The bungalow was modern, sleek like a vehicle speeding over a small hill. Its wet doorstep was wrapped in apple blossom.
Max Deblonsky shuffled into Lorna Bick's hall with his laces untied, a small plastic bag for his swimming trunks hooked under his arm. The leavers' party was around the pool, and it took Max five seconds, strolling to the back, to realise he hardly knew anybody. Part of him stung when he saw Lorna wasn’t there. He pulled a Marlboro from his pocket, hid behind a wall of guests and blushed. Then he grabbed a can of beer, threw it back, and felt it explode in his gut. Max was seventeen. He had never touched a girl.
"If it isn’t my little man."
Moira Bick, divorced from Lorna's father, Steve, was already drunk. Red, round, and angry, she appeared out of nowhere and thrust Max into a group of her friends. She had platinum hair, wore a blue stole above baggy jeans, and was draining lager from a bottle. In doing so, she meted out punishment to everyone surrounding her.
"Steve met Max, here, at primary school. Steve! Can you imagine? Always bad with people until he first produced David," she said, addressing three women, who mostly smiled.
Moira and Steve met in the record business. Moira referred to the day’s celebrities — artists, musicians, the heads of major record labels — by their first names. She was remarkable because of her indiscretion and her opinions, but she was also openly anxious and jaded and bored, willing to expound upon her successes and criticise others to their faces. Those of use to her, she indulged.
Max felt a tug at his sleeve. It was Lorna.
They slipped away and kissed on both cheeks. He felt Lorna’s hair in his mouth and she doubled up, laughing, like she’d just got a shot in the arm. She was wearing an aquamarine one-piece, her hair pinned back by sunglasses, and she smiled warmly over his shoulder. Her lips were smudged purple. She rolled her eyes in the direction of Moira and pulled him down to a bench. While Max spoke Lorna focused on the clear, blue pool, studying whatever split, merged and multiplied upon it.
“Moira seems good,” he said.
“At least someone is.” He glanced sideways, then filled the silence before it came.
“Not sure about the summer,” he continued, in a low voice. She seemed tired. He wanted to hug her, or at least tether her limbs to stop her floating away.
“What Max? This music is too loud.”
“I didn’t get in, you know,” he said. “I didn’t get my place. But it’ll be a great summer, it always is.”
He pulled the collar of his coat up; his face was chiselled, almost elfin. When he smiled his mouth made a ‘V’.
Instead of replying, she watched Marvin Ackroyd. He had a football top on, and peeled off his clothes to reveal a pink set of abs. He slid into the pool with barely a sound. Those near him cheered.
“I heard you got your place,” he said.
“Yeah, that’ll be fun,” she replied in a sing-song voice. She stared blankly. Her eyes were dark and wet.
“I’m lucky, I ‘spose. Don’t have to think about stuff for another year.”
He followed her gaze.
“I guess I could maybe go swimming,” he said.
Lorna stretched out both arms, ratcheting her wrists back. Marvin was throwing a football around the pool. He looked at Lorna and a scowl walked across his face.
“Where did you say you were going again?”
He sucked on his cigarette. A note of bitterness rose in his throat. She was barely registering interest; she frowned, then hugged her legs.
“I was wondering what I should do,” he said.
“Oh, Max, you’ll be OK.”
She leaned in to hug him, affecting a bleary expression, her eyes closed halfway in fatigue. She nuzzled his shoulder.
“You coming into the pool later?” she asked, wiggling her eyebrows. “I see you’ve brought your trunks.”
Marvin edged up, trailing Moira, who’d looped her arm through the younger man’s. She waved, twisting the ends of her spoon-like fingers. Max felt Lorna’s breath on his cheek.
“I thought I’d take this nice boy for a ride,” said Moira. “He wants to teach us all to drink.”
“Sure,” said Lorna. She turned to Max.
“Unless you’re too busy?”
In the darkness the doors of the drinks cabinet were spread wide, beckoning those hungry for a fresh piece of freedom. Lorna was blank and set apart from the maelstrom, poised with her arms crossed, pressing her chin to her breastbone in a reflex that Max had seen since primary school. He could hear songs piped through a stereo outside, and a girl’s elated screaming burst out for a short second before falling back into muffled discussion. He drank the beer and vodka put into his hand by Marvin, whose mouth was permanently agape, though he wasn’t really that stupid. He tried to enjoy himself.
Moira quizzed Marvin on his football scholarship and linked it to Lorna’s love of golf and water sports. She tried to relate this to Max, but couldn’t quite remember what he enjoyed doing. The mood was calm, though Lorna finished the ends of Moira’s sentences and sniggered when she name-dropped. Marvin cracked the sides of a plastic cup on its way up to his mouth while backhanding bottles to his friends. Lorna tried please her guests — ignoring the excess, filling mugs up to the top — but felt guilty. Max noticed Lorna’s forehead had become blotted and leathery, oddly shiny under the kitchen spotlights.
“We shouldn’t be drinking all Dad’s alcohol,” said Lorna.
“Are you serious?” said Moira.
“We bought plenty of our own.”
“Why not? It’s just sitting here.”
“But it’s Dad’s.”
Outside, people danced by the pool. Boys pushed girls, their wet hair slapping the ground, their limbs marched like wheelbarrows, spinning over the overflow vents around the water’s perimeter. A young couple had locked jaws, lying down where the shallow end throbbed into a foamy grid.
Revellers downed drinks stolen from Steve’s cabinet, spilling fizz on to a counter. Lorna grabbed a dishcloth, pirouetting her hand across the work-surface. Marvin, his feet stamping wet prints into the lino, registered Lorna’s disapproval. Moira threaded her arm around Marvin’s waist, then tugged at Max’s belt. He was still wearing his coat. She sneered when she spoke.
“OK, Max, when are we going to see you in the pool? Why haven’t you been in?”
Max looked at Lorna and drained his glass.
“I don’t fancy it.”
“C’mon, get your feet wet,” Moira said.
“Mum, leave it,” said Lorna.
“I could. But I wouldn’t like it,” said Max.
Lorna looked at Marvin who shrugged. Max’s eyes vibrated with the music. He buried himself in a cotton fug. Was this how people enjoyed themselves?
“So what are you up to these days, Mrs Bick?” asked Max. “Lot of time on your hands?”
Max noticed Lorna scowl and he assumed he’d piqued her interest. Moira also seemed pleased. The older woman opened her arms — a bracelet with a silver dolphin hung low from her wrist — and she clapped her hands.
“You still can’t swim Max?”, said Moira.
Everyone laughed. Max didn’t answer. His vision danced. All he could see were his black, unlaced shoes, strangled by their skinny laces. He stepped back, accidentally clattering a fork to the ground with an urgent rattle which brought red to his cheeks.
“I guess we’ll just move along,” said Moira.
“I’ve got a question,” said Lorna. “For you, Moira.”
“Have a go honey!”
Lorna let her drink fall to the floor.
“Is it true you screwed Josh?”
Her eyes were raw, her pain had pleasure. She didn’t wait for her mother to reply, and ran out of the room and down the hall. A door slammed. Marvin offered to pour some more drinks. Max thought the older boy must go to these parties pretty often.
The sobbing escaped from under the toilet door. Above it, a light bulb, painted blue, smoked and smelled of sulphur. He pushed the glossed wood and it yielded easily. Lorna sat on the toilet seat with her legs clamped shut, her make-up aflame. She pretended not to cry. Max wondered whether to offer to catch her tears.
Her thighs were blotchy but bronzed. He wondered what would happen if he touched them. As Lorna watched him, her head tilted forward, her pupils thrown towards the top of her skull, he ventured slowly near, tossed a towel down and lowered himself on to his knees. He waited, pulled her legs apart. They offered little resistance. He pressed his palm into the surface of her skin. His hand felt electric as it trembled on a delicate layer of hair. He slid his hand slowly along the warmth. He felt triumphant.
Their eyes met. It was the first time in many years he’d seen her up close. He didn’t feel worthy to look at her. She let out a loud sniff and looked into him. He knew she was calculating what she could find in there, deep inside, and after several moments Max knew she knew. She had discovered that all he contained was more of the same. He was more of what she found in this house. He was more of what she would leave behind in three months when she went to university. She pushed his hand away.
He followed her back to the pool. The music was off and Marvin was dancing on his own. Moira was throwing glasses into a plastic bag. Max walked up to Lorna, who was rigid and staring at her mother. What could she say? He whispered in her ear.
“I’m going now,” he said.
He pulled back, threw his bag with his trunks over his shoulder and sloped off towards the front of the house. He saw the long drive roll down the hill, the shy sun, and he span and looked at the pool for the last time. There were a thousand memories drowning in its ripples. He wondered what it would feel like to jump up above it, curl his legs into his torso, and hang there, above its surface, for a moment longer than seemed possible. He thought he could hear countless other bodies piercing its filmy top, like hailstones troubling the surface of a village pond.
As surely as he arrived he turned around and left.