I was eleven and Chris was twelve. Taking the lead, he squeezed through a gap in the fence while I crouched down behind the garden wall of one of the nearby houses. He made sure the building site was empty and waved me in. I wanted to climb the scaffolding to see beyond the street we lived on. Chris went up first and I watched where he placed his hands and feet on the poles, so I’d know where to put mine.
At the top, I hooked my feet around them, so I wouldn’t fall. Chris swung one leg back and forth, fearless. In the low sun, I squinted at the council houses, only ones that had satellite dishes stood out from the rest. He said, ‘I’ve been higher than this.’
He sighed and stretched his arm above his head. ‘Twice as high.’ He dropped his arm, hand slapping against his thigh. I looked down all the way to the floor and wondered what it would be like for this sort of height to feel like nothing.
Chris climbed three-quarters of the way down the scaffolding and jumped to the ground. A perfect puff of dust came up around his feet as he landed. I followed him down, leaping the last bit jarred my knees but I tried to walk normally so he couldn’t tell. I followed him into the shell of the unfinished house. Gaps where the windows should have been. Dust sticking to the sweat on my legs, colouring my white socks.
He took down his shorts and pants. He was semi-erect.
My heart raced. I looked away.
‘Can you do it?’ he said.
I looked back and saw he was rolling his foreskin back and forth in his hand.
I took down my pants and copied him.
‘Faster’, he said.
Keeping time with him, I carried on until I felt a burning sensation in my tip and had to let go. He tutted, put his hand round my penis and said ‘Like this.’
School had finished for the summer. I came out of the corner-shop with an ice-cream on a stick. I was about to toss the wrapper on the floor but there was a police car in the car park so, I put it in the bin instead. In amongst the cigarette ends and dented cans, I noticed the crinkled edges of a magazine. I picked it out and on the page was a woman wearing only a pair of high heels, squatting down and parting the lips of her shaven vagina. She was looking directly at me. I felt a cold and sticky sensation, the ice cream dripping between my fingers. I put the magazine back to the bin and tossed the ice cream into a hedge.
I waited for the police car to pull away and then touched the edges of magazine pages with the tip of my finger. I had never seen this sort of thing before. I bet Chris has, I thought. I walked a few steps to the payphone, put twenty pence in, called Chris and told him to come immediately.
‘Wear a hoodie’, I said.
I guarded the bin, rocking back and forth from the balls of my feet to the flat of my heels. Chris arrived. He reached into the bin and I stood with my shoulder brushing against his so passersby wouldn’t see what we were doing. He took the magazine between his fingers and we looked at each other. He picked it out of the bin and it flopped open ; I had never seen a magazine with so many pages.
Chris stuffed the magazine up the front of his hoodie and we smuggled it through his front door, past his mother’s china dogs in the hall, up the stairs and into his bedroom.
In the days that followed, Chris and I would lie on his bed and listen out for his mum getting into her car and pulling off the driveway to leave for work. Then he’d lift out his bottom drawer and remove the magazine from the compartment underneath.
Sunlight would make the photos in the magazine fade. That’s what he said. But the recess under his desk was permanently in shadow, so we laid it down in that spot and placed a reading lamp and two torches next to it so we could see the pages. We took our pants down and knelt before it.
When we left the house, which wasn’t often, we went to the corner shop, but instead of picking penny sweets we lingered around the magazines, gazing at the top shelf. There were so many we hadn’t seen yet; women, women and men, men and men, people doing things to each other. Chris told me that in other shops you could get pornos that, if you pressed your face on the pages at the moment of orgasm, made you come two, three or four times. You had to be eighteen to buy one. Daily, we counted the years and months until our eighteenth birthdays and then counted again on our fingers to see if we got a different result. I could not wait to be eighteen. For years teachers had told me that if I didn’t start doing my school work then I wouldn’t have a future but gawping at that top shelf I could see my future perfectly.
Our favourite model in the magazine was named Pepsi. She was twenty-years-old and next to her photos it was written that she enjoyed dancing, but Chris said it wasn’t like the dancing he and I did when we watched Top of the Pops.
After a while, we stopped bothering to wait for Chris’ mum to leave the house. We knew when certain TV programmes were on then she wouldn’t come upstairs. Eastenders bought us a clear half-an-hour. Emmerdale, with its ad breaks, was only a fifteen minuter – not that that didn’t leave us with time to spare. On Sunday evenings we knew we had a whole hour when we heard the theme music to Songs of Praise.
We got too used to doing it with his mum in the house and stopped caring if she was busy watching TV. One evening, mid-session, we heard the floorboards creak on the landing outside Chris’ bedroom. I pulled up my shorts, using the elasticated waistband to flatten my erection to my belly so she wouldn’t see it. Chris tossed the magazine into his toy box, slamming the lid as his mum opened the door. She stood in the doorway with her fist on her hip and a tea towel over her shoulder. Chris, pink-faced, sitting with one leg crossed over the other. ‘I’ve been calling you for ages,’ she said. ‘I wondered if you’d gone to another planet.’
After this, Chris said we should take a break in case his mum caught us and confiscated the magazine. I didn’t want to but I knew I’d stopped caring whether she caught us and if she did she’d tell my mum and that would be it for pornos forever. I had to start thinking long term, and, anyway Chris told me I’d enjoy it more if I didn’t look at it for a week. We wrapped the magazine in a knotted carrier bag and took it to the woods. I held it against my chest, as Chris made a hole in the mud using a branch. He held out his hand for me to pass him the magazine. I loosened the knot in the bag, looked inside one more time and squeezed my legs together. ‘Come on’, he said. I retightened the knot and handed it over. He buried it and marked the spot with a stick poked into the ground.
The following days, we spent playing football with some kids who were two years younger than us. Before I’d had a porno, I imagined that when I did I’d show off about it to younger kids, but when it came to it I didn’t. I only wanted me and Chris to know about it.
In the evenings we went back to Chris’ and took it in turns with his one Playstation controller to play on a shoot-em-up. When it was my turn, I died quickly. When it was Chris’ I counted down in my head the days left until we went back to the woods. It took forever for him to die.
When the week finally ended, I knocked on Chris’ door early in the morning so that we could go and dig up the porno. He wanted to play football first. I didn’t want to but I didn’t want to get the magazine without him. So, we played football in the park with the two younger kids. One of them scored against me and celebrated by pulling his Spiderman t-shirt over his head. He’s never seen a vagina in his life, I thought to myself. Not one like Pepsi’s. Smirking at him, I looked over to Chris, but he was clapping the kid’s goal. After twenty minutes of running around, I lay on my back and used my t-shirt to wipe the sweat from my lip, while the rest of them played around me.
Eventually the kids had to go home for their tea, so Chris and I headed to the woods. ‘Thank god they’ve gone’, I said. He walked behind me dribbling the ball. When we got to the woods we found the stick where we’d left it and Chris pulled the bag out of the ground. He opened it. The magazine was sodden. Insects and lice were crawling over Pepsi’s body. I turned the pages and images of naked flesh came apart in my hand.
In Chris’ bedroom, I put some of his mum’s gel in his hair and combed it to see if it made him look eighteen. Chris had said you had to be eighteen to buy a porno for yourself in a shop.
‘It’s itchy’, he said.
Using his mum’s hairbrush, I flattened the stray hairs on his head. ‘Let’s do a different shop. Where they don’t know us.’
‘My mum has a go at me when I touch her things.’
‘We’d be in and out.’
He scratched his head frantically. ‘I’m washing it out.’
Chris left the room, taking the gel with him so he could put it back in his mum’s room. I lay on his bed, fanning myself with an old schoolbook, looking at the ceiling, clutching the hairbrush to my chest. I picked the dictionary off the floor. It was one school had given Chris. Unused, the hardback spine made a small cracking sound as I opened it. I flicked to P to try and find the word “Pornography”. It wasn’t there. Neither was “Porno”. I tried to find “Pepsi” but she wasn’t in there either.
Chris came back in, hair wet, and turned on the Playstation.
‘We could hide one inside a newspaper and then take the newspaper to the front and buy it’, I said.
‘The alarm will go off.’
I believed Chris about this. Of course, if shopkeepers were going to security tag anything it would be porno magazines. They must surely be the most expensive thing in the shop. They would protect them from theft. There’d be tiny electronic chips inside each of the pages that would set off an alarm when we tried to smuggle it past the door. The police would come. Then our parents.
‘What we gonna do then?’ I said.
‘Football? Swimming if I get some money from my mum?’
‘About the porno.’
Pressing buttons on his Playstation controller, he said ‘We’ll get another one. One day.’
‘Lets pay Baxter’s brother to buy one for us. Smuggle it back Monday when your mum’s out.’
‘She’s off work Monday.’
‘Another day. When’s she busy?’
‘Hard to tell. Kinda boring if you do it all the time though.’
‘It’s nice, it’s fun.’ He smiled and shrugged. ‘It was fun.’
That summer the sun turned my skin so red it looked like someone had dropped a hot iron on my face. But the sun made the hairs on Chris’ arms turn blonde and his bronzed skin made his eyes seem wide and bright. Chris wanted to play football and I went with him. I tried as hard as I could to tackle him so I wouldn’t have to see that stupid grin he made when he scored. I almost always failed. When I did get the ball off of him I’d often have to push him over to do so, but he never got annoyed. He just got up and carried on playing. This pissed me off; the way he just carried on. I’d end up claiming that he had pushed me and so I should have the ball.
I didn’t really care if we played football or not, as long as on the way back we passed the corner shop. And the supermarket. And the Chinese takeaway. And the bus stop and anywhere else with a bin. With the ball under his arm, Chris would stand a few feet behind me, scuffing stones backward and forward across the pavement, as I was bent over a bin, the sun burning my neck. I rummaged around between half-eaten cheeseburgers and empty bottles and when I didn’t find anything I’d turn and walk with him, dropping a fistful of rubbish in my trail.
One afternoon in August, the sun glaring off of the bonnets of passing cars, I stopped at a bin and picked through the waste, noticing out of the edge of my vision that Chris was strolling on. ‘One sec’, I shouted, as I scooped my hand into the bottom of the container. A newspaper. I pulled it out. A topless model. I turned to show Chris, but he was already half-way down the street.
Robert West has written for 3AM, Bloomsbury, The Guardian and other publications.