Are you over eighteen?
I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to offend. Gerard sips his coconut milk coffee, then places it back on the mint green saucer. At least that’s what I imagine him doing whilst he’s typing away to me on his phone. I picture him trying to hide what he’s doing from his wife and kids as they sit around the sofa together watching a family movie. I picture him feeling embarrassed and adrenalized all at the same time You just look young in your profile.
I get that a lot. It’s because I am, see; I’m only fifteen. Would you ever consider me if I wasn’t?
‘Why did you just ask that?’ Uncle says, his clammy palms pressed against my shoulders, his face too close to my neck.
I resist the urge to shrug him away. I don’t want to anger him. ‘I’m just making conversation. Men like it when you question their morality.’
‘No. They don’t. Don’t mess this up with your weirdness. You’re already on thin ice after you lost the last one. You need him. You know what happens if you don’t get him.’
No. Gerard texts. He’s probably lying. Though what I’d do with an honest answer, I don’t know. They all lie at first. They don’t trust you. That or they want to appear somewhat decent so that you choose them. But what someway decent man needs to buy a woman’s affections? Another message. How old are you? If you don’t mind me asking.
I’m nineteen, nearly twenty actually. They always ID me at clubs.
He sends a laughing emoji, the one with tears poking out from its eyes. You’re young. He’s not. Someday you’ll wish they still ID’d you.
How old are you? I sip my own coffee, sweet with three sugars and half a cup of milk. If you don’t mind me asking.
No, of course. It’s only fair. I’m thirty-one. He’s lying. I checked his Facebook. He’s forty-one. Old enough to be my father. But I guess even at thirty-one he could still have fathered me. He’s not, of course, my father. My father was an ugly man, with a crooked nose, pimply skin, buck teeth, and unnaturally small eyes. I inherited my features from my mother. The blonde waves, the perfect smile, the blue eyes. Unlike mine, her smile was real, it made her much prettier than I am. I know from the photo on my desk of her and of him. I never knew them really. I wasn’t old enough. I just remember they were nice. And I was sad when they were gone.
Gerard has all the clichés of an aging movie star – chiselled jaw, greying black hair, laugh lines, and olive skin. Even if he is old enough to be my father, he’s at least handsome.
So, are you a virgin? He asks.
No. I’ve had sex. I was thirteen when I lost my virginity, willingly, to Charlie. Charlie was nineteen at the time. It was fun for a while but he broke it off. He hated that his friends kept calling him a nonce. Is that okay?
Yes, I prefer a bit of experience.
I don’t intend on having sex with you. I’m not a prostitute. I just charge you my time.
Uncle hisses behind me. He’s the only man I’ve ever heard hiss. It’s a sharp sss-ing sound he makes by blowing through his browning teeth. Hissing is his thing.
‘It’s like a strip tease, Uncle. Make them think I’m hard to get.’
‘Don’t act too hard,’ he says.
‘I know what I’m doing.’
Gerard doesn’t. Sorry, I’m new to this. I don’t really know what the rules are.
There are girls out there who will; I’m just not comfortable with it really. At least not until I know you better. Sorry if that ruins things…
No, no, I like you, Chelsea. Not my real name. I want to meet. What can I get you for your time?
I pause considering, I can feel Uncle breathing over my shoulder, checking what I’m saying. I tell Gerard not what I would like, but what I need.
‘Did you get it?’ Uncle asks when I walk through the door, make-up smudged from the rain and hair knotted from the wind. I shove the money in his hand and shut the door behind me. He checks it through, looking disappointed. ‘Is this all?’
‘It was only coffee.’
He picks out a tenner and gives it to me. ‘For your time.’
‘Thanks, Uncle.’ I put the money in my pocket before he can take it away. ’I really appreciate it. Can I have the rest back now?’
‘Don’t get sassy with me. It’s for the rent. You know that. And ten pounds is more than you’d get working in a shop for an hour. Don’t be an ungrateful shit. The things I’ve done for you after your parents-’
‘I already said thanks, didn’t I.’ I kick my heels off and head up to my room. The stairs squeak and creak in their usual rhythm.
I am four years and three months old the first time. The stairs squeak and creak in their usual rhythm. But it’s wrong. He shouldn’t come up at night. His room is downstairs.
He opens the door, it groans. His face pokes through the crack of bright light from the hallway. He has a crooked nose, pimply skin, buck teeth, and small eyes, just like daddy. Though he’s not daddy. Thinking of daddy makes me miss him. I miss mummy too. I sit up and he sees that I’m awake.
‘Good night, sweetie.’
‘Good night, Uncle.’
We go back to Gerard’s place after the party. His flat, not the house where his wife and kids are sleeping.
It was one of those sophisticated parties where everyone wears fancy clothes and give smiles to people they pretend to like, but secretly hate. I’ve never seen so many back-stabbers in one room before. I’m surprised they let me buy, or rather let him buy me, drinks. My fake ID works better than it used to. Perhaps because I look older than I used to. The make-up no longer makes me look like a kid playing dress-up but like a real woman instead. Or maybe I’m getting better at it. Or perhaps that’s how private parties are.
I don’t stay long. Enough time for him to get to know me better and I him. And for us to finish a bottle of wine. When he places his hand on my thigh, his little finger creeping under the hem of my dress, I make an excuse to leave. He gives me the money and I go.
The stairs squeak and creak in their usual rhythm. He’s been doing this for years at this point, checking on me at odd times of the night, turning off the light when I purposefully left it on. I can’t sleep with the light off. I want to tell him. But I don’t. Each time he turns it off, I wait for the creak and squeak of the floorboards and the shutting of his door before I leave my covers and turn on the light.
This time he doesn’t turn off the light.
He stares at me for a long time before coming in. He shuts the door behind him. He walks towards me, sits on the bed, runs his fingers through my hair. There’s an odd smile on his face.
‘Happy birthday,’ he says. I’m eight years old. I don’t like to remember what happens next.
Gerard invites me over to his flat for drinks with friends. The evening is dull. They all play poker and drink port and whisky. They try to flirt with me, all I can do is smile because none of these forty-year-old men know how to flirt with someone my age.
It takes hours for them all to leave. And then it’s just me and him. And it’s so quiet when the door closes behind them. He pours me a drink, vodka and freshly pressed orange juice, though I don’t know how many shots because his back hides what he’s doing. He comes back to me. I try to wave it off but he insists. I take a long sip, I can’t even taste it.
He sits close to me, our legs touching on the sofa. ‘I felt so jealous with you smiling at them like that. You have a really beautiful smile.’ He’s slurring his words a little but I guess he’s faking. He wasn’t drinking as much as his friends. I only saw him pour two drinks for himself.
He scans my body, lingering on my hips and chest. I start to think that maybe now would be a good time to leave. Then he takes my drink and sets it down on the table. He cups my chin with his hand and turns my face towards him. I bite my lip, nervously, he takes it the wrong way because he starts kissing me. I kiss him back because I don’t want to upset him. I don’t want to think about what Uncle will do if I upset him. Then he pulls me onto him.
I don’t remember much after that.
‘I can’t go back there,’ I tell Uncle. My head is killing me and my heart feels like it’s about to break my rib cage. I’ve never felt this sick before. Not with a hangover.
‘We had sex, that’s what you want. A reason for blackmail, something illegal.’ It hurts to stand. I can’t stop thinking about throwing up all the wretchedness inside me.
‘You don’t remember it?’
‘So, how do you know it happened?’
‘It happened, okay.’ I give Uncle the large wad of twenties and fifties in my pocket. ‘He gave me extra. A lot extra. He said it was for the good work.’
Uncle counts the money. He sniffs it and grins, then puts it in his wallet. ‘If you want any of this, you’ll go back.’
I want to fight him, but I can’t, my body is shaking too much. Instead I go upstairs and curl up under the covers that haven’t been updated since I was four.
‘Do you have children?’ I ask him, swirling the grey hairs on his chest.
‘Odd pillow talk,’ he says. ‘You know, I’m so happy you agreed to this.’
‘How old are they?’
He sighs. ‘My daughter, Nancy, is twelve. Roger is ten. Don’t worry about them. You’re not a homewrecker, my wife has had enough affairs that she couldn’t do anything about us even if she cared.’
I look up at him, right in his brown eyes. ‘I’m three years older than your daughter.’
I can see the realisation dawning in his eyes. ‘You said you were twenty.’
‘People say a lot of things.’
He shoves me off and gets out of bed. ‘This was all supposed to be legal.’ He pulls on his jeans over his bare penis and I wonder if the denim chaffs. He does up his flies. ‘Get out.’
‘If you don’t leave, I’ll phone the police and tell them-’
‘What, that you paid to have sex with a fifteen-year-old. You’re the bad guy here.’
He steps towards me and I feel stupidly small. I always hate this bit. It’s the bit when the dream comes crashing down. When I realise that he’s not going to help me. He’ll give me what I ask him for but he doesn’t give a shit about how I ended up doing this. They’re all the same.
‘I have proof,’ I say.
He rubs his temples, starts pacing up and down the foot of the bed. ‘Jesus.’ He looks at me, seeing maybe for the first time the pimples beneath my make-up and the bags beneath the smudged mascara. ‘What do you want?’
‘Money, what else? £1,500 a month. It’s only a fifth of your pay-check. I’m not bankrupting you, just taking your children’s savings.’
‘You could have got that anyway. I already pay you. You could have just asked for more.’
‘Well, this way you can’t just drop me.’ I sit up, holding the covers against my breast.
‘Do you have any idea how dangerous this is? I could just silence you.’
‘I have a business associate that knows everything. And you wouldn’t do that, Gerard. You’re not a terrible person. You just made a mistake when you chose me.’
‘Extortion is illegal. I could get you arrested.’
I shrug. ‘Yeah well, in my experience, people don’t really like to stick their neck out like that. Could you honestly tell me that you would risk going to prison to stop me… to stop this from happening to someone else?’ And I really hope he says yes.
‘You’ve done this before, haven’t you?’
‘A few times.’
I could tell him the truth, part of me knows that if I do, he’ll probably free me. As I said, he’s not terrible, just in terrible circumstances. But then I could have told all the Gerard’s before him the truth; just like I did with them, I get out of bed and put on my clothes. ‘I can send you the details of the account. It’s best for you if you pay it. No one wants people to know about this kind of thing.’
‘Just get the fuck out of my flat.’