightbreasts
Last week I was on my way home from work, walking past the wine bar, when a handsome Australian stopped me. He was dressed in a business suit, aged about thirty, very tanned, broad. He asked whether I’d have a drink with him. He said he was in town for only a couple of days, didn’t know the area well, and was lonely. I weighed my options—drinks and a few laughs with him versus a microwaved meal in front of EastEnders.
When he ordered the bottle of wine, however, he asked for three glasses. Then his friend joined us. He was Australian too, but not tanned, not broad, aged around fifty. I didn’t know you could get boring Aussies with glasses, hairy ears, and skinny bodies, but you can.
They talked together a lot of the time about intercomputer networking, HTML, broadband versus Bluetooth, although every so often, Peter, the young one, would look at me and wink. I suppose he meant to include me, but I was beginning to wonder why I was there. Then Peter went to the toilet, and after we’d sat there in silence for a bit, the other man leaned across the table and asked me how much. His breath smelled of pear drops, I remember, and all the time I was thinking, How much what? How much wine? How much time?
And then I realized.
I was running down the street, my face red, when Peter caught up with me. He grabbed my arm. I was shouting, “No, no,” but weakly, so he turned me toward him and we kissed then. You know how sometimes when you kiss someone, your tongues intertwine and it feels like an electric shock racing through your body? As if your kiss has connected two wires between you, but all the resulting fizzles, crackles, and sparks are going on between your legs, not in your mouth? That’s what happened then. That’s why I agreed to go back to his hotel with him.
He touched my breasts a lot.
It is something I am sensitive about. You see, my breasts are very big. People can sometimes be cruel and shout out things about them in the streets. I hated them when I was growing up. I used to wear a too-tight swimsuit under my clothes to hold them down so no one would notice them. It used to make going to the toilet exhausting because I’d have to take off everything. Plus, at school we used to have these very short stall doors in the ladies’ room, so I had to hold up all my clothes at waist height with one hand so no one could see.
Of course, I wasn’t a virgin when I made love to Peter, but it was the first time anyone had touched my breasts like that. As if they weren’t dirty, weren’t something to be ashamed about. It seemed to mean something.
We had breakfast together in the morning, and he kissed me good-bye. There in the restaurant, like we were a proper married couple or something.
When I got into work, I didn’t tell anyone. People kept saying how quiet I was. I went to the loo after a bit, and when I pulled down my knickers, I could smell Peter. That’s when I started to cry.
I haven’t heard from him since. It was my first time with a stranger like that. I hope it will be my last. I thought Colin was going to be a one-night stand for Sally at first. I get angry with Sally sometimes because she doesn’t seem to feel the same guilt I felt about Peter.
-See also Colin; True Romance
Excerpted from The ABCs of Love by Sarah Salway. Copyright © 2004 by Sarah Salway. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.