We’re going for a spliff under the bridge, and it’s the most exciting thing that’s ever happened.
I’ve got friends now – a proper gang, three cool girls from my school, and four boys who all wear tracksuits and have gel in their hair and listen to speed garage. They’re boys. Did I mention that? Four real live boys are taking me down to the bridge for a spliff. Yes! I’m 15 years old and finally living my best teenage life.
It’s autumn, and it’s dark and damp. I’m happy. I have a massive crush on one of the boys, Pete, who has ginger hair and smells like washing powder. When I go to the shops with my mum, I try to find out which washing powder it is. Maybe Persil?
We’re all mucking about, jumping over bollards. I pretend to be Little Miss Muffet for some reason. We’re stoned already.
I’m much too shy to talk to Pete, let alone flirt with him, but still: We’re walking together as part of the same group on our way to the same spliff. I feel a step closer to my big teenage ambition: getting a boyfriend. Dawson’s Creek, Clueless, Judy Blume, they’ve all made a promise to me – that I’ll meet a boy, that there’ll be a love story, and it will be amazing.
By the time I’m 15, when the night of the spliff comes round, I’ve been waiting for love for a while. The Dawson’s Creek gang are all 15. Cher in Clueless is 15. All the cool girls at school are dating; people are having sex. I don’t want to be left behind.
But how do you make love happen? I’m at an all-girls school; I don’t really know any boys. I once had a friend who was a boy, but that was when I was 6. Over the years, boys have become like myths: awesome, strange, terrifying creatures that I fall in love with from a distance at the bus stop after school.
So far in my life I have fallen in love with three people:
Joe: Very short, but handsome and a bit of a bad boy. I had a crush on him for weeks, which is years when you’re 14. But no, Joe fancied my friend. I cried for an entire night when I found out.
Ben: His eyes. His curtains. We snogged lying down on a sofa at a party. The sofa made it feel serious: We’d spent proper time together – like, 20 minutes. But then he went to get a drink and kissed my best friends. Both of them, one by one.
Owen: We shared a bed once and he kind of pressed up against me. But there was another girl in the bed too, so I just froze and lay there, hoping this amazing sexy moment would never end. That was the last I saw of him.
And then my “cool friend” Mel introduces me to Pete. He’s funny. He’s handsome. He wears Kappa. One Friday night, we get the tube to Brentford to hang out at some guy’s house. It’s the first time I’ve gone to Brentford, and the first time I’ve been inside a boy’s bedroom in a decadeAll the lights are on. The guys are strewn across the floor smoking “ganja”, taking big, deep puffs, exhaling long ribbons of smoke. Sometimes they shake their middle finger and thumb in the air to show their appreciation for the music, which is very, very loud and very fast. Every now and then I catch Pete’s washing powder scent in the air.
At school, Mel says Pete likes me. I shrug it off but inside I’m melting. I’ve known Pete for about a month, and we’ve met about three times. He could be the one.
The underpass where we’re going to smoke the most exciting spliff of all time is on the other side of the river. It’s about 9pm. The wet bridge shimmers with car lights and glowing adverts rolling in a loop on the bus stop. A bus pulls up and a bunch of people get off. I’ve hardly ever been out at night with friends before, but this feels safe and normal. I drive over this bridge with my dad on the way to swimming all the time.
Then suddenly there’s a commotion. A group of guys from the bus are rounding on our group. They’re bigger than us, definitely older. They’re men. One of them grabs Mel’s boyfriend, Matt, and pushes him against the bridge wall so his upper body is leaning right back over the river below. Our other friend Sean starts shouting. People are pushing each other. I’m terrified.
I’ve never been mugged before. But then I’ve never gone for a spliff before, so maybe this is what it’s always like? If not, I’m unlucky. My first spliff under the bridge, my first mugging.
I’m scared I’m going to be caught in the ruckus, but now another man is ushering some of us to one side. “Come with me,” he says. “I’ll keep you safe. Don’t worry, don’t worry, it’ll be fine.”
While three of the muggers, pretty big guys, seem to be about to kill half my group, the fourth, much friendlier mugger takes my friend Anna, my crush Pete, and me aside for a nice but quite awkward chat. “Don’t worry, ladies. Ignore my friends!” Matt in the background being dangled over the bridge, hard to ignore.
This mugger likes us. He wants to get to know us. He’s grinning, putting his arms round our shoulders, trying to brush off the small matter of the violence with an embarrassed shake of his head.
He’s assessing our little group, trying to suss us out. “OK, OK, which of these ladies do you like?” He’s looking at Pete. “Come on! Don’t be shy! Which one? Look at him, he’s smiling!”
My heart starts beating faster. I’m going red. “I like him!!!” I cry out silently in my head.
“This one, right, it’s this one, yeah?” The mugger’s pointing at Anna. Of course he is. She’s taller than me, blonde, beautiful. Of course Pete likes her! I feel like a troll. Pete looks terrified and confused.
“Alright!” laughs the mugger, hitting his stride. “This one then? This one! You like her!” Now he’s pointing at me. FUCK, FUCK, FUCK. What’s happening? Pete laughs with embarrassment. “Nooo!” I say limply. “We’re just friends.”
The mugger ignores me, and I’ve never been so grateful in my life. “You DO like her!” He’s thrilled, he’s on fire. He wants to quit his job as a mugger and become a matchmaker. His new career just began right here on the bridge.
“You like her, man! I can tell. Kiss her. You two need to kiss each other.”
What. The. Fuck.
I’m being told to kiss the guy I’m in love with by a man whose friends are in the process of violently assaulting mine. I keep thinking Pete’s going to say no, that he’ll look disgusted and laugh in my face, but he doesn’t. He just kind of moves towards me, and I move towards him.
The mugger must still be there somewhere, creepily watching his successful teenage love match, but at that moment it’s just us. I’ve never actually kissed someone I know before, let alone someone I’ve got a massive crush on, but now it’s happening, and under the strangest circumstances.
We kiss. Not a peck on the cheek – this is a proper snog, with tongues and everything.
Of course it’s the best kiss of my 15-year-old life. The damp November air. The feel of his puffa jacket. His lips. The smell of Persil. The vague awareness that there’s a mugging happening somewhere out there. My friend Anna presumably still nearby, caught between a punch-up and a bizarre PDA. The kiss, which seems to go on for ages, and is ridiculously good, unexpected fun.
Then it’s over. Pete and I step away from each other, smiling awkwardly. As quickly as they appeared, the muggers seem to vanish into the night. Matt and Sean are back – Matt looks ashen and Sean’s bleeding. They bottled him across the forehead, but it’s not serious. He still wants that spliff.
People take turns on the reefer in the sickly yellow light of the underpass. The tiles and puddles throw our voices about. I want to stand near Pete, catch his eye, but I’m shy again. I don’t know how the next bit’s meant to go. Still, I’m buzzing. Tonight feels magic. My love story’s just begun, and it’s a fucking great opening chapter.
Except, in the end it was more of an underwhelming footnote. A week after the romantic mugging, Pete got back with his ex. She was really pretty and very cool, the sort of girl with a tattoo and a leather jacket, who didn’t come to school sometimes. I drifted away from the group. We didn’t keep in touch.
For a long time, I felt the romantic mugging did mean something – it meant I would never find love. That no matter how romantic something was, I’d ultimately be passed over. It endowed me with a sense of personal doom. I was the unlovable one. The one who would be single forever.
My teens slipped past; I stayed single. I began to resign myself to the lonely life that fate had planned for me.
But that was wrong too.
Muuuch later – like, years later – I asked a boy I liked to a party. We drank vodka, and when we were drunk I kissed him. It didn’t ~mean~ anything, but it turned out to be love.