Genevieve Allen

Photo Credit: Anguskirk/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

It was five-thirteen on a Sunday afternoon, and I could barely breathe through the fingers clamped over my mouth.

The day was still hot—paving stones on the patio holding the sun, warm-watered goldfish ponds furred with algae—so hot the very air felt thick. All was quiet outside of our stuffy little bubble. The orderly streets of the suburbs were almost deserted as teatime drew near, the cabbage smell of people’s Sunday lunches slowly replaced by lighter evening meal preparations, cigarette smoke and gin and lemon. In the stillness, I could just make out the warbling of the radio inside the house, the thin, laughing cries of children a street or two away, yet to be called inside by their mothers.

I breathed in through my nose, hard and quick. The potting shed smelt of wood stain, of compost and my father’s wilting tomato plants. Under my bare feet, sore with a blister from the after-lunch walk my mother had insisted on, the shed floor was gritty, and cobwebs bunched in the corners.

“You have to be quiet, Iris,” Julia whispered through a giggle, moved her hand carefully away from my mouth. Her fingers were hot and damp and smelt faintly of a lunch she’d probably helped prepare: thyme and carrots and gravy granules. “Or we’ll be caught.”

“I know,” I said, already feeling silly about the noise I’d let slip the moment Julia’s mouth had touched mine. “You caught me by surprise.”

She laughed, a soft and quiet mumble behind her lips, the cotton of my dress bunched in her hand. “Then perhaps this time, it won’t be a surprise.”

I let Julia kiss me again, my head humming blank and body hot, nose full of the smell of old wood and Julia’s lily of the valley. Her lips were greasily dry under their coat of peach lipstick, her stockings rough on my bare calf. After an immeasurable time she broke away, smiled at me before she made to slip out of the potting shed door.

“You’ll be there later, won’t you?” she said just before she left, a dark shape against the brightness of the sky, “I’ll wait for you, by The Lamb.”

“Yes,” I said, too turned around to form any other reply. “Yes, of course.”

I let her go. Not that I was able to do much else, left slackened and overwhelmed by what we’d done. I liked boys, of course I did. I’d let Tommy kiss me after he’d taken me to the pictures last week. He was sweet. But I liked Julia too, smiling into my clenched hand like a fool over her, running my lips over my fingernails like there might be a trace of her left behind.

“Iris?” my mother called from outside, and the sound of my name coming muffled through the shed walls brought me back to myself. “Where’ve you gotten to?”

Smoothing my sweatily mussed hair, I unlatched the door and stepped out, sun making me squint after the dim closeness of the potting shed. My mother’s gardening gloves, abandoned at my father’s call for the first drink of the evening, were left on the lawn by a bed of half-weeded begonias. I walked around from the back garden to the front, bare feet smarting on the hot paving stones. The tops of them were pinked from too much time in the sun, two neat, white stripes left behind by my sandals.

“Have you caught the sun, Iris love?” my mother said, touching my face as I sat next to my father on the worn tartan blanket. I thought I probably had, though I wasn’t sure how much of it was sunburn and how much of it was Julia. Unbidden, I imagined her expectant face looking up and down the street outside the pub, pale in the dusk as she waited for me.

“Thinking about Tommy Parker, no doubt,” my brother piped up with a wink, avoiding the halfhearted swat delivered from my father for his teasing. “She’s pink to the ears.”

“It’s the sun,” I said with as much tartness as I could manage, and lay back to play at flipping through one of mother’s magazines. Tommy Parker was the furthest thing from my thoughts.

I let my eyes land without seeing on thrifty recipes and tips for adjusting old dresses to new fashions, as my family continued to bicker back and forth with practised good nature. I thought of myself as I would be later that evening, teeth clean and tucked up in bed, sound asleep and wilfully oblivious. Or I could be hurriedly trotting down the high street, eyes on the pavement and hoping not to be noticed as I sniffed out that longed for lily of the valley. Try as I might, I couldn’t quite reconcile myself with either of those potential girls. Each eventuality seemed equally impossible. I wondered which of them would win out as I settled on the wilting grass to listen to my family chatter, and read an article about a hair mask made of eggs.


Genevieve Allen lives by the sea in Cornwall, UK. Whether it’s one hundred or one hundred thousand words long, she most enjoys pieces of writing that take you out of your life, however briefly, and into another. Email: gallen52[at]

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