Obsession: she understood obsession. He had noticed her a little—sort of goth, sort of emo—but it wasn’t until he knew the depths of her obsessions that he really took an interest. He sat behind her in English where Mr James always laughed that laugh that some of the lads thought hilarious, but most of the girls thought was creepy.
Over her shoulder Edwyn saw the label on the black USB stick she was bouncing up and down in her palm: 30 Versions of Warm Leatherette. He suddenly wanted her more than anything else in the world.
“Hey, can I get a copy of that?” He muttered the words low as everyone was packing up their books.
She looked up at him. Her black-rimmed eyes looked almost purple in the fluorescent light. “You like the song?”
“Yeah,” he lied. “But I only know one version.”
She nodded, very serious. There was something so cool about that. Most girls were always laughing and it made him nervous. He always worried that they were laughing at him or else it was only a matter of time until they would. “Most people only ever hear Grace Jones’ version.”
Edwyn nodded, though truth was he knew the version his mum always played by Suzi Quatro but it would be naff to admit that. “I didn’t know so many other singers covered it, too.”
“It’s the kind of thing people get obsessed over,” she said, nodding again, which he figured out later was a bit of a tick she had, but right then all he did was nod along and hope that she wouldn’t suddenly stop talking and walk away from him. But she showed no signs of that and in fact they walked out of the school together and along the road to the little caf where everybody always went, still talking about music.
Collee: she didn’t like her name. “I mean, Colleen? How much more boring and Irish can you get,” she asked, her mouth a little pout of annoyance that made him have to cross his legs under that red plastic table. Not that it took much to put him in that kind of awkward situation lately. He desperately wanted to touch her skin.
“Yeah, my name’s pretty dull, too.” He tried to stop his nervous habit of pushing the hair out of his eyes, but it was too ingrained. “I like Collee. The sound of it.”
“Have you ever seen this?” She opened her notebook and showed him a picture of a mad Hindu goddess, black skin, necklace of skulls, huge red tongue hanging down. “Kali, the goddess of death. She’s so cool.”
Edwyn thought she was pretty scary but he said, “Yeah, wow. Cool.”
Collee smiled at him. It was a first. For a moment her small oval face lit like summer moonlight. He was done then. He might as well have handed her his heart on a platter, tied up with a red ribbon. “You wanna come to my house? My mum works late. We can listen to this.” Her tiny delicate fingers, nails darkened with chipped varnish the colour of an oil slick, held up the magical USB stick.
Of course she might have asked him to come listen to the refrigerator’s hum and Edwyn knew he would not have faltered a moment in saying yes. He could barely remember the steps they took before crossing the threshold of her door.
Who knew an ordinary semidetached house could hold such magic?
Collee shucked off her coat and threw her bag on the floor after removing a single battered book. After a tick Edwyn did the same even as he could hear his mother’s voice admonishing him, “You think we have maid service coming by? Hang it on the peg!”
He trailed behind her to the kitchen. She flipped the kettle on with practiced ease, then opened a laptop and stuck the USB stick into the side of it. “You know what the song’s about, right?”
Edwyn frowned. “Erm…cars, innit?” He could feel his face growing hot. It was about sex. It was—what? Metaphor like Mr James taught them about Shakespeare. You seem to be talking about one thing but really you’re talking about something else. It was usually sex. Even thinking the word gave him a sudden erection. He sat down quickly.
“We’re going to go in the sitting room as soon as I pour the tea,” Collee said, not actually looking at him as she fiddled with the computer.
He carried the mugs while she set the laptop down on the floor and leaned back against the sofa. Edwyn wondered how close he could sit to her without seeming to sit too close to her. She looked up and smiled when he handed her the mug, so he plonked down fairly close, though not quite touching her.
Collee started the music and at first they both leaned back and listened, sipping their tea. Edwyn recognized the stark chords and industrial sounds of the tune. The singer droned the words about breaking glass and the underpass. He sort of knew the song but not really. He hadn’t listened to the words that much. Other than the last lines about making love before they died. He willed his body not to get too hopeful—or hard.
“This is what it’s all about,” Collee said unexpectedly, thrusting the worn paperback into his hands. It had colour bars along the edge of the cover and a black and white image of Elizabeth Taylor. Edwyn knew her because he fell in love with her in National Velvet when he was little. He realised that’s who Collee reminded him of most. Weird. But her dark eyes, dark brows, halo of black hair—it was a lot the same.
“Crash?” Edwyn didn’t know if she expected him to start reading it right there. He flipped open to the first page of text. It really was about Elizabeth Taylor. Was it non-fiction?
“I love Ballard,” Collee said, her blue-almost-purple eyes shining at him. “He really gets it, you know. And this is his best. I’ve read it, like, ten times. Maybe more.”
Edwyn wasn’t much of a reader, but for her, he would have undertaken the complete works of Shakespeare. “Cool. I have to read this.”
For a moment he thought he’d spoiled everything because she snatched the book back from him. “I can’t give you this one it’s my…it’s like my security blanket.” She laughed but also looked kind of mortified, which made his heart leap up even more than his genitals.
“I totally get that. I have some…things like that.” Not that he was going to tell her about his well-worn Tigger. He did not actually sleep with the almost-hairless soft toy. It just sat on the shelf above his bed.
She got up and smiled down at him. “I have another copy I can give you.” Collee ran off, presumably to her bedroom and Edwyn relaxed for a moment and gulped down some tea. I think she likes me! The need to kiss her felt as pressing as a steel weight on his chest.
The next version of the song seemed to echo him. “The hand brake penetrates your thigh—”
Edwyn fidgeted, willing his erection down before she returned. Collee dashed in smiling and handed him the book. “Here.”
He was disappointed it had a different cover. This one was a photograph. But the book retained some of the warmth of her hands, so he relished it. “They made a film of it?”
“Yeah.” Collee scowled. Even that made her look sexy. “My mum won’t let me see it because it’s classified 18. Too porny I guess.”
Edwyn twitched. He’d be sure to hide the book from his mum. Now he was looking forward to reading it. “Sounds awesome.”
“Oh, it is. The song doesn’t, like, tell the story, but it catches the feel of it. People what get off on car crashes. Kind of sick, but also, you know?” She looked at him with those eyes. “Kind of cool, isn’t it?”
Edwyn swallowed. “Yeah.” He couldn’t think of anything else to say so he drank some more tea.
“He lived in London,” Collee said after a few minutes of listening, her leather-booted toes tapping along to the music where her legs stretched out beside his. He tried not to think of their legs entwined. “I’ve always wanted to go see his house and you know, do something.”
“Like the song,” she said, her voice soft and irresistible. “Quick, let’s make love, before you die.”
“Wow,” Edwyn said, his voice threatening to strangle his throat. “Do you know where he lived?”
“No. Well, Shepperton, but—”
“I bet I could find it.” His body vibrated with hope. “I got mad computer skills.” He tried to laugh as if he knew that sounded really naff, but not—just in case she really did trust him.
Her eyes widened. “You could?”
“I know it.”
“Oh my god, I would be so happy.” She reached up to grab his face down to hers and they were suddenly kissing and his mind kind of shut off and there was just a noise in his head and the pounding beat of the music or was it his heart? His pants threatened to explode, but she didn’t seem to notice. Her tongue darted into his mouth and it was heaven. His arms went around her and she didn’t pull away. Instead her arms went around his neck and the smell of her, the tinny synth drums of the music and the rough carpet under them all sank into his being like a crystalline moment of perfection.
Later he needed only to lay the book against his cheek (as he indulged in touching himself before he fell asleep) to know that she was going to be his first and it would be perfect, not like this lonely wanking but like she imagined it in her favourite book. He’d already had a couple of good leads on the place, but he wanted to be sure, so he bunked off school the next day to go check it out. He told his mum he had diarrhea, which always worked.
“Stop eating those cheap curries on the way home from school,” she shouted through the bathroom door as he continued to make the appropriate sounds. “I’ll check in during my lunch break. Take care, tiger.”
Edwyn knew better. She inevitably got caught up in work and never remembered to call. She’d probably forget to call the school, too, but when they contacted her she would cover for him. He printed out the pictures he’d found online and trip planner details and set off with his Oyster card. He was pretty confident, but he wanted to be sure.
After all, it meant everything.
While he took the local bus, transferred on the tube and then took the 555 from Hatton Cross, Edwyn read the novel. It seemed a little too grown-up for him. Not because of the sex, but because the ideas in it kind of scared him a little. The people in it seemed so cold and empty. He looked around the carriage he was riding in the tube and wondered if the dull looking business men were harbouring weird fanatasies about crashing into film stars just to try to feel something. He shivered even in the airless compartment.
But when he stood outside the red brick house, it was worth everything. He took a quick picture and sent it to Collee. He was surprise how run down the house looked. He figured a famous writer would be really rich, especially if they made movies from his books.
His phone chimed. Take me there. Edwyn grinned. That was his plan, all right.
Saturday could not come soon enough. Edwyn and Collee giggled their way through classes and later at her house took turns reading bits aloud from the book until her mum came home. Edwyn said hello to her feeling shy. She was handsome for an older woman and he imagined that she must have looked a lot like Collee when she was young.
In her face it was as if he could see the whole of their lives together stretch out before him. It made his heart beat fast but it wasn’t fear. Rather it felt as if great secrets that had always eluded him were suddenly revealed. Life was certain now.
“Edwyn’s taking me to a film tomorrow,” Collee said chirpily to her mum as they ate fish and chips from the chippie around the corner.
“That’s nice, dear,” her mother said, eyes on the tiny television screen that was showing Eastenders. “Don’t stay out too late.”
Edwyn’s mother on the other hand fussed over him so much he nearly lost his temper. “But it’s your first real date, sweetheart.”
“I don’t want to talk about it, mum. You’ll ruin it.” He wanted it to be just his alone—well, except of course for Collee. He couldn’t wait to be so close to her, in her. They hadn’t kissed as much when her mum was there, though he’d woken up with a mess in his sheets again this morning from dreaming of her. He wanted the real thing.
He could almost taste it.
“Quick,” she whispered to him on the bus as they set off on the long journey. “Let’s make love before you die.” Then she kissed him and he thought he might just die of happiness, especially when she put her hand on his thigh and he feared he might just lose it on the bus far too soon.
But they had to get on the tube, and then change, and then take the bus in Shepperton and it kind of broke the mood. The anticipation grew as they boarded the bus, until they were nearly there and he pressed the button. She took his hand as they scooted down the aisle. That was electric.
They walked along the road to the house as the light began to fail. Twilight made the visit seem even more surreal. The house that had seemed disappointingly normal in the afternoon sunlight took on an air of mystery as the shadows lengthened around it. A ginger cat hissed at them as the strolled past it.
When they reached the house Collee let out a breath, as if she had been holding it a long time. Her body was taut, as if she were afraid to move or breathe again. Edwyn didn’t know what to say, so he said nothing, keeping hold of her hand.
Then someone moved inside the house, a light came on and the spell was broken. “Let’s get a coffee,” Collee said, her voice rough as if she’d run a long way or had been arguing through the night. They walked back to the Costa they’d seen on the high street and Edwyn wondered if that was it. His whole body hummed with a mixture of anticipation and terrified disappointment.
“I thought maybe it was empty since he was dead,” Collee said, staring into her coffee. She had one of those complicated drinks that had a this and a that and some cream and whatever. He had just got a cup of tea.
“I’m sorry,” Edwyn said at last because he didn’t know what else to say.
“We’ll have to improvise.” Collee sipped her coffee while her purple eyes stared off into the distance. They lingered until it got fully dark and then Collee led the way back to the house. “If he were there, he’d see the cars over here.” She pointed to the road that bisected the one they were on. It had a little island of greenery in the middle and cars parked along both sides of the divided way. “C’mon.”
She drew him across the street. “We need to find a brick or something, so we can break into one of the cars.”
What? “But they have alarms. All cars come with them now.”
Her eyes flashed in the dark. “I thought you wanted to do this.”
“I do, but we won’t have even two minutes to…do it, when the alarm goes off.” Not how he had seen it playing in his mind, undressing her and feeling every inch of that soft skin before doing the deed, as it were. “What about…what about next to the house? It’s not in a car but it would be really…intimate?”
Collee ran her hand over the bonnet of the car she’d chosen, as if stroking a pet. “All right.” She still seemed angry, but Edwyn took hope from her acquiescence. He trotted after her as she hurried over and they slipped along the low brick wall, crouching like thieves. They had to squeeze past the rubbish bins into the narrow corridor that presumably led to the back garden. It was overhung with greenery from the house next door.
“Here?” Edwyn swallowed. It all seemed so sudden even though it had been days in the planning. But he was up for it, at least his body was. He wrapped his arms around her with the smell of damp and rubbish and her perfume in his nose. He thought he might just burst out of his jeans as he rubbed up against her while their lips parted. It was marvelous to be so close. He wondered if he dared peel off some of her clothes.
Collee was struggling with her buttons or something in her pocket and that’s when he remembered the condoms that Jimmy had stolen for him from his older brother’s gym bag. He shoved his hand in his jacket pocket just as Collee threw her arms around him.
Pain exploded in his side. He yelped and started back. Collee held a small knife. Its blade was black with blood.
“Quick, let’s make love before you die,” she sang at him. Her eyes glittered in the night.
“I thought you were with me on this.” She frowned at him. Then she raised the knife again. Edwyn turned and ran. Panic filled his jangling brain and faintness threatened to take over his limbs. He could hear her steps behind him. He ran out into the street and sudden saw his shadow. He turned to see a car coming up on him.
Collee, running pell-mell like some mad woman, smacked right into its side and bounced off, collapsing to the kerb in front of a parked car by the author’s house. The tyres screamed as the driver tried to stop. Edwyn felt the kiss of the automobile’s nose as it knocked him to the ground, but it wasn’t so bad apart from the noise and the pain. Nothing even penetrated his thigh.
His head bounced off the tarmac and his back screamed again as the bloody gash hit the ground. The surface was cold, he felt warm against it. He could see his reflection in the shiny chrome grill. A tear like petrol burned from his eye. A wail broke from his lips.
Was this love?