Show Me Yours
Roger knew he shouldn't be looking, that he should turn his eyes away and watch the seagulls fighting instead, but he couldn't help staring at the strange business between Danielle's legs. The shrieks and mad cackles of the birds in the background were nothing more than a weird soundtrack. Every bit of his attention was taken up by the motionless exposure of Danielle's downy crack, the lip-lined cleavage of her private mound. It was the first one he'd seen, and just as mysterious as he'd imagined, very understated, nothing like as clumsy and obvious as his own external plumbing.
That small crevice would soon be making grown men foolish, maybe himself in a year or so. Already a deep tone crackled into his voice on occasions, taking over from the usual reedy whistle, catching him by surprise, a grown-up stranger's voice, an alien or demonic possession. Hairs were growing where hairs hadn't grown before. His nipples ached, and though that had worried him at first, he'd realised it was OK when nipple-tweaking joined the regular schoolyard horseplay of dead-legs and Indian wrist-burns. He knew he was on a journey to a strange adult world of irrational passions and obsessions, of grunts behind closed doors.
Danielle half-crabbed to lift her bum off the grass and pulled her panties up. "Now show me yours."
Roger pushed his round glasses up the bridge of his nose with a single index finger. The moment of revelation had passed, all too briefly. Wide-eyed, he turned back to the seagulls as if nothing had happened. There were dozens of them close by on the cliff-top, fat brutes, mainly in pairs, their wings raised, necks stretched out, squawking and clattering their beaks at each other in the heat of argument. He'd never realised how big they were until he'd seen them this close up.
The little bomb crater made an excellent hide. Deep enough for concealment, but shallow enough to be comfortable. Only his head was above ground level, ready to retract into the crater the moment an adult came along the coast path, like a tortoise into an inverted shell. From this level the birds seemed dangerously big, at least as big as his head, if not bigger. It wouldn't have surprised him if one had waddled across to start a dispute with his head, not realising there was a long body hidden behind.
Danielle's toe made contact with his calf, not hard enough to hurt, but not soft enough to ignore.
"Hey! Now it's your turn."
That was the catch with 'I'll show you mine if you'll show me yours'. Part two.
Roger shuffled his belly on the grass, which seemed a lot less comfortable than before. "I didn't say I would. I didn't agree to anything."
"But you looked. If you weren't up for it, you shouldn't have looked."
This was true, he knew, and this was a battle he was going to lose. He was a year older than her and far cleverer, but his was a chess-set and school-test kind of clever, hers was streetwise. She was far better at manipulating adults than he was. If he didn't play along she'd be mad and make sure he got into trouble. She'd say something innocent yet so damning in front of his parents. She was good at things like that. He'd have to give in.
Their mothers were probably talking to each other right now. Danielle's mum standing on the shingle at the bottom of the three steps leading up to Roger's family caravan, Roger's mum casually chatting from her own doorway, her buttocks resting on one doorpost, a hand propping up the other, forming just enough of a barrier to deny entry, because last night's dishes were still in the tiny fibreglass sink. They'd be chatting but not really listening, both knowing the other didn't have much to say, not on the third day. All the news of winter, all the births, marriages and deaths, had been given up in the first good natter of night one.
Both families had arrived within an hour of each other, drawn to their holiday homes by the first days of spring, by instinct, like migrating geese, Roger's family from Bedford in his father's old Granada, Danielle's from Gloucester in the latest of a long line of Transit vans. Sometimes they arrived days apart, but never more than three. It had been going on for years now, this uncoordinated yet oddly precise rendezvous, a game that amused them all. "Just one hour out this year. That was good timing, wasn't it?"
He could imagine their mothers at the caravan right now, on this third day reduced to something like Roger's mother saying: "I wonder what Roger and Danielle are up to?"
"Oh," Danielle's mum would say, "probably just hiding away somewhere on the cliff top, showing each other their genitals."
"That's OK then. As long as they're not getting up to any mischief."
The caravan site was half a mile inland and couldn't be seen from the crater. From here, the only evidence that mankind existed, copulated, overpopulated the world and reconfigured it for its own purposes was the crater itself and the lightly trodden path along the cliff top passing thirty feet away. Beyond the path the ground dipped out of sight to the cliff edge, then plummeted a hundred feet to the sea, a fall that couldn't be seen yet had a curiously dominating presence.
Further out, where the planet's curve reappeared again, white tops showed on the waves. Through breaks in the clouds, shafts of sunlight, strange heavenly spotlights, selectively changed the sea colour from green to blue.
"Oi!" Danielle's kick was harder this time. "Your turn."
Roger took the kind of breath he'd take before jumping into a pool, turned on his back and started undoing his jeans. Best to get it over with, no point in delaying the inevitable. Lord, that April wind had a bite to it, even here in the shelter of the crater.
He looked down at his own rather complicated bits as they came into view, as if they were somebody else's. After a few seconds they belonged to him again. He glanced up at Danielle, shyly. Her cheeks inflated slowly, pumped up by an invisible air-line. He watched until she could hold the pressure no longer and with a great blustering guffaw burst out laughing and laughing and hooting and writhing side to side on the grass as if plagued by feathers in every ticklish armpit and knee-back and foot-sole. Tears wetted the corners of her barely-open eyes.
He looked down again, searching for the joke yet not wanting to find it, knowing it was humour of the absurd without accepting it, feeling about as strong and vibrant right now as a lost leaf of lettuce behind the stove. He pulled up his pants. There wasn't much point in carrying on. Danielle's eyes were too creased up for her to see properly.
"It's cold," he said.
Danielle set off on a fresh set of spasms. The insult of her noise blended in with the banter of the seagulls. If he tried hard enough he could discount her cackles as just one more bird with its neck jutting out and beak open wide. Or were the seagulls laughing at him too?
He fiddled with his jeans, freeing the wiry grass trapped at the back by his hurried refastening. Danielle chuckled on and on, chin bobbing forward and back with the effort of trying to swallow her laughter. Abruptly she stopped, eyebrows raised high in shock. For a long time she panted and stared at her feet in puzzled contemplation.
It was such a powerful change that it carried Roger with it, turning his hurt to concern. "Are you all right?"
She shook her head and wiped her chin with her hand, as if shifting something from her skin that might carry whatever was in her mind with it. "I'm sorry."
"You sounded just like a seagull," said Roger. No, that wasn't the right track. He wanted to make her smile again. "Maybe all that noise they're making is laughter. They're seeing each other without any clothes on and they think they look really stupid. That's why they're laughing."
Danielle recovered. Clearly she hadn't get the joke, but then it wasn't funny. "That's ducks. You're thinking of ducks. Ducks are always happy. Seagulls aren't." She rolled around the crater, spinning belly-to-back with her arms above her head, and came to a stop, stomach down, a few feet from Roger - close enough to be friendly, even intimate, without invading his space. He turned on to his belly too, adding to the togetherness, the warmth of a dare completed. With their heads above the crater lip they watched a herring gull pick at the grass with its beak. A second bird looked on, sometimes quiet as if awed or bewildered, other times raising hell in defence of the ground.
"What are they fighting about?" asked Roger.
"They're not fighting, they're courting."
"Don't be daft."
"Just like people, like mum and dad. They're always fighting. And then they go to bed. Next day they're all kissy and made up."
There was something to that, decided Roger. One of the many mysterious sides of adult behaviour.
"Have they got bits?" he asked. staring at the birds. It wasn't often that he got the chance to find out things, sex things. Alex and Julie, his brother and sister, were much younger than he was and had nothing to teach him. But Danielle, she was old enough and bad enough to know. He wanted to make the most of it.
"Of course they have. They're just too... you just can't see them."
"And do they... you know, do it?"
"'Course they do. That's how you get little seagulls."
"Eggs," corrected Roger.
"Eggs." Danielle solemnly nodded her head.
"So if we stay here, we might see them... do it?"
"No, they've got webbed feet."
Roger turned to look at her, his blank face asking the question.
"If they've got clawed feet they do it on land," answered Danielle, "in trees or in the air." She sounded less confident about that, unsure of herself, surprised by the idea and not sure if it was workable. "But if they've got webbed feet they do it in the water. Ducks do it in ponds. Have you never seen ducks do it? The woman nearly drowns. But chickens do it on land. The man gets on the woman's back and grips so hard with his feet he pulls lots of her feathers out. It's called treading."
That was exactly the kind of stuff that Danielle knew but Roger didn't, just the kind of education he'd been hoping for. Right now he had an interesting vision of young birds, adolescent birds, pairing off for the first time and wondering where they should go off and do it, and looking down at their feet to decide.
"I wonder if they give each other names?" he said. "Hey, that's Clarissa over there. I've always fancied Clarissa, I think I'll go over and ask her if she wants to fight and make up."
Danielle nodded her head towards the bird pecking the grass. "That one could be Roger."
"And that's Danielle watching him."
"Wondering why he's trying to eat grass, why they don't just fly off to the sea, to the big waterbed, and get on with it."
Roger fidgetted, unsure whether she would talk this way with anybody else or whether it was special for him. It must be difficult for adults, he decided, having to think about everything they say.
"Hey! Look out," he said. "There's someone coming."
A man in a waxed cotton jacket walked his Labrador along the cliff path. Danielle took a brief look and they both bobbed down into the crater, turning to lie on their backs.
"I don't think he saw us," said Danielle, very quietly.
Roger watched the clouds pass over, all in a hurry to fly inland, big springtime monsters, flat-bottomed and bulbous on top, dark blue and very white at the same time, ever-changing in a speeded-up film. A hundred disturbed and very noisy seagulls passed across his vision. At the very top of his view of sky, a Labrador's head appeared. It panted a lot, looked at them both, dribbled copiously on Roger's hair, decided they were harmless, and disappeared.
"Argh, yuk!" spat Roger, as loud as he dared, which wasn't very loud at all. He turned to rub his hair on the grass. Danielle had one of her giggling fits.
A few scrapes on the grass seemed to do the trick. He could still feel a slight dampness in his hair, but nothing more.
When Danielle had calmed down she said, "You look like a scarecrow."
He peeked over the lip of the crater. The man and his dog were already fifty feet away, almost out of view. The seagulls were returning, carrying on as if nothing had happened.
"Ooh, look!" Danielle pointed at a pair of birds. "He's brought her a fish."
It was curiously easy to tell the sexes apart. The male birds were more aggressive, more forceful. The females did their share of flapping and squawking but also took time out to mince around quite elegantly, parading the beauty of both wings, the smooth lines of the outstretched neck, which the males ignored as they carried on with their self-indulgent dance-floor solos.
At least the female bird is genuinely interested in the fish, thought Roger. His own father had tried the same technique a couple of years ago, arriving home late and very drunk after a fishing competition. It was strange to hear his mother use all those forbidden words, mixed in with the unusual sound of a wet fish on flesh.
The female made a lunge for the gift in the male's beak, almost knocking him over in the process.
Danielle laughed. "Cheeky bugger. He's hanging on to it."
The male was torn between courtship rites and hunger. He jabbed forlornly at the scraps left over from the female's attack.
"Odd way of courting," said Roger.
"You think so?"
"Not just the fish. The whole thing, the noise, the pecking, the squabbling."
"I think it's people who're really strange. They get all unnecessary when they think they're going to mate. Have you watched them?"
"No," admitted Roger, "can't say I have."
"Young men are like it all the time. Older men seem to wind themselves up for days. You can see it. Like, the day before. My uncle, he's like that."
"What about women?
"Women, I don't know," said Danielle. "Something happens to them in their thirties, but I haven't worked it out yet. Do you masturbate?"
Roger turned red, hit as much by the suddenness of the question as its nature. "I... er." He'd have to lie. "No."
"Well you should. It's good for you." Danielle's mouth moved sideways for an instant. "Have you ever thought how things would be different if you'd been born in a different place, if different things had happened to you?"
"Like, you could be the same person, look the same, same name, but if different things had happened to you, if your dad had got a job in Australia, if your mum won the lottery, if you went to a different school and had different friends, you'd be the same person, only not the same. And then when you were old enough to do it, you'd do it differently. So there could be, like, twelve different versions of me, and they'd all do it different to each other."
Roger didn't quite know what to say, but the conversation seemed very open, so he blurted out, "Do you think we'll ever do it?"
"What, you and me? Together?" She thought about it, or about something, maybe about whether she should say what she was going to say. "Yeah, I think so. But we've got to be older."
"How much older?"
"I don't know. Maybe next year."
Danielle scratched her head and nodded at the same time. "That's why I stopped laughing, before. I was thinking about your bits and I realised that next year I won't find them funny at all. Even if I do, I won't laugh. I'll take them seriously. They'll still be funny but I won't laugh. Isn't that scary?"
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Andrew Starling 2000 www.foxglove.co.uk