Things like this don’t happen to me.
As we swayed slightly awkwardly in time with the warblings of a ballad being sung by one of those manufactured boybands, I tried to enjoy the moment for what it was: me, Cass Jones, dancing with Rob Meadows at the Sixth Form Christmas party.
Rob Meadows, star of the school rugby team.
Rob Meadows, blonde god of gorgeousness.
The evening was coming to an end and, after the rowdy jump-dancing of earlier, the DJ was playing the compulsory slow numbers that signalled the end of the party for some but just the start of the evening for others. And there I was, still dancing.
The Sixth Form Christmas party was a highlight of the school social calendar, especially as it usually provided significant fodder for the yearbook. All of Year 13 had started to think about lives beyond school, our small town, even our friends, as part of the university application process. Consequently, there was a sense of desperation to our attempts to create some happy memories to take with us. There we were, on the cusp of legal adulthood, yet not really sure of our place in the world.
Neve and I had debated whether or not to even bother going to the party. As habitual residents of the social periphery, we didn’t really belong to any of the usual cliques found in most high schools. And we were OK with that, enjoying the sense of irony in watching those cliques shift and re-shape, occasionally even imploding.
I’m not trying to suggest that the evening was some sort of Ugly Duckling transformation story. I am definitely not Cinderella.
But it was clear that others, as well as me, were surprised to see me there, doing that. I was dressed in some black lace concoction that Neve had assured me was ‘a little bit sexy, but definitely not slutty’, opaque tights and a pair of ballet flats. It had been a nightmare trying to find something to wear that looked dressy enough, covered enough and didn’t look like it should be worn by my mum. Neve had managed to cajole my hair into a side sweep of loose waves and hide the couple of spots that had appeared, as if on cue, that morning. I knew I didn’t look like most of the other girls, especially those with their fake tans, fake hair and fake nails, but I was OK with that.
Usually I was happy with the office-wear rules that made up the dress code for Sixth Form: black trousers, a plain tee shirt and a cardigan had become my own unofficial uniform. So maybe people were surprised to see me in a dress. Or maybe it was because Rob was dancing with me.
That was more likely the cause.
About half an hour earlier, Rob Meadows had come over to our table, drink in hand, sat down and started chatting like we were long-time friends. He joked about some of the teachers, and recalled some of the funny moments from when we had lessons together in main school. As the conversation continued, he had moved his chair closer to mine, as though he was struggling to hear what I was saying. At one point, when he touched my arm to point out the drunken antics of one of the other rugby team players, I finally got the message.
Rob was flirting with me.
When he asked me to dance, I looked across at Neve, who was bravely trying not to look like a fifth wheel. I knew she was as surprised as me at what was happening; this had not even been considered in the endless discussions we had had about the evening before tonight. She shrugged her shoulders and I got up to follow Rob to the area where a few couples were in varying stages of becoming physically acquainted with each other. My heart was pounding. I had never danced with anyone other than Neve, and never like this! I decided that I just had to follow his lead; clearly this wasn’t going to be his first time.
As we moved together in time with the music, I felt the tautness of Rob’s waist beneath my hands. I had worried about what to do with my hands but he had gently taken them and placed them on his hips before gathering his own around my neck, pulling me close. His thumb was softly rubbing my nape, the tiny movement sending shivers up and down my spine. My breath became shallower with each tingle.
Was this what all the fuss was about? If so, I finally got it.
One sway brought us closer together and I was sure that I could feel him pressing into my hip. I’d never been that close to a boy before, well, not in that way, and I didn’t have the foggiest about what to do. I was sure that most of the girls would be able to laugh it off with some innuendo-laden joke, some might even have moved in closer. But I wasn’t one of those girls and the last thing I wanted was to mess up what could be the best night of my life by handling it wrong. What if he ended up laughing at me?
Within seconds though his one hand ran down my spine, leaving a line of warmth that went straight to my very core. Of course I’d been turned on before but never like this; never from the real-life touch of a real-life boy. The tingling feeling spread through me, taking my disbelief hostage along the way. Rob’s hand lingered at the curve of my bum and pulled me closer to him. There was no way I could pretend not to know what it was pressed against me.
“Can I cut in?” What? I was convinced it must be a joke; Neve’s brother Flynn was trying to ruin my perfect moment? I gave him a withering look and held on tight to Rob. “Can I have this dance?” Flynn persisted, like he was a character out of a bloody Jane Austen novel.
“Uh, sure mate. I’ll go get us another drink, Cass.” Rob gave me a long look, full of meaning I couldn’t decipher, and walked to the end of the room where his friends were rowdily clustered around the bar. Meanwhile I was stood like a statue in the middle of the dancing couples. When Flynn tried to take hold of me, in a bizarre repeat of Rob’s earlier move, I squirmed away.
“What the hell are you doing?” I demanded, unsure whether I was angry, frustrated or both. Flynn’s shoulder shrug added to my fury. “Can’t you see that the last thing I want at this precise moment is what has just happened?” Flynn smirked and put his arms on my shoulders. “I mean it, Flynn!” I didn’t want to make even more of a spectacle of myself but I couldn’t remember feeling that angry before.
“Just hold me and pretend that you’re having the best time of your life,” he whispered into my ear, so close I felt him inhale.
“I was until you got here,” I reminded him before following his first instruction, knowing that my body language betrayed any pretence. I put my hands on his waist but refused to engage with him in any other way. Maybe it was my stony-faced expression but tension was palpable in his almost painful grip. I heard him sigh.
“Look, Cass, this is not how I envisioned my night turning out either. I thought I was just giving you and Neve a lift home.” There was another sigh. “But you have to trust me on this one, OK?”
I did trust him. I’d known him for as long as I’d been friends with Neve. And, considering the amount of time I had spent at their house over the years, it meant that we had seen the best and worst of each other. I remembered the time that he had comforted Neve when her dog died, even though they had been going through one of those sibling-hate phases at the time. I remembered how he apologised to his parents for the mess he had left in the downstairs bathroom one night, when it was actually Neve and I who had come home drunk for the first (and only) time, barely making it to the sink and loo.
But this was my night.
The night when Rob Meadows wanted to be with me. The night when I might actually get to experience for real what I had spent half of my life reading about. And I couldn’t risk losing what could be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I didn’t want to die a virgin, my remains consumed by the dozen cats that were my only friends.
“Flynn, I don’t know what is going on here, but I was having a great time until you showed up,” I said, looking up at him. “Please, just leave me to it. Go and sit with Neve if you have to stay. She’s all by herself,” I added, in the vain hope that, by switching the focus to Neve, he might relent. No such luck.
He looked at me, his smile not quite reaching his eyes. “If you don’t start to look like you’re enjoying yourself within the next ten seconds, Cass, I won’t be responsible for my actions.” His grimly clenched jaw added a seriousness to his words. Looking over to Neve, I could see the worried expression on her face. None of it made sense but, deep down, I knew that neither of them would make a fool of me. So I did as I was told.
I gave Flynn one of those huge smiles that are only used in toothpaste adverts and laughed as though he had just said something witty. He smiled back and played with one of my curls as I wondered how long the charade was going to continue. Rob moved into my line of vision, a drink clutched in each hand.
From the tightening of Flynn’s grip, I could tell that he had also noticed. With a muttered “Trust me,” he moved one hand to my lower back, pulling me tight against him. His other hand manoeuvred my head so that it tucked under his chin. Weird. Not warm and tingly weird, like with Rob earlier, but weirdly weird. Not knowing what else to do, I let my body continue to move with the music. As he got closer, I saw Rob’s smile falter when he saw the way I was entwined with Flynn. Rob was a long way from being called clever, but even he could work out that Flynn wasn’t going to concede on this, well, whatever this was. To say I was pissed off by the turn of events would be the understatement of the century and so, as my brain tried to work out how to rewind time, I was completely blind-sided by Flynn’s next move.
He moved slightly so that we were standing side by side, his arm draped possessively around me, and kissed the top of my head. “Come on, Cass, let’s go home,” he said, before essentially frogmarching me towards the door, slowing only to call Neve to come with us.
A group of teachers were stood by the exit, strategically placed to make sure that nobody went for a crafty fag in the car park or threw up in the hotel’s rose garden. Flynn merely greeted them like he would on a visit back to school, politely answering questions about Uni and his course. All the time his arm stayed firmly around my shoulders, holding me hostage, but nobody seemed to be bothered that I was being as good as kidnapped. Aren’t teachers meant to have a duty of care or something?
Flynn let go of his hold on me when we reached his car. I took full advantage of my freedom. Backing away from him and Neve, I went into full-on banshee mode. “You have no right to mess with my life like this! Who do you think-?”
“Shut up Cass, before you say something you’ll regret.” Neve’s quiet tone took the heat out of my anger. Clearly she knew more than me.
“Just get in the car, Cass.” I followed his order without question.
Before we have pulled out of the car park, I can’t stop myself from asking “Is anyone going to tell me what just happened in there?”
“Wait until we get home, Cass. Please, just wait.” My only response was to turn my face away from Neve and stare out of the window. Filled with self-pity, I struggled not to cry when I thought about how differently my night could have ended. How it should have ended.
I allowed Neve to persuade me that the story would be better shared once we had got into our pyjamas, taken off our make-up and basically removed all evidence that the party had ever taken place. We sat on the sofa in the living room, Flynn a brooding presence in one of the armchairs.
“So, who’s going to start then?” I was still struggling to sound anything less than aggressive. Noticing the nervous glances Neve kept giving in Flynn’s direction just served to make me more anxious. I genuinely had no idea as to the story behind that night’s debacle but it was clear that the telling wasn’t going to be pretty. “Neve, we’re best friends. Just tell me,” I begged.
“Actually, it probably makes sense for me to tell you.” I angled myself to best look at Flynn’s face and I saw the tension take hold of his entire being. “How long have you and Rob Meadows been friends?” His question took me by surprise.
“Umm, I’ve known him since we started high school but we’re not friends. Why? Are you going to question my morals in getting off with someone I’m not friends with first? You?” My voice got higher and higher with indignation. “The person who deleted us as friends on Facebook so that we couldn’t see the man-whoring he was indulging in at Uni?” I was in danger of losing it as I considered the double standards at work.
Neve sensed how little control I had left. “Shut up, Cass.” Shuffling along the sofa to my end, she took my hand. “Please. Just listen.”
Flynn took advantage of the quiet and continued, with a slightly less condescending tone. “I’m only asking as it makes a difference to how hurt you might be by what went on. Cass,” he paused briefly as though he was struggling to word what needed to be said, “Rob was with you for a bet.”
As the wave of humiliation crashed through me, I struggled to make sense of what he was saying. “The rugby team all put ten pounds each into a pot which would go to the person with the best photo of a girl’s, umm, breasts by the end of the night. Rob said that he was onto a winner if he could get a photo of yours as, unlike most of the other girls ending up with the team tonight, yours haven’t been seen by anyone else.” My hands covered my face as though that could render me invisible. I felt the burning embarrassment in my cheeks and the tell-tale hot pin-pricking behind my eyes.
“So how did you know about this?” My anger with Flynn had dissipated and I barely whispered the words.
“It was on Facebook, Cass.”
His volume had quietened but that just added to the enormity of what those five words meant.
Everyone knew. Everyone in Sixth Form knew that the only reason a boy would touch me was for a bet. I was never going to be able to set foot in school again.
“I want to see. Where’s my phone?” I scrambled up the stairs to grab it out of the handbag I had thrown onto Neve’s bed. The breathlessness I struggled through as I sat waiting for the app to load had more to do with the growing sense of panic than the rush up the stairs. Why me? I was the sort of girl who stayed in the background of everything. I didn’t get into trouble. I worked hard. I tried to be nice to people. I didn’t deserve this.
Before anything else registered, the small red circle told me that I had forty two notifications. Shit. I never got that many in a whole week, probably even a month. I scrolled through the updates declaring what an ‘Ace evening all round’ and ‘God, fucking amazing night’ everyone else appeared to have had and then I saw it.
The photo I’d been tagged in.
The photo of me dancing with Rob, strategically taken to show his hand holding my bum and me with a dreamy, faraway look on my face. He was clearly aware that the photo was being taken as the hand that is at the back of my neck is flicking the bird at the photographer. He hadn’t been stroking my neck at all.
I didn’t have the strength to look at anything else. I switched off my phone and curled up on the bed, hands balled into my eyes to stop the tears that threatened to fall.
The bed dipped when Neve sat down next to me. As she stroked my hair and tried to convince me that it was going to be alright, I knew that I didn’t want to talk about it. I gave her a look that pleaded with her not to say anything, pulled out the mattress from under her bed that was only ever used by me, grabbed the spare duvet and pillow from the bottom of her wardrobe and lay down.
Once in bed, I reached out and held her hand briefly across the two beds, our usual way of saying goodnight to each other, and turned away.