Frankie’s car has the biggest most fantastic sound system. It beats at you like a jackhammer; like a volcano erupting in the back of the car it sends outrageous bass deep into the atmosphere. As we gun down a country lane; as she floors the accelerator; we carry an envelope, an aura, a giant Zeppelin balloon of sound with us – the leaves on the trees shake as we pass, birds resting for the night are startled from their perches: miles away a small landslide.
Feel it as the beat syncs with and then interrupts your heartbeat, as it pulses through your body until you are nothing but noise and sound.
We bomb through a village, shoot around a corner of the small green, past the shuttered pub, up the lane and out the other side, erupting from between two cottages back into the countryside. In their beds the villagers wake, convinced they’ve just felt an earthquake.
You’re nuts! I shout at Frankie as she speeds up again. She doesn’t hear what I am saying over the beats and high-volume rapping, but she sees my lips moving and she just nods and laughs. It’s midnight and I know she’s going to have to take me home soon, but for now, I just revel in it all.
How I met Frankie: standing outside the gates of my school, standing waiting for the bus. I’ve just said goodbye to my friends. Around me kids my age are chatting about the coming weekend. I am doing my best to be invisible, to make myself disappear into the background. I count slowly down from a hundred, feeling my heartbeat slow and the panic subside. But then, someone says:
Hey, hold my bag.
I look up at her. She’s got shoulder-length dyed black hair, a fringe, and dark makeup around her eyes. She’s short – my height – and I can’t work out her shape under the many layers of black clothing she is wearing over her school uniform. I take her bag and she places a cigarette between her lips and then cups it with her hands as she lights it. I am shocked she is smoking here, right at the school gates.
She exhales away from me and then says, You look like you’ve seen a monster.
You’re so small and cute, she says. You’re such a skinny kid.
What? I ask.
And she grins at me in a way that is slightly terrifying.
I open my mouth, trying to think of something else to say, trying to remember if I know this person. She goes to the school too, but she’s never spoken to me.
Before I can get my brain in gear she just says, Do you need a lift home? And she gestures with her head, cigarette glued to her lower lip, for me to follow her around the corner to where her ratty old Ford Fiesta – a sun-bleached aquamarine – stands parked halfway into the road. I stand looking at the car as she opens her door.
You getting in? she says. Or am I leaving you here?
And I just open the door and get in. She nods once at me as she swings into the driver’s seat and says, You can throw the bags on the back seat.
And then she turns the key in the ignition and from behind me I hear an animal rumble, the sound of something waking up, a shift in the atmosphere, a monster breathing in and then deeply out as it wakes.
As we pull out into the quiet road, she presses a button on the ancient car stereo and it is like a wave, like a tsunami of sound rises suddenly from the deep and carries us before it.
Frankie takes me home from school everyday now. And almost every Friday night she picks me up after dinner and we drive out of town, out into the countryside – sometimes for hours. We have nowhere to go and we just drive across the county with the music blasting at us, scouring us – with the windows down and the smoke from her cigarette sucked out into the world.
She never lets me choose the music – but this is fine because I know nothing about music. Her selections change radically from week to week. An entire week of hard-core nineties hip-hop – They used to call this gangsta rap, she says, rolling her eyes – followed by a week of ABBA.
Tell me you have lived and I will tell you that you have not: you haven’t lived until you’ve terrorised the good townsfolk of the West Country with nuclear blast level Dancing Queen – the opening instrumental bit at the start coming over the hill like a warning, like the low sigh of a fighter jet already travelling at the speed of sound. Like a hurricane coming over the hill, Dancing Queen is suddenly everywhere: the first chorus like a heavenly host at the second coming – you can dance – shouting it down from sky at you – you can jive; filling your mind – having the time of your life – it is in everything, crashing through your walls and your door, through the defenceless bones in your skull.
No, you haven’t lived until you have driven away from your school leaving the loudest ever version of Take a Chance On Me behind you in your wake.
When the music is loud and propulsive, with no words, just the low throb of bass and the kinetic twitch and rumble of melody and noise – I can feel it through my body everywhere – in my head, in my chest, in my groin. I can feel it make my balls contract up against me, like I’m cold or afraid – the thrum of the sound of the music and the road passing beneath us, and the noise of the straining engine, combine to give me an instant erection. I blush furiously, can feel the blood rush creep up my neck and across my face – and I thank the universe that it is dark.
School itself is exactly the same as it was before. I sit with my friends who happily geek out about an obscure Japanese cartoon one of them has tracked down on YouTube. Even here in this small group I say very little. I can’t imagine how I’d explain Frankie to them either.
I am walking out of the school gates when I am shoved hard in the back.
What the fuck are you looking at? he says as he storms by me, shoving me to the ground as he goes.
I have just enough time to recognise Darryl before he kicks at me and says, Fucking gayboy, under his breath. But he misses and I lie still, curled up as tightly as possible with my eyes shut.
I hear him walking off. I hear the other kids walking past, heading home – none of them stop to ask me if I’m all right. None of them.
As I lie there I try not to think about Darryl at all. He is like an embodiment of all of my many fears. I don’t know how he finds me almost every day. He seems to come from nowhere – stalking around a corner and walking straight into me, ready to grab me by my shirt and throw me against a wall, bursting in on me in the toilets and throwing me into a cubicle, onto the pee-covered floor, where he leaves me.
After a couple of minutes, after I have counted down from a hundred in my head, slowly calming my breathing, slowing my heartbeat back down, I open my eyes and get up. Frankie is waiting for me.
What took you so long? she asks as I get in the car.
She starts the engine and we drive off. I feel myself hidden then in the armour of noise and sound. Frankie doesn’t look at me as she drives. She nods along to the music and then, as we approach my house, turns it down.
The second time Frankie dropped me off my mum was home, back from an early shift at the hospital. She’d come running out of the house when she heard the noise of the music, and stood with her arms crossed watching me as I got out of the car, as the chorus from Borderline boomed from the tiny car. I can still see the look on her face as she realised that the person who’d arrived in her driveway was her son on the sonic equivalent of a Saturn V rocket.
Only as we stop outside my house does Frankie finally look at me. She grabs my chin and pulls my face towards her.
What the fuck happened to you Mikey? she says.
My right hand goes up to my cheek and I touch the graze there, where my face slammed into the concrete floor at the school gates.
Nothing, I say, and get out of the car quickly. I rush away then, and she doesn’t follow.
Where are we going? I shout at Frankie. But she just grins at me, the heavy black makeup around her eyes and the black lipstick on her mouth make her expression even more difficult to read in the dark. It’s Friday night and we’re driving somewhere with purpose.
Ahead of us the hedges are floodlit by our headlights, road signs appear out of nowhere reflecting brightly back at us, and then they are behind us, already forgotten. Sometimes I can’t decide if we are hurtling towards something, some future something, or if we are running from whatever lies behind us.
After twenty minutes of driving, featuring the loudest rendition of Born to Run – both of us singing along at the top of our voices, drowned out by the sheer power of the speakers Frankie has built into the body of the car, our voices swept along and subsumed by the tidal pull of sound – we slow down suddenly and turn into an even smaller lane. The little car screeches as it takes the corner, tyres slipping on the dry tarmac.
The side road is narrow and earth banks rise higher than the roof of the car on either side of us. We are enclosed in a tunnel of earth and light and sound until, around a corner, one side of the lane opens up and I see several cars parked in a field. Frankie stops abruptly, turning into the field and parking on the mown grass.
We’re here, she says pulling up the handbrake and turning the car off.
In the sudden silence and darkness my ears ring – a choir of screaming angels just at the edge of hearing frequency. As the music recedes – like the tide going out, like a wave sucking back from the beach – I can feel my balance shifting as a feeling of buoyancy gives way to a more solid sense of being back on earth.
Where is here? I ask.
Here, she says reaching round and grabbing two huge bottles of cider. Here is here.
And she gets out of the car saying, Come on.
So I do.
I get out of the car and slam the passenger door shut. I follow her into the dark, into the taller grass at the top of the field. She is following a path I can barely make out in the dusk light, a path that is mostly concealed by the grass and bramble. Above us, in a cloudless sky, stars signal their own frequencies.
The air is cool – autumn is happening all around us and the tall grass that encloses both sides of the path, rising as high as our shoulders, is dry and brittle. I am glad I wore my hoodie and my jacket over it.
After ten minutes of walking, after ten minutes in which I begin to feel anxious – about where we’re going, about what is going to happen to me – I hear voices. We crest a hill and below us I can see a clearing, and in it a small bonfire. This is where the voices are coming from, and as we walk closer I can see shapes of people sitting around the fire and moving in front of it.
When we arrive they all look up and Frankie points at me and says, This is Mikey, he’s special.
This gets a small laugh from a few of them, but a general shout of hello goes up from the group. I think I recognise some of them from school, but it is difficult to tell in the flickering, smoke-filled light from the fire, and with their heads covered by hoods or beanies. Frankie sits down and I follow her, finding a spot near the fire, sitting on the dry ground with my knees bent, hugging my legs.
The fire is warm on the backs of my hands, on my shins and on my face, while the air on the back of my neck is cool. I feel both hot and cold with panic. The other kids around me are grouped loosely in a circle, chatting and smoking. A plastic bottle of cider is passed to me and I look at it carefully.
It isn’t a hand grenade Michael, Frankie says. It won’t kill you.
And so I take a sip, and hate it, but swallow it and pass the bottle on. I try not to think about the germs I have just exchanged with ten people I don’t know.
But the bottle comes around again and again and I take a sip each time, determined to get used to it. And slowly, slowly I feel my nervousness subsiding – and it feels a lot like when Frankie and I are driving through the night with the music blasting out from the boot and the doors and the speaker she has somehow engineered into the dashboard. It feels a lot like I am being pulled out of my body, but at the same time, sinking deeper into it, more in touch with its own logic.
I am lying on my back with my hands behind my head, looking up at the stars through the smoke from the fire, thinking about Dancing Queen again: about how it just slams into the chorus after a brief introduction, not bothering with a first verse. I am staring up at the sky when someone sits down next to me.
What’re you looking at? he says.
Huh? I say, without moving, hoping he will go away.
What are you looking at? he says, lying down next to me.
I realise I am going to have to talk, but I refuse to look at him.
The stars, I say.
Then, when he doesn’t say anything, I jump in without thinking, Not stars really…watching for satellites.
Satellites – you know, the things we send into space…GPS…
Yeah, I know what a satellite is, dickhead, but how can you see one? He chuckles. And I try to ignore the insult.
Look, I say, pointing up at the sky. They look like stars, but they’re travelling really fast across the sky. It’s quite difficult, but usually, once you get your eye in, you see a few…
And then, as the chatter happens around us in the dark – as couples disappear into the tall grass, trailing giggles and mumbled words, as the fire slowly dies down, we lie on our backs in the grass next to each other staring at the sky looking and looking.
There! I say, pointing up.
What? You’re lying…
No! I say, grabbing his hand and pointing it in the direction of the speeding spot of light. Can you see it? You must see it…
Then Frankie’s voice cuts through the chatter surrounding us: Come on Mikey, time for us to go.
I think about protesting, but decide I can’t explain why I want to stay. As we walk through the dense vegetation back to the cars, the gentle babbling sound of the group disappears behind us.
In the car, our minds fogged with cider and wood smoke, we drive in relative quiet – Frankie says that sometimes you have to listen quietly to appreciate the times when you’re listening super loud.
As we drive, Shelter From the Storm plays on repeat at a reasonable volume. It seems to enfold and hold me, rock me gently as his voice rises, piercing the dark around us. I think about how when it’s loud, the booming music can feel like a scouring, like a scrubbing of the skin, running through the mind and wiping you clean.
I have felt, over the past month, as if Frankie’s sound system is breaking down an outer layer, an old skin that needed to be shed – and it is blasting it from me, like scales from the eyes of St Paul, like centuries of dirt washed from the façade of a building, like a forest blown down by the shockwave of a nuclear explosion.
How old is this Frankie, Michael? Who are her parents?
She’s eighteen mum, I say, standing on the threshold of the living room, stinking of bonfire smoke and cider. I’ve just come in, carefully, quietly shutting the front door behind me, hoping they are all asleep. But no, it is gone midnight and my mum sits on the sofa, a glass of red wine in front of her.
And you’re seventeen, she says, looking up at me.
She’s at school with me mum, in my form. She’s not some stranger who just picked me up off the street.
But, what does she want with you?
The thing is, Frankie doesn’t want anything from me. Frankie doesn’t want or need anything. She is always telling me: I get what I can and what I can’t get I don’t think about. The rest is just noise.
I am unsure which category I fall into. I want to say this all to my mum, but instead I just shrug.
I look over at my dad, asleep in his armchair, his mouth hanging open just a little. My dad can sleep anywhere – in the cinema, at the dinner table, at a noisy party, in front of a blaring TV. He says it’s the army that did it. He had to learn to sleep anywhere, even standing up in the back of a moving truck.
Once you’ve slept soundly in a cave while the Taliban fire mortars at you, he says, Sleeping through Downton Abbey is nothing.
Mum never sleeps.
The next week at school brings a strange surprise – on Tuesday, two guys, with scruffy hair and cigarettes jutting ostentatiously from their shirt top pockets, walk towards me. I have no idea why until they just clap me on the shoulder once, smile at me and are then gone. It’s only as they walk away that I recognise them from the bonfire night.
Later, on Thursday, I sit at a bench in the physics lab waiting for the class to start when Sam, a boy I have never spoken to, sits next to me and unpacks his notebook and pen. He arranges them neatly in from of him, carefully tucks his backpack underneath his legs, and then looks up at me and says, Hi.
He smiles at me but the teacher is suddenly in the class, launching into a lesson, and I don’t have time to ask him why he’s sitting next to me when my lab partner normally takes this seat.
It is as I am writing down equations for the propagation of sound through a medium that I realise who he is.
Satellites, I say to him under my breath.
What? he asks, only glancing my way.
Of course, he says. But then he grins at me, and sticks his hand out.
And I take his hand and shake it and then, without meaning to, I think of the smell of the bonfire and of the trampled grass around us, and of the sound of teenagers getting drunk and snogging and giggling in the dark.
But what do you want to do, she asks without looking up. I mean, where does it all lead?
We are in her car after school. We have driven out of town again to a point where the hills rise suddenly out of the plain. We are parked at a viewpoint and Frankie is painting my nails black. The smell of acetone fills the car while the sun sinks lower towards the western horizon.
What do you mean?
I mean, why did you decide to do the science stuff?
Um…because I like it.
She pauses, stops coating my right index fingernail, and looks up at me through her fringe.
Seriously? she says. It’s not like your parents are forcing you or anything?
My parents don’t force me to do anything. I never do anything they don’t want me to do, I say. And then I look at the already painted nails on my left hand and laugh, Until now, probably.
You are going to look so hot with these, she says with a wicked grin on her face.
I’m probably going to get beaten up even more, I say before I can stop myself.
She freezes again, but then, after a few seconds carries on painting, concentrating hard.
When she has finally finished that nail she dips the brush back into the small pot of nail polish resting in a cup-holder, and blows on my fingers. I am super aware of the grip she has on my hand, and of the feel of her breath on my skin.
If one of those fuckers ever touches you again I will fucking kill them, do you hear?
She says it quietly, calmly, like she’s telling me something about the weather, or what she ate for breakfast. She grips my hand tighter and I look her in the eye then.
Seriously Michael. You think you’re a coward, but you’re not.
Finally she lets go of my hand and, looking down at her handiwork, says, All done. You’re going to have to beat them off now.
And then she laughs and I don’t know why.
We drive down the hill towards the field again. The sun has gone down and it is getting dark already. I worry about how cold it is going to be out in the open.
It’s the last bonfire before bonfire night, Frankie says as she drives down the hill. For some reason we travel in silence, only the sound of the tyres on the damp road to accompany us.
It broke, she says, as if answering my question before I can say anything. My dad says I must have blown something, or there’s a loose connection. We’re going to take the car apart this weekend to dig out the problem.
It feels weird, I say, looking at her. It’s like you’ve had your tail cut off or something.
And she laughs and says, We’ll survive, don’t worry.
We park at the field in the dark and Frankie uses the light from her phone to find the path and lead us. I am carrying the two bottles of cider and a blanket from the back seat of the car.
Soon we are at the bonfire again and we sit next to each other on the blanket. Frankie is talking to a couple of other girls about some guy they saw in town on Tuesday. I am staring at the fire as it burns through the junk wood and broken branches the kids around me have collected to be burned. The bottle of cider is passed to me and I drink without hesitating, taking deeper and deeper sips. I feel quite good.
Frankie leans over and whispers in my ear, It’s time.
Wait and see, she says standing up. We did this last year. It was great. Come on.
All the others around us gather in a circle around the fire. There must be twenty of us at least. I feel a hand slip into mine and I look left and see the profile of Sam’s face as he stares at the fire.
Right, everyone. Time to burn it all, one of the bigger guys says.
And then, one by one, everyone steps forward and throws something into the bonfire. Frankie takes off the hair band she has worn around her wrist as long as I have known her and tosses it to the flames. When I don’t move, Sam lets go of my hand to step forward and throws in something small – I can’t see what – and then steps back to stand next to me.
Your turn, he says, nudging me with his shoulder.
I don’t have anything, I say.
It doesn’t matter what it is, he says. Just anything – getting rid of something, burning something you own and letting it go. That’s what matters.
I stare at the fire, feeling everyone else’s eyes on me and then, feeling reckless I step forward and take off my left glove and throw it into the fire. The smell of burning wool fills the air. When I step back Sam takes my bare hand in his and smiles at me.
That, he says, was ridiculous.
And then he grins at me and waggles his eyebrows.
Frankie drives me home, and I realise as we travel in silence, that I am very, very drunk. In my ears I can almost hear the booming music that should be there. I can almost feel the world beat a rhythm around me. Every part of me is singing.
We’re here, she says parking, pulling up the handbrake. Try not to let you parents see how drunk you are…
And I lean over and I kiss her then. It is more of a collapse than a deliberate move, a subsidence, a landslide – and I am pressing my lips to hers.
And then she pushes at my chest, pushes me away.
Mikey, she says, looking me in the eye, making me look at her. I’m not what you want babe. You know that, right?
And all I can think is: Fuck.
I worry all weekend, I almost text Frankie three times, but then think better of it. I worry that on Monday afternoon she won’t be there to give me a lift home.
Monday morning drags. I avoid talking to Sam in physics. I scan the corridors for Frankie, both hoping to see her and hoping I won’t.
Fuck off, Darryl.
What did you say? he says, stepping in front of me, blocking my way.
I look up at now him and for some reason I feel only a sort of calm rage.
Jesus, Darryl, I say. Grow up.
I push past him as the final bell goes. I walk out to the front gates and stand for a few minutes gathering my strength, trying to make myself feel brave. After slowly counting down from a hundred I take a deep breath and walk around the corner to where Frankie is normally waiting for me. And I almost shout out loud with joy when I see her car parked there.
I get in, trying to calm myself. It is a bright and sunny winter’s day and she has sunglasses on. And as I look at her I can’t help the grin that slowly spreads across my face.
Hey, I say.
And she turns to look at me and grins in that slightly terrifying way of hers, and she lowers the sunglasses so she can look at me over them.
Hey yourself, she says. Let’s go.
And she starts the car and behind me and all around me a giant machine rumbles into life.
You fixed it! I shout.
She doesn’t say anything, just pushes her sunglasses back up and shifts into first gear.
Frankie has the most ridiculous and amazing sound system in her car. It holds you and then breaks over you like a growing swell crashing against the shore. It washes over you; lifting you up and then smashing you back down.
We take the long way home, shooting down winding lanes and small country roads. She handles the little car like she’s a racing driver and I just start laughing as we pass by fields of bewildered sheep. I can feel the music scrubbing me clean, wiping me like a slate, like a mural being scraped away, blasting away layers and layers of paint. It is like you are shedding a layer of dead skin in order to grow, and the music removes it like a rough stone, sloughing it from your shaking body.