“Poor thing. That’s terrible,” Ayana said, her lips twisted in disgust. “Why don’t you call the police?” She glanced around then lowered her voice. “If it were me, they probably wouldn’t listen. Black girls and women have got a bad reputation.” She screwed up her face as if to say, ‘Goodness knows why’. “But you…” She paused, her expression serious, her fists clenched. “It’s sexual harassment.”
Annie snorted at the expression. Sexual? For Kard it might have been sexual, although that was not at all sure. More like a power game. For her, it was just plain harassment. As for calling the police, Kard was already spinning a very different story. “Have you heard the news?” she asked.
Ayana shook her head, angling a thumb at her tracksuit. “I came straight from volley practice.”
“Kard’s telling everyone he was attacked by a band of thugs.”
“Core blimey! What a cheek. That would explain the spy snooping around school.”
“I doubt she was looking for thugs. They know full well what happened. She was trying to find me.”
Ayana looked dubitative. Justifiably so. It was hard to believe Kard would go to such lengths. But then again he was known for doing crazy things, although Annie hadn’t heard he had a reputation for pestering young girls.
“You ladies want anything more to drink.” Kevin’s voice at Annie’s shoulder made her jump. She would have knocked over her cup had the boy not caught it. Their hands briefly brushed as Annie hurried to recuperate her drink.
“We’re fine,” Ayana said giving him a broad smile.
Annie watched him saunter back to the counter, absently rubbing her skin where their hands had touched. “I thought this place was reserved for girls,” she whispered.
Ayana chuckled. “Kevin is a girl. She just enjoys making believe she’s a boy.”
Annie spun round to get a better look. Kevin must have sensed her attention as she glanced up and blew her a kiss. Annie felt her face burn and ducked, quickly taking a sip of her chocolate. Was it her imagination or did the cup smell of the girl?
Ayana chuckled again. “Don’t worry about her. She does that to every newcomer.”
Annie chanced another glance. Kevin was still smiling at her. Such insistence was surely more than a passing game to embarrass newcomers.
“So why did you choose to meet here?” Ayana asked, touching Annie’s hand to get her attention.
Annie wrenched her eyes from Kevin. “I’d heard it was for girls only, so I thought I could avoid that spy. When I remembered he was a she, it was too late.”
“Oh,” Ayana said, making an exaggerated show of disappointment. “There was me hoping you’d invited me here to declare your love for me.”
Annie shot a glance at Kevin, then looked at Ayana aghast. The girl’s grin was impish. “I wouldn’t have said no,” she continued, hanging her head to one side, pouting. Annie punched her lightly on the shoulder at which Ayana grabbed her fist and kissed her knuckles, Annie’s pale skin contrasting with the deep chocolate of her friend.
Play, she thought, trying to reassure herself, just play. But as she looked up and saw Ayana’s deep brown eyes full of barely concealed longing, she wasn’t so sure. “Listen, Ayana. Now is not the time.” She raised a placating hand. “Things are really complicated. This Kard business is likely to blow up in my face. One more challenge and I’m going to sink.” She paused and sucked in a shuddery breath. “I need someone I can count on, someone who can save me from drowning. Can you be that person?”
Ayana took Annie’s hand again and, uncurling her fingers, kissed the tips of each one. “I will be your lifeline, your lifeguard.”
Ayana’s words rang more like a declaration of love than a pledge to help. Could the girl be toying with her again? The light pressure of her friend’s lips on her fingertips left her feeling more than troubled. If this was not a game, she needed to know. “Are you sure?”
“Thanks.” Annie gently pulled her hand free, her fingertips slightly moist. She resisted the urge to wipe them on her tracksuit.
A couple of girls entered laughing and chatting noisily. Annie looked up to see the two hip-against-hip, their eyes bright with excitement. They greeted Kevin with kisses and called to Ayana who nodded back.
“You seem to know a lot of girls here,” Annie observed. Given the reputation of Marcie’s at school, Annie wondered if Ayana would deny her involvement.
“I used to come here often. I had a friend …” Ayana’s eyes glazed over and Annie wondered if she was going to cry, but instead, she pressed her knuckles to her temples.
“What happened?” Annie asked, touched by her friend’s sadness.
Ayana pursed her lips and shook her head.
“Please,” Annie said, tentatively taking hold of Ayana’s hand. It was warm. Her hands were always warm. “Let me be your lifeline.”
Ayana looked up at her, surprised, and squeezed her fingers. “Her parents found out. They are Ethiopian, like mine, and staunch orthodox Christians. Thank heavens my parents are more liberal-minded. Most Ethiopians believe being gay is evil and homosexuality is illegal whether between men or women. They blamed me. I was a bad influence. So they carted her away. To ‘straighten her out’.” Tears brimmed over and began flowing down her cheeks.
“I’m so sorry,” Annie said. She had never lost anybody she loved. There had been no one to lose, but she could imagine. It must be terrible, like being ripped apart.
“Did you ever live in Ethiopia?” Annie asked. It was a subject they had never talked about, as if were taboo like Marcie’s.
“No. My parents fled to England before I was born. My father was a top engineer. He had contacts here and was able to find a good job.”
The couple at the counter were joking rowdily with Kevin and one of the girls burst out laughing.
“Let’s get out of here,” Annie said, knocking over her chair as she got to her feet in her impatience to escape. The girls’ lighthearted joviality chafed her sombre mood. They seemed so flippant. But then how could they know the situation was grave?
Outside, Ayana paused as she pulled Marcie’s door closed behind them. Still holding hands with Annie, she lent close to whisper, “Thanks.”
From across the alley, a distinctive click had Annie pulling guiltily away, her hands falling to her sides. In the shadows, a man, phone in hand, was photographing them.
Ayana sprang across the alley and barrelled into the man. His hands flew uselessly in the air, swearing being his only line of defence. He staggered backwards catching his foot on the curb and tumbled. His spectacles and phone flew up in the air. Ayana scooped up the phone, leaving the man to scramble on all fours in search of his glasses.
Only when Ayana caught her hand and tugged her away, did Annie realise she stood frozen. “Run,” Ayana shouted. Pausing at the entrance to the alley, Annie glanced back. Despite the growing gloom, she could make out the man still on his hands and knees.
Ayana chuckled. “Don’t worry about him. I accidentally stepped on his glasses. They were that thick sort that only very shortsighted people wear.”
Annie stared at Ayana, astounded. Wherever had she learnt to be so resilient? Certainly not at school and surely not at Guides.
“Follow me,” Ayana said. “I know a place where no one will bother us.”
Annie’s heart was still thumping after their narrow escape. She might be preoccupied at being stalked by a photographer, but she wasn’t sure she wanted to be holed up alone in an out-of-the-way place with Ayana.
The ‘safe’ place was in the attic of a disused warehouse. There were many such relics in the East End. The area had been on the decline ever since London’s docklands had been scuppered by the growing container industry. Although that was well before Annie’s time, the scars were still visible only a short walk from her home.
The two girls climbed a steep wooden stair that complained at every step and emerged onto a platform which must once have been a storage area. The faded names of destinations still hung on papers pinned to the walls but the wares were long gone. Annie was surprised no one had daubed the walls with graffiti or smashed the windows. No doubt the local yobs would find it sooner or later.
“Here,” Ayana said fishing a key from her pocket and unlocking a door at the far end of the platform. Annie followed her inside. She was about to ask how Ayana had come by the key, but the question slipped her mind at the sight of the flat. She had expected a dusty, deserted place with broken furniture and cobwebs everywhere. But what she saw was full of colour and light. It was clean and cosy, pretty even. It felt lived in. So much so, Annie glanced around to make sure they were alone.
She wandered from room to room while Ayana pulled out the phone and began examining the photos. There was a kitchen with washed dishes waiting on the draining board, the bathroom was also clean and smelt of shampoo and soap. Towels hung from a railing over the bath. In the one bedroom she found a double bed with two pillows on which a giant teddy bear lay reclined. On the night table was a single framed photo. She picked it up and looked closer. She recognised Ayana. She didn’t know the other girl who had an arm slung around Ayana’s waist and was smiling at the camera.
“Good Lord!” Ayana exclaimed from the other room. “Look at this.” Annie put down the photo and went to join her. Ayana sat hunched over the phone eyeing the photos. Gasping every now and then. All the photos were of Annie. At the hairdresser’s. Before and after. So much for her pixie cut being a disguise. On her way to Marcie’s. Her hesitating under the red-lips neon. And then what looked like her kissing Ayana outside Marcie’s.
“I know it’s not the right thing to say,” Ayana said, “but I wish I had copies.”
The suggestion made Annie furious. So you can hang them above your bed and drool over them, she wanted to blurt out. But instead she said, “What am I going to do?”