I saw her before she saw me. It was better that way. I watched her looking for me, craning her neck to see over the crowds. Trying to match the faces in front of her against my profile picture. That was all she had to go on. No bigger than a passport photo and you couldn’t even see my face properly. Half-turned away from the camera, fringe flopping down over my eyes. It was one of the only photos of me I didn’t hate. She must have liked it too, I guess.
Jonni and Fitz had abandoned me in favour of the mosh-pit with vague promises to catch up with me later. I was glad to be rid of them; I didn’t want them embarrassing me in front of her. Jonni especially had the tendency to say exactly the wrong thing at exactly the wrong time. He didn’t mean to – his brain just worked differently from the rest of us.
I put down my drink and rubbed my palms on the back of my jeans but they were sweaty again a couple of seconds later. I could feel sweat trickling down my back too. It was way too hot to be wearing my hoodie, but I wasn’t going to tie it round my waist like Dad does with his golf jumper. Plus I’d been wearing it in my profile picture, so I thought it might help her recognize me.
I lost sight of her for a little while and for a second there I thought I’d screwed up and she’d left because she couldn’t find me. But she appeared again a minute later – right in front of me. It reminded me of when Jamie used to dive under the sea and then pop up underneath me or grab my leg, pretending to be some kind of sea monster. This was scarier though.
‘Hi! Alex?’ Her voice was bright and clear, exactly how I imagined it would sound. Hers was more of an Edinburgh accent than mine.
She was waiting for me to say something. To confirm that I was actually Alex. She cocked her head to the side like an inquisitive bird in a gesture I’ve seen her do a hundred times since that night.
Somehow I managed to unglue my tongue from the roof of my mouth. ‘Yeah, hi.’ I cleared my throat because my voice sounded strange. She smiled and I’d never been on the receiving end of a smile like that in my entire life. No one had ever looked that happy to see me. There was no sign that I was anything other than exactly what she was expecting. I had no idea how to feel about that.
Sometimes I close my eyes and picture her at that exact moment. Before.
Her hair was long and blonde and shiny, just like in her profile picture. I’d spent so long looking at the picture I’d have recognized her anywhere. Her eyes were blue – cornflower blue if I was going to try being all poetic about it – and they were fixed on me in a way that made me even more nervous.
She was wearing grey skinny jeans and a band t-shirt that you could tell was brand new. Bright white Converse on her feet, contrasting nicely with my scruffy old black ones. In her profile picture she was wearing some kind of flowery top that looked a bit like something my mum would wear. It made me wonder if she’d bought a whole new outfit just for tonight. It made me wonder if she wanted to impress me. And it made me wonder if I wanted that to be true.
She didn’t seem to be wearing any make-up, but maybe she was wearing the kind of make-up girls wear when they want to look like they’re not wearing any. Her cheeks were flushed red, which could have just been down to the fact that the place was a total sweatbox. But it also could have been something to do with me. I knew she was shy; she’d told me in one of our very first messages. I’d said I was shy too.
‘I can’t believe it’s you! In real life! I wasn’t sure you’d show up. My friends think I’m completely crazy, by the way – coming here by myself to meet some random . . . not that you’re random or anything! Oh God, I’m babbling, aren’t I? Sorry! I’m so nervous. I don’t . . . do this sort of thing . . . please tell me to shut up before I embarrass myself even more.’
She talked so fast it was hard to follow, and the support act had just come onstage so there was even more for my ears to contend with. ‘Shut up, Kate.’
Her eyes widened before she caught on and laughed. ‘I’m not normally like this. Honestly. I’m usually much more . . . normal.’
‘Don’t worry about it – seriously. What’s so good about normal anyway?’ My voice had this new lazy, hazy sort of quality. Like everything was under control and I wasn’t sweating profusely and my heart wasn’t hammering in my chest. I sounded like someone else. Then it hit me: I sounded like Jamie.
‘You’re right. It’s about time I was . . . abnormal. Hmm. That doesn’t sound so good, does it?’ She paused and I wasn’t sure what she was going to do or say next. I certainly wasn’t expecting her to hug me, but that’s exactly what she did. I’ve never been much of a hugger; I’m a big fan of personal space. I didn’t seem to have much choice in the matter though. Before I knew what was happening, she had her arms around me. I kept some distance between our bodies without even thinking about it. An automatic reflex.
It wasn’t a date. We just happened to be going to the same gig so we’d arranged to meet up. That was all. But the way Kate looked at me that night, the way she laughed at my crap jokes and touched my arm, there was no mistaking it. I kept trying to convince myself otherwise but all the signs were there. She liked me.
I got her a Coke and we stood near the back and talked through the rest of the support act. Kate relaxed pretty fast and before long we were chatting about all sorts of stuff. It was just liked it had been online, except she was standing right in front of me. It seemed entirely normal and entirely not normal at the same time.
I kept an eye out for the Jonni and Fitz, pretty confident that they wouldn’t come looking for me anytime soon. I spotted an empty space on the balcony and ushered Kate upstairs. We squeezed into the space, which was only really big enough for one person, earning a glare from the guy next to us. He didn’t glare at Kate though, and I was glad.
The band came on and Kate grabbed my arm and squeezed. She was surprisingly strong for a girl. ‘I can’t believe this is happening!’ It was the first gig she’d ever been to and to look at her you’d think she’d never been allowed out of the house before. She started singing along to the first song and then abruptly stopped when she noticed me staring at her. ‘Sorry, I really love this song . . .’ She looked sheepish.
She’d misinterpreted the look on my face. The truth is, I was in awe of her. I wondered what it was like to be the kind of person who’d happily sing in front of a stranger (or in front of anyone, for that matter). I thought it might be nice to be someone like that. But Kate didn’t sing again – not that night anyway.
It was the second time I’d seen Saving Serenity this year and the set-list had barely changed. I was more interested in the girl standing next to me than what was happening on-stage. I kept looking at her hands out of the corner of my eye. Her fingernails were nicely manicured, without nail varnish. The only jewellery she wore was a slim silver band on the ring finger of her right hand. They were nice-looking hands.
A couple of times Kate looked over and our eyes met. Neither of us said anything. We didn’t have to, I suppose. Meeting in person had just confirmed things. She liked me and I liked her. It was simple.
It was anything but simple.
I only really knew the score the day before we met. It had all been fine at first. Kate had posted on the Saving Serenity forum a couple of weeks before, asking if anyone was going to the gig. I’d never seen her on the forum before. I usually just lurked on there, watching other people’s conversations and not bothering to join in, but for some reason I replied to her. I suppose I felt sorry for her – no-one had replied to her post after a couple of days and I was going to the gig, so I thought I might as well say so. What harm could it do?
Kate replied with a private message and things went on from there. I kept on expecting the conversation to come to a natural stopping point, but it never did. She looked nice in her profile picture – friendly and normal and definitely not a crazy person. She told me she liked my profile picture and put one of those little blushing face emoticons. I thought that was a bit weird but I shrugged it off.
After a couple of days talking on the forum we exchanged phone numbers (her idea). Kate told me a lot about herself – more than I would have told some random I’d met on the internet. She asked me a lot of questions and I answered them. I only told one lie – when she asked what school I went to – and I’m not even sure why I did that. Maybe it just didn’t seem all that sensible to give out personal information to someone I’d never even met. I said I went to the same school as Jonni – it was the first one that came to mind. It felt like a harmless sort of lie. Maybe not a white lie, but definitely grey at least.
We talked a lot about our favourite Saving Serenity songs and music in general. I introduced her to some other bands I thought she might like and she downloaded the music and listened to it straightaway. She was massively into music, but she confessed (with another red-face emoticon) that she’d only really listened to chart stuff and classical stuff until recently. She played the piano – only grade 7, she said.
From the sounds of it, Kate’s mum was pretty full-on – way too involved in her life. Kate had lied about the gig, saying she was staying going to Astrid’s house and she’d be home by eleven. Astrid was one of her two ‘best’ friends; I didn’t like the sound of her.
We messaged each other non-stop as soon as we got home from school. It was amazing to me how quickly that connection developed. Because that’s what it was – a genuine connection between two people who had never met before. Mum’s always going on about the dangers of the internet and ‘weirdos whose only friends are on their computer screens’, but she just doesn’t get it. It’s entirely possible to get to know someone without actually seeing them in person. In fact, it’s better like that because none of the superficial stuff gets in the way. You really get to know a person. And it’s easier to express yourself when you’re writing things down. At least it is for me. I like to order my thoughts, and delete them if they don’t make any sense. You can’t do that in real life.
A few days before the gig, Kate asked if I wanted to meet her there. My heart did a little jump. I didn’t want to think about what it meant, my body reacting like that. Things were confusing enough already.
I told her I was going with Jonni and Fitz, but I’d be up for meeting her. She was really happy about that. Then I sat back and tried to picture what it would be like, meeting her in person. Talking to her. Looking at a real person instead of a tiny profile picture. I could kind of get my head around me looking at her, but as soon as I started thinking about her looking at me, well . . . that’s when it all got a little hazy. Would she be disappointed? Had she built up some false idea of me based on what I’d told her?
We texted each other constantly after I got back from running the night before the gig. We always texted, never called. The thought of a phone call was terrifying to me. I never even called Jonni and he was sort of my best mate (not to say that I was necessarily his best mate). Anyway, I was just about to say I was off to bed when Kate texted something that confirmed the suspicion that had been lurking at the back of my brain. I stared at my phone and tried to work out if there was any other way to interpret her words, but I was kidding myself.
I went to reply, to set her straight, but none of the words were right. I kept on typing and deleting them, trying to find a way to say it – a way that would make her still want to see me at the gig. But I couldn’t do it. There was no way out. In the end I turned off my phone without replying.
I couldn’t sleep that night. All I could think about was Kate’s message and what the hell I was going to do about the gig. It was the kind of text Jamie probably gets at least once a week from his various conquests.
You’re really different from other boys.
In a parallel universe, a different version of me was thrilled to bits.
In this universe, I was mostly devastated. Kate was right: I was different from other boys.
I was a girl. I am a girl.
Excerpted from A Kiss in The Dark by Cat Clarke. Copyright © 2014 by Cat Clarke.
First published in Great Britain in 2014 by Quercus, 55 Baker Street, 7th Floor, South Block, London, W1U 8EW.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Pan Macmillan Australia solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.