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Frankie was back.
After twelve years.
And it hadn't changed a bit.
The streets were still full of graffiti and litter. And groups of youths still gathered on street corners and in shop doorways, swigging cans of lager, and sucking nicotine from their cigarettes, while grabbing their girlfriends possessively and groping their backsides--or any other part of their anatomy that took their fancy.
Frankie had been there, done it, and got the t-shirt, but thankfully got out--even though she had been dragged, kicking and screaming, to the other side of the country, by her control freak of a father. She'd hated him back then; but if he hadn't done what he'd done, she'd probably still be here--a single mother on State Benefits. As it was, she was still a single mother, but at least she had a career to her name. And the slippery slope she'd been on, heading into drugs and drink, was now a distant memory.
She'd finally put her brains to good use, but it had been on her terms and not the career her father had mapped out for her. He'd wanted her to follow in his law-enforcement footsteps--not as a police officer, but in the law courts themselves.
"I'll catch them. You sentence them," he'd said.
But she'd dug her heels in, going down the business route instead; studying marketing at university; and now ran a successful dress shop. She even designed her own range of fashions. It wasn't quite the Judge Frances Richardson her father had envisaged, but, nevertheless, had "done good." And he was more than proud of her now that she'd put the scum she'd hung around with in her mid-teens well and truly behind her.
Except, of course, they'd not beenscum, they'd been her friends. And for a long time she'd missed them. And despite her father's scathing criticism of their characters, she wasn't the only one who had done well. That was why she was here now.
She'd been playing around on the computer with her daughter Debs, who was eleven years old, going on twenty-one, and desperate to find her mother a boyfriend. She was fed up with being an only child. Other kids at school were from single parent families, she kept telling her, but they had brothers or sisters to bond with, or had a father to spoil them rotten on weekends.
"I think you're overlooking the fact that I need a man to complete your desires," she laughed one evening over supper, as Debs brought up casually that her best friend Emma's dad's new wife was having a baby; that she and her mother were really cool about it; and Emma was so excited.
Debs was excited too; from then on, eyeing every male acquaintance with the shrewd eye of a girl ready to make him her father. She'd never been bothered before by the fact that there'd only been the two of them; that her biological father had never been part of their lives--it had been enough that her mother had once told her he'd gotten lost somewhere and she couldn't find him. Anyway, Debs had her grandfather as a male role model. He and her grandmother adored her, and Debs had never wanted for a thing, especially never missing having a father in her life. But suddenly things were different. The idea of a baby sibling was incredibly appealing. Anything Emma had, Debs fancied too.
So she began her quest, vetting every suitable male with an eye far too seasoned for her years. She might not know who her real father was, but a suitable substitute would do just as well. And told her mother she was becoming far too dull with no handsome prince to take her out, even suggesting internet dating when Frankie told her to stop pestering and interfering. Debs had always enjoyed going to her mother's shop and helping out. But she was now becoming a liability, frightening off potential business clients and customers.
Frankie had drawn the line at internet dating but got talked into going onto a website that reunited old school friends. Debs was fascinated that her mother and grandparents had once lived miles away from where they now lived, and if her mother wouldn't play ball with the local talent, then she had to be a bit craftier and look for any boyfriends she had hidden away in her past. Debs wasn't top of the class through lack of brains. And she certainly knew how to use them.
Once they'd logged on, they'd laughed together at some of the memories ex-pupils from her old Comp had written. And Frankie had baulked at how badly they'd treated their teachers.
Debs, wide-eyed, laughing incredulously at her mother's confessions, kept repeating,
Frankie had never been as bad as her friends, but Debs was horrified nonetheless. She was a model pupil; and incredibly well-adjusted, considering what a wayward teenager her mother had been. But unperturbed, she persuaded her to make contact.
Carly was the first she dared to e-mail.
Carly, with her big mouth, squeaky voice and incredibly short, tight skirts, used to prick-tease the boys something wicked. Confident and extrovert, she'd always been game for anything, organising their little gang of girls, both impressing and scaring Frankie a little with her penchant for trying everything her own parents considered bad.
And if there was one thing Carly was good at, it was bad.
Carly's e-mail replies sounded as bubbly as Frankie remembered her. And before long she was agreeing to come to this reunion. Not least, with Debs urging her on, fascinated by the tales--edited, of course--that her mother had so far seen fit to keep from her.
"Go on, Mum. It'll be fun," she insisted. "Think what it'll be like, seeing all those old friends again."
That's what Frankie was thinking of. She wasn't quite sure she was ready for that. Too much water had gone under the bridge. Twelve years was a long time. Once she'd left, she'd never been in touch with any of them again.
"And I can stay with Gran and have her spoil me rotten," Debs added with a twinkle in her eye.
"As usual," Frankie acknowledged knowingly, with a roll of her eyes.
"And you never know, you might run into some old boyfriend," Debs too grinned at her, her face a picture of audaciousness, her ulterior motive very clear. She was never at a loss to find her mother a man. And certainly not about to shirk her mission to look for a good piece of father material, running roughshod over Frankie's protestations that she was far too independent for a long-term relationship.
But from Carly's e-mails, it sounded as though most of the old crowd had shacked up with someone or other. So she knew Debs' idea was a non-starter.
Anyway, at sixteen, she'd not been into boyfriends, plural. There'd only been one boy. Though in her eyes, he'd been all man back then. And she doubted she'd be running into him.
Hoped she wouldn't be running into him.
Because, even after twelve years, the memory of Jake Wilkes was still enough to bring her out in a hot flush.
He'd been both the best and the worst part of her life.
And she still hated him for what he did.
Carly hadn't changed a great deal. She still had a loud mouth with a voice that hadn't lowered any in pitch. And she still wore a skirt up to her bum. But, no longer the skinny stick insect she'd been twelve years earlier, it now clung to a figure two sizes larger and her clingy top moulded around a waistline that bore testament to good living and three pregnancies in quick succession.
Against all the odds, she'd had all three children by the same man. And they were still together after eight years--and incredibly happy. But tonight she'd left him at home with the kids, while she floated around, having organised what had to be, in her eyes, the coolest school reunion ever. Carly had always been good at OTT. She still was. Life certainly hadn't done her a disservice on that score.
She'd booked a small room above a rather seedy looking pub, not far from the Comp where they'd all been pupils. But it was clean and smoke free.
And they certainly know how to put on a good spread.
Carly's e-mail description flickered before her eyes as Frankie scanned the array of cocktail sausages, samosas, and sandwiches already curling at the corners. They weren't quite to her tastes these days but ravenous after her three-hour drive, with no time for anything other than to book in at the hotel on the inner-ring road after her nostalgic drive through their old haunts, and a quick shower and change, she picked at the offerings and popped cherry tomatoes in her mouth like there was no tomorrow.
She'd been unsure what to wear, wondering how to present herself, no longer a teenager swayed by the latest fashions or dress code. She knew they'd all moved on. But she wasn't sure how far. So she opted for a calf-length, beige skirt with tiny panels, giving a fish-tail effect that swirled sexily around her legs. Embroidered flowers in matching colours highlighted the hemline. It was one of her designs and was proving popular. A white camisole and short, tan suede jacket, which fitted snugly at the waist, accentuating her slim figure, completed the picture. She'd wanted to keep everything simple, but, with her auburn hair hanging loose over her shoulders, she still looked a million dollars and every bit the professional business woman she'd become.
She left her sports car at the hotel and took a taxi. Knowing the pub's location, she didn't want to tempt fate by leaving her pride and joy in its car park. Anyway, she was feeling a tad nervous and decided a couple of glasses of wine was just what the doctor ordered to calm her jitters--especially before facing people she'd never spoken to since the day her father dragged her out of town.
But she needn't have worried. Carly flung her arms round her and planted a smacker of a kiss on her cheek as she walked through the door into the noisy chatter. Eighties and nineties music played in the background, while a glitzy banner welcomed them all to this, their first school reunion.
So she was planning more?
"It's great to see you. I'm glad you made it. You won't believe how many have turned up." Her high, squeaky voice had pitched even higher with the excitement. "You look fantastic." She wasn't even pausing for breath.
Frankie, now that she was finally exhaling, suddenly realised how long she'd been holding hers. Maybe it wasn't going to be so bad after all. Either that or the warm, alcoholic glow was finally relaxing her nerves.
"When I told the guys you were coming, they were ecstatic. I can't believe we never heard a peep from you after you left." If she wanted an explanation, she didn't wait. Thankfully, she forged on. "A few of us kept in touch. And those of us who didn't ... well, it's going to be great getting the old gang together."
Her tongue was running away with her, just as Frankie remembered.
"My, but we got up to some capers, didn't we? Pete's over there. He's a teacher now. Would you believe it? At our old school too. He must be a glutton for punishment. I couldn't wait to leave."
No, Frankie couldn't believe it either--Pete, a teacher? He'd been the worst of them all, leaving school with barely a qualification to his name; entertaining them with the stupid answers he'd purposely written on his exam papers, despite his quick, intelligent brain.
Frankie remembered how horrified, yet how impressed, she'd been that he'd actually dared to make such a fool of himself. She might have been doing battle with her parents over study time, but at least she'd tried. Even Jake had encouraged her. They'd sat together in the park, enjoying the sunshine, and he'd test her from her notes, telling her she had to take her education seriously and that she had a lot to offer. He'd been so deliciously sexy and cute--one minute a reckless teenager like herself, the next so mature. He could be so happy-go-lucky, yet so serious. She'd have done anything for him. And she'd loved him with a vengeance.
She gave a little start as Carly pushed a glass of white wine into her hand, forcing him from her mind. She was here to enjoy herself, not to dwell on memories of rats like Jake Wilkes. So she let Carly guide her to the food table, where most of the lads had gathered.
Frankie couldn't help smiling at the word. Some had filled out well and others too well, with their thickening waistlines and rounded beer bellies. But they all welcomed her with a broad smile and a complimentary remark on her appearance. Her grey-green eyes sparkled with pleasure as they grew accustomed to the dim lighting. Even her ears were adjusting to the ever-increasing volume of music, hinting at the disco to come.
Her nerves were also disappearing fast. The wine and the nibbles now lining her stomach settled the butterflies. And Pete was holding court, just as he used to. Making them laugh and holding them spellbound with his tales of how he'd dragged himself up by his shoelaces, after two years on the dole and shelf-stacking, to go back to college, re-sit his exams and go on to teacher training as a mature student.
And he wasn't the only one of their little band to be successful. So he was already toying with the idea of staging an Open Day where he'd invite them all up to school to speak to the kids. Show them it was possible to make something of their lives, even in the face of adversity. Most of them had been no-hopers and made it. And it didn't bypass any of them that Frankie hadn't had it easy either; a single mother, having her baby while still at school and studying for her A-levels.
Frankie wouldn't have admitted it back then, but she couldn't have done it without her parents. At the time they'd despaired of her but they'd eventually come to love their grand-daughter to pieces.
Carly was still playing the hostess with the mostess. Glass in hand; she made small talk, or rather loud talk, with everyone who arrived. She puffed out her ample chest with pride and congratulated herself on such a well-organised event.
It wasn't long before she'd completed the circuit and was back with Frankie, staggering a little now. But who cared? And she certainly didn't. Everyone was loving it and having a good time to boot. A few brave souls were even strutting their stuff on the dance floor. And Frankie too was more than a little light-headed, giggling along with the rest of them, relaxing in the lovely warm alcoholic haze now enveloping her, no longer scared how they might react to her after all this time. Old habits certainly died hard.
And once they'd exhausted occupations, marriages and kids, they were well and truly heading down memory lane. After all, that's what they'd come here to do. Remember the "Good Old Days."
"So you never kept in touch with Jake either, then?" Carly asked.
"Jake?" His name almost stuck in her throat.
Carly gave her a little, knowing push.
"Don't come that with me. Jake. You know--that hunky guy you used to hang round with. Don't tell me you weren't shagging like a couple of demented bunnies every time you slipped away to be on your own."
Carly was right. But she wasn't telling her that even though it was true. All summer, as though they were the first couple in the world to discover sex. He'd been her first and he'd treated her like a princess; wooing her and arousing a passion in her that had never since been matched.
Only sixteen, she'd been ripe for the plucking. And they'd screwed at every opportunity--by the canal, in the back of his van. They even sneaked to his room when his drunk of a father wasn't around. But they made sure they never went anywhere where her father might catch them.
Because, according to Frankie's father, not only was he too old for her--three years her senior--but he was scum. Jake Wilkes came from a family of trouble. And he was trouble too--big trouble.
And when she went away, was dragged away, he said he'd come for her. But he hadn't. So she'd waited and waited until all that was left of that sixteen-year-old girl was an empty shell, with a gaping hole where her heart used to be. He'd broken it, with all his lies and promises, as effectively as if he'd torn it from her chest with his bare hands and ripped it to pieces before her very eyes.
She'd cried and cried until she could cry no more, her whole body aching with her loss, until she finally accepted that she'd never see him again.
"Well, you'll be pleased to know he's coming too." Carly grinned, delighted to be giving Frankie such happy news.
Frankie's heart lurched so hard she felt her ribcage move. Her stomach churned in a swirling mass of hot liquid, squeezing that last greasy samosa, now floating dangerously on its sea of cheap wine, up into her throat. She swallowed it back down, forcing it back past her pounding heart as an extra pulse found its way into her skull. It throbbed so hard, it threatened to explode its way out through her ears.
My God, if ever she needed another drink, she needed one now.
"But Jake never came to our school," she said, incredibly calmly--and so casually, even she was impressed. She wasn't about to spoil the cool picture she was creating by dissolving into the gibbering wreck suddenly causing havoc to her insides.
"Oh, I know," Carly replied with an off-hand wave of her hand. "But I have seen him from time to time to say the occasional hello. And, when I saw him a couple of weeks ago, I just got so excited about all this my tongue just ran away with me. You know how I am."
Verbal diarrhoea, Jake used to call it.
"And he did hang around with us for a while--well, you really--all dark-eyed and oozing sex appeal." She was really giving it the full, dramatic works, her whole body squirming suggestively at the memory, her lustful eyes and pouting lips adding the final touch.
But it must have been the wine talking. As Frankie recalled, Carly hadn't been averse to calling him a lot of names back then, none very complimentary. She'd always been jealous that the hunkiest guy in town had made a beeline for Frankie and not herself.