My phone pings.
Kyle – u comin to kieran’s party tonight?
Diann – on the ferry over now
Kyle – can’t wait to see you my sexy girl from across the water
Then a load of hearts and kissy faces. He thinks he’s some kind of love poet. I don’t reply, just give him the blue ticks. He’s cocky enough.
Steven – Just a friendly reminder. £150 by tuesday or there’ll be a penalty
Shit. No kissy faces here. Steven’s all for equal opportunities –he doesn’t mind breaking women’s arms as well as men’s. But for girls my age he’ll accept other services if you really can’t pay. I’ll be able to pay. I always do. I put my phone away and stare out the window. The Larne–Cairnryan ferry isn’t exactly the High Seas. The water is grey and flat and the sky is grey and flat. There are a few moody-looking seagulls flying about, probably hoping for chips.
Two affluent Belfast types take the seat opposite me and throw their things on the table, nearly knocking over my bottle of Fanta. The woman has one of those scarves that’s nearly a shawl draped around her and her hair is perfect. Obviously she isn’t planning on going up on deck. She looks at me like I’m something on her shoe. I smile at them anyway. The man says hello. I say hello. The woman has a stick up her ass and doesn’t bother. She gives me a “butt out” look and starts talking importantly. Obviously, I’m supposed to leave even though I was here first! Who does she think she is? I get up to give them “privacy” but – oops! – I slip and fall straight on to the man’s knee.
“Sorry!” I giggle.
“No problem,” he says. He helps me up and holds onto me as long as he can. Is he looking down my top? I feel like telling him I left school three weeks ago. The perv and the cow. These two are welcome to each other. I give him a flirty smile, making sure she notices. She notices all right – her face could turn milk. I sashay away, trying to put a bit of a Marilyn Monroe wiggle into my walk. Hopefully I’ve started an argument between the happy couple anyway.
Round the corner I check his wallet. £330 cash, and credit cards and stuff. Couldn’t have done much better. The cards aren’t much good to me though. I’m sure Steven could beat the PIN number out of him but I’m happy enough with the cash.
My phone rings. Ma.
No hello, just straight in. “Why are you on the ferry to Scotland?” She’s raging.
“Don’t lie to me, you cheeky wee bitch. Tanya was in Larne today and she saw you get on the ferry.” Shit. Looks like there’s no escape from Northern Ireland without being seen.
“I suppose you’re going to that Campbell party. They’re a bad crowd.” As if she didn’t hang around with worse when she was my age. Probably how she got pregnant with me.
“Mum, I’m 18 years old. I’ll be ok.” She lets out a snort.
“You’ve been 18 for ten days. I’ve got double the miles on the clock you have. I suppose you think you know more than me now… Where did you get the money for the ferry anyway? If you have money going spare you could have at least put a bit in the electricity meter.”
“Sorry, Ma. I’ll bring back enough to fill it for a few weeks.”
“How are you getting that?”
“I found a wallet on the ferry. No sense handing it in. I’m sure the owner’s gone long ago.”
Pause. She’ll pretend to believe me. “You’re right, love. The person who lost it doesn’t need it as much as us, probably. How much?”
“150 quid.” Minus the Steven money and a wee bit for me.
The good news has put her off her ranting stride. “That’s great, love. That’ll come in handy. Look, I know you’re an adult and I can’t stop you going to the party. Just be careful, that’s all. I just want you to be safe.” We have to go through this routine every time.
“I’ll be fine, Ma. There’ll be loads of girls at the party too.”
“Girls can be just as bad as the fellas.”
“I know. I’ll watch myself. I’ll have to go now, Ma. People are giving me looks for talking too loud.”
After I hang up I feel like getting some air and putting distance between me and the stuck-up couple. Just in case he looks for his wallet and remembers my “fall”. The deck is up some stairs and along a narrow corridor, where I run into a boy about my age. I really don’t like the look of him.
“Hi, beautiful!” he says, leering at me. Boke.
“Excuse me,” I say and try to push past. He grabs my arm.
“Hey, hang on. You could say hello to a fellow human being.” A fellow human being? What the fuck?
“Sorry,” I say. “I wasn’t thinking. Hello.”
“Oh yeah, you girls only start being nice when you’re scared. You’re not fooling anybody.” Wow, he’s gone from 0 to 60 in 3.5. He’s nearly spitting with rage. Why is it so quiet in here? Must be the heavy doors at the ends of the staircase. That means no one inside the ferry or on the deck can hear me either.
“Look, are you going to let me past or what?” I say, trying to sound confident.
“What’s the rush?”
“I want to go up on deck.”
“Well I’m going up too. You first,” he says. No way was I letting him follow me up the stairs.
I turn back the way I came. “I need to go back to the restaurant. I think I left my…”
“Will you STOP LYING TO ME!” With no warning he grabs me and smashes me into the wall. My head spins with the shock and the pain. I can’t believe he just did that. Fucker. I grab his shoulders and bring my knee up into his groin. He crumples to the floor and I run for the door. I crash into it and it opens and I go through and finally the sea air hits me. I gulp it in. It’s freezing. A lot wilder than you’d think inside. I lean against the railing, panting. I’m just starting to get my heart rate down when I notice the stuck-up woman has appeared on the deck. She’s looking for somebody. Me. My heart beats faster again. I try to creep round the corner out of sight.
“You!” she shouts. I look around, fake-surprised.
“Me?” No need to panic, just brazen it out. She has no proof.
“Yes, you, you wee bitch!” The refined accent is gone and she looks like a pitbull spoiling for a fight. I look around for help but we’re alone. Where is everybody on this stupid boat?
“What’s wrong with you?” I scream. Might as well stick to the innocent act as long as I can.
“You know what I’m talking about. Did you think Ben wouldn’t notice his wallet is gone?”
“Are you accusing me of stealing?” I say, trying to sound brave. I have to look up to meet her eye. She’s a lot more built than me, too.
“Look, stop messing me around. We both know you took it. Give it back. Don’t make me hurt you.”
“Don’t make me hurt you? Who are you, Chuck Norris?” I sneer.
“Compared to you, yes.” She takes another step towards me. Is she actually going to hit me? There aren’t any cameras here, and she’d probably get off with it. It isn’t worth getting the shit kicked out of me for a wallet.
“Wait! Wait. Fuck! Calm down. You can have the wallet.” I get it out of my pocket quickly and hand it over. She’s a bit disappointed – she would have loved an excuse to belt me.
“I knew it was you. Ben wouldn’t believe it. He seemed to think you’re a lovely girl.”
“I wasn’t after your boyfriend,” I say. That’s true. She’s welcome to him. “I just needed to distract him so I could take the wallet.”
She doesn’t answer. She’s still standing in front of me, stopping me from leaving.
“Are you going to report me to the police?” I ask eventually.
“It wasn’t your first time stealing. You knew what you were doing,” she says. I want to say her boyfriend is such a fool a total beginner could’ve done it, as long as they had boobs. As if she cares about my moral compass. She wants to make me grovel because I got her boyfriend’s attention.
“I don’t make a habit of it, honestly.” Pretty much the truth. Depending on what you mean by a habit. A habit is every day, right?
She’s still staring at me. Her face is twisted with scorn. How old is she? 28? 30? Hopefully she can still remember being a teenager.
“Please,” I say. “I’m only 16.” Close enough. I try to look as young and scared as possible. It isn’t working. What is she, a female Steven?
“You’ve started young. Can’t you get a job like everybody else?” Apparently in her world jobs always pay enough.
“I’m really sorry,” I say. “I’ll never do it again.” Ahem.
She can’t string this out much longer – she needs to call the authorities soon or let me go. I’m sure she’d love to hand me over to the police but there’ll be questions for her too. They’ll tell her she should have reported me straight away instead of going vigilante. I think she’s starting to worry that someone came up on deck and overheard her Ike Turner routine.
Eventually she says, “I’ll let it go this time.”
She looks down her nose at me one last time and heads back into the boat. Fuck her. I stare out to sea and try to calm my thoughts. I’m nearly crying with rage. I’m mostly mad at myself for putting myself in the position where she could humiliate me. It’s my own fault. Why did I take that wallet when the journey wasn’t half over and I had no escape route? I should have waited til we disembark and taken the safest mark. But I wanted to get them. Her, looking at me as if I was dirt, and him, thinking I’m some wee slut who fancied him. I didn’t want to miss my chance to ruin their day. Idiot.
I force myself not to chase after her and attack her like a feral cat. Don’t be stupid. There’ll be plenty of chances to get more money before Tuesday. She isn’t important. I’ve let her under my skin far too much already. Finally my breathing stabilizes. I turn around and… Shit! I nearly jump out of my skin. Corridor Boy is standing staring at me with a sick grin on his face. How long has he been there? I was so drained from the confrontation I didn’t notice him sneaking up behind me. He comes closer and I take a step back. My back hits the metal railing.
“You’re in a wee world of your own, aren’t you?” He says in a weird sing-songy voice.
“In your own pretty girl world, where you don’t have to notice the rest of us.”
He must be unhinged. I’ve had enough of this. I try to push past him but he’s ready for me to attack this time. He grabs me round the neck and leans me backwards over the railing. The metal bars dig into my back and pain cuts through me. His face is close to mine, close enough to smell the grease in his hair and the sharp scent of aftershave that isn’t covering the smell of his body. Sweat drips down his face into his eyes even though it’s freezing out here. He must be on a trip or something. He thinks he’s killing some kind of monster instead of a human girl. Panicking, I try to push back but I can’t get leverage with my feet off the ground. I’m past the tipping point now. He starts squeezing my neck. I have to cling to him anyway because he’s the only thing keeping me from falling. I don’t dare hit or claw his face in case he lets go of me. The grey sea doesn’t look flat now. It looks choppy and furious and absolutely freezing. I’d go under in a second and the shock of the cold would probably kill me. I try to shout.
“Help! Please!” But it doesn’t come out sounding anything like that. Where is everyone? Why is there never anyone around when I’m in trouble? He’s still squeezing my neck, staring into my eyes but not really seeing me at all. He won’t stop unless I can stop him. Darkness is creeping in around the edge of my vision. I’m crying, my tears are all over his hands but he still isn’t stopping. I need to think of something fast but my thoughts are getting slower and slower…
I’ve given up when I feel us being pulled back into the boat. Someone wrenches him off me. I collapse and gasp in breath after breath, hardly knowing where I am. Finally I feel some strength coming back to me. Corridor Boy is lying in a heap, out for the count. The posh pitbull is standing over me.
“Relax, take some more deep breaths,” she says. She’s white with shock. I’ve really ruined her day now.
“How did you know…?”
“I heard you shouting. I was still on the deck. Are you all right?”
“I think so. Did you knock him out?” My voice is a bit croaky.
“Yeah.” She really is Chuck Norris. “He must have been mad. He was trying to kill you.” Her voice is shaky. I don’t think she knows whether it really happened or if it was a dream. I suppose I’m expected to be all grateful now even though she treated me like shit earlier. Maybe I can turn it to my advantage.
“Thank you. You just saved my life.” I say. I’m still shaking but I struggle to my feet and hold out my arms. I have to do this now, when it’s realistic. She isn’t too keen but she can’t refuse a hug after saving my life. It gives me plenty of time to take the wallet back, take out the cash and replace the empty wallet so she won’t miss it. I’m sure she wouldn’t want me to get beaten up or worse by Steven after going to all the trouble of saving my life.
We break apart. She’s shaking too. She’ll never be able to forget me now, the slutty girl on the ferry. Maybe I’ll haunt her dreams for a while. I know I’ll be hanging backwards over that railing in my dreams for... It’s starting to hit me how lucky I was. Thankfully she hadn’t left the deck. Another couple of seconds and she wouldn’t have heard me shouting for help at all. There would have been nothing between me and that giant, empty grey sea… I shiver and force myself to stop thinking about it. The security guards finally appear, self-important even though they missed all the action, and I make myself concentrate on them. I tell them I’m fine and that this woman is a hero. She gives me a strange look, half-apologetic, half-scornful. I just give her a sweet smile. She’s done me two good turns today. The security guards take Corridor Boy into custody and fuss over me, insisting on checking me over. I ask if I can send one text first.
My near-death experience must have made me sentimental. I click into Kyle’s conversation and type:
Can’t wait to see you either xx