"AW, COME on, Bill! It's the only way I can get to see Annika. It's been nearly two weeks!"
"So whose fault is that?" Billy sniffed. "Her mam and dad did catch you at it in their bed. They'd only gone down to the garden centre for an hour."
Rob was getting tired of explaining. "Her dad forgot to take his credit card. And they didn't catch us at it. I escaped out of the window and across the garage roof."
"And left the poor girl changing the sheets on her parents' bed."
"I didn't tell her to do that. It's not my fault she's too domesticated. And it was all..."
"Yeah, you keep telling us; it was all her juices anyway."
"That's right! Annika's a wet girl. And I hadn't finished. So nothing happened, really."
"You were fucking a girl in her parents' very own bed, and they come home, and you say nothing happened?"
"I did not have sexual relations with that woman. It's not sex unless you come."
Billy gasped at his friend's capacity for self-deception. Rob hadn't finished.
"I haven't come since. Well, not often. Only twice a day. I'm getting hairs on the palms of my hands, look."
Davie couldn't see any. "I don't see why it's okay for her to see you again as long as she brings a friend along."
"They're not stopping Annika from seeing me," Rob explained patiently. "She's not allowed to see any boys at all. That's why she's only allowed to go out with Penny."
"What do you mean?"
Rob shuffled his feet. "Well, Penny's a girl, isn't she? It's all right for Annika to spend time at another girl's house."
"How do they know this Penny doesn't invite a bunch of boys round to her place... ?"
"There wouldn't be room. It's only a little house and Penny's got a whole load of sisters. Annika's mam knows what she's doing. C'mon, Bill! Penny might be all right."
"She might be? You mean you haven't even seen her?"
"Not exactly. I mean I've seen her from a distance. I 'spect she's a good laugh. Girls with lots of sisters have to have a sense of humour."
"Yeah, but what's she look like? She might be a horror story. You'll have Annika - six feet tall, built like a supermodel with tits, big green eyes, blonde hair down to her waist ... and..."
"Don't stop, don't stop..." Rob was caressing his groin, his eyes bulging from his head.
" ... and I'll be stuck with a right little dog! How could I go out with a girl called Penny, anyway? Penelope!"
"It's a pretty name. And she won't be a dog. Annika wouldn't make friends with an ugly girl. Look. Just this once. Just for me! Just this time, and if you don't get on with Penny, I'll make sure Annika brings a top girl along for you next time, okay? But I bet Penny's all right. You'll see. Anyway, it will be dark..."
That last remark filled Billy with a deep gloom. So this Penny was the sort of girl you weren't proud to be seen with. "What are we going to be doing on this date, anyway?"
Rob's face lit up. Victory was in sight! "Oh, just the usual. You can ... we can do what we like. We might take them for a drink, or ... anything."
A drink, preferably somewhere really dark. Billy reviewed the options. There weren't any. Rob was his mate, his buddy, his best friend. This was the least he could do. Maybe, one day, Rob would do the same for him. Fat chance!
Billy often wondered why Annika had chosen Rob instead of him. Annika was the ideal height for Billy, who had always been in demand at school. Girls used to ask him to get books down from the top shelf. Rob was four or five inches shorter than Annika, and she seemed to enjoy her height advantage, making the most of it by wearing heels when she went out with him. They made a startling couple: Annika, enormously tall and graceful as a swan; Rob, short and dumpy. 'Dumpy' sounded nicer than 'fat'.
"I won't forget this, mate. I'll call Penny now."
"You'll call Penny?"
"Yeah. I call Penny and tell her it's okay, and she calls Annika to invite her round to her place for a sleepover on Saturday night. Then Annika's mam doesn't suspect anything."
"Saturday night? You mean, all night?"
"Of course! I'll take her in at the back gate and we'll spend the night in the summer house. I've got blankets and stuff, and the heater from the garage..."
"But the summer house is only tiny. There's no room for four of us in there..."
"That's all right, pal. Once you and Penny get acquainted, we'll leave you to it. You don't want to have us hanging round your necks. Besides, I want to see how many times we can do it in one night. There's this bloke at work who does it five times every night with his missus. I bet me 'n Annika can beat that easy!"
Billy groaned. It was too late to pull out of the arrangement now. A totally wasted Saturday night was coming up. Lumbered with some dog of a girl while his fat friend dragged the statuesque blonde beauty away to a night of lust and world records.
Billy's worst fears were realised. And then some. He didn't even get a chance to feast his eyes on Annika for more than a minute. She seemed to be positively glowing with the thought of her night's entertainment. She was almost dragging Rob away as soon as they met in the street outside Penny's house. Not that Rob was resisting. They were like two dogs in the mating season.
"We'll leave you to it, Billy-boy."
"Yeah, see you later, Billy! I'll call you in the morning, Pen."
"Okay, right," Penny replied dully. It was the first time she had said more than one word since the two girls had stepped out of the shadows as the boys came down the hill.
They watched glumly as the ill-matched Rob and Annika accelerated briskly away to their waiting bed. Disgusting! It wasn't even eight thirty yet.
Penny leaned against her front gate and regarded Billy without enthusiasm. "You're tall," she accused him. The implication seemed to be that he would have been better suited to Annika than Rob was. Certainly, Penny would have been a more suitable a companion for Rob. She was substantially less than five feet tall, and assembled along the lines of a brick shit-house. In the yellow glare of the street-lights, it wasn't easy to gauge her dress sense, but she seemed to be wearing all grey; grey jeans, a bulky grey sweater, and a ridiculous grey woollen hat pulled right down over her ears. Even her glasses seemed to have grey frames. "What d'you want to do?" she asked him. "You can go straight home if you want. I'll cover for Annie if her mam phones."
"Home? It's only half eight." Billy forced a laugh. "The night is young."
"Yeah. I s'pose it is. There's nothin' on telly. Anyway, the night's so young, my sisters haven't gone out yet. You don't want to meet them."
"We could go for a walk... ?"
"Walk?" Penny thought about the word, as if it were part of an alien language. "You mean, walk? Us?"
"Yeah, why not?"
The girl laughed. It was an unexpectedly musical sound. "Well, look at us." She detached herself from the gate and stepped forward. The top of her woolly hat came up to Billy's chest. When she looked up at him, her glasses reflected the street-light. She stepped back and plucked them off, tugging the earpieces out from her hat, then produced a hankie and began polishing the lenses. She peered blindly at her hands, apparently working entirely by feel.
"Come on, then. Which way?"
Penny completed her task and laboriously replaced the glasses. Then she peered experimentally out through them, surprised to see him still there. "Up the hill. Then it will be downhill coming back."
She placed a hand in his. It was tiny, and Billy had a ludicrous feeling that he was helping a little child to cross the road. "How tall are you?" he asked her.
The girl gave a little shudder. "Don't ask! Four feet seven in my heels. We're all short, my sisters, my Mam. She's only four ten. Dad was Irish," she added, as if that explained something. "A jockey." Which did explain something.
"Was?" The word was out before Billy could stop it. He had meant to ask if her dad was something else instead of Irish these days.
"Horse kicked him. In the balls. Mam said her prayers had been answered. A bit late, since she'd already had seven daughters, but she must have prayed too hard, 'cos he died anyway."
"It's okay. It was years ago. It was on the news that night, and we had all the neighbours in to watch the telly. Mam was pregnant, of course. She nearly always was. That made eight of us when Tommy was born."
"So she had a boy at last?"
"No, Tommy's short for Thomasina. The horse that kicked Dad was called Tommy's Tantrum, so Mam said she was going to name the baby after the horse, whether it was a boy or a girl. The baby, not the horse. So I'm the oldest of eight girls. Never a dull moment in our place. You don't want to know all their names, do you?"
"I'd never remember them."
"Nor can I, half the time. You got any brothers or sisters?"
"No, there's just me."
"You're lucky. Look at this lot..." She detached her hand and pirouetted ponderously under a street-light. "These are all the clothes I could find. For a Saturday night date! My sisters have borrowed everything they haven't already stolen." She replaced her hand shyly and set off up the hill again. Not too far to the top now. She was panting slightly with the exertion.
"You want to stop for a minute?" There was a wooden bench here, looking out across the city. A popular spot in summer.
"The seat will be wet," she pointed out. "Let's go on up to the bus stop."
It was another hundred yards, by which time they were both puffing. She pulled him into the little shelter, where the seat was dry. About the same size as Rob's Dad's summer house, Billy thought. Those two would be at it by now. Fucking.
They stared out over the broad vista of lights. Down there, miles down, the city throbbed with Saturday night life. Neon flashed, traffic lights changed, buses and cars threaded their way silently around the roundabout in the middle. The floodlights were still on at the football ground, although the game would have finished hours ago. A pale moon hung just above the horizon, but the stars were invisible in the sodium haze of ten thousand street-lights. The stars were there, though: it was a clear night, and up here, bitterly cold. Their breath hung in the still air.
"Do you come here often?" she asked, then giggled. "What a fucking stupid question!"
"Not usually in winter. It's enough to freeze your balls off." He thought for a while about cuddling the girl closer, but it seemed a little premature. He'd only met her ten minutes ago. Her posture was neutral, neither encouraging nor forbidding. She seemed not to have heard his reply.
"I'm not a virgin," she said, somewhat surprisingly.
"Oh?" Billy wondered how priests felt in the confessional. "I am," he said, going instantly hot and cold. What did I tell her that for? The whole town will know by tomorrow!
She gave no sign of having heard. "I've only done it the once. It wasn't very good. I wonder how the lovers are getting on. They were going in Rob's dad's shed. They'll freeze. Serve them right."
"Summer house. It's not a shed, it's a summer house. It's got curtains and a couch that turns into a bed."
"They'll still freeze. And it still serves them right."
"They were going to try and set a new world record, or something, Rob said."
"Oh, yeah?" Penny glanced up at him then looked away at the view again. A bus was grumbling its way up the hill.
"D'you want to go down town? Have a drink, or something?" Why am I saying 'or something' all the time?
"Thanks, but I'm not dressed for it. You want to walk for a bit?" She stood up without waiting for a response, and stepped out on to the weedy footpath. The bus driver saw her and prepared for a hasty stop. Billy took her hand and the two of them turned to walk on as the bus squealed to a halt and the doors hissed open. Nobody got off. It was a daft place for a bus stop, really; there weren't any houses within a quarter of a mile. There was a muffled cursing, cut off as the doors closed again, and with a roar, the bus resumed its journey.
They took a different route back, down through the park. It was darker, but not so cold, somehow. "Don't you like Annie?" she asked him, a voice out of the night.
"Annika? She's okay. A bit stuck up, but she's really pretty. She could have been a model."
"Her tits are too big," said Penny. "I don't mean they're too big, but they told her they were too big when she tried to get a modelling job. When she was sixteen, her mother took her to an agency. They said they might be interested if she had a reduction. Annie told them to get stuffed."
"I didn't know. Why do models have to be skinny? Lots of real girls have nice well-developed figures, so why shouldn't models be the same?"
"Tell me about it!"
Billy waited, but the girl didn't elaborate. They emerged from the park gates on to the main Backhurst Road. "There's a chippy down here. Or a Chinkie. You fancy anything?"
She smiled, her glasses glinting. "Fish and chips! I've got some money..."
"It's all right." He felt in his back pocket. A couple of tenners. Penny was a cheap night out. She took her glasses off as soon as they went into the shop. It was the first time he'd had a good look at her in the light. She blinked and peered at him.
"What are you staring at?"
"You look different without your glasses."
"You look different without my glasses, too. They get all steamed up in here." Her hankie came out again and she polished them, concentrating hard.
She really wasn't a bad looking girl at all. On an impulse, he took her woolly hat off.
"Hey, what ya doin'?" But she smiled and shook her hair out. The thick dark-brown mane caught the light as it swung around her shoulders. "My hair will stink of beef drippin' now. They'll all know where I've been."
"Haddock n' chips twice, love." The young woman behind the counter took the money. "Salt and vinegar, help yourself."
"Why don't they ever sound Chinese," Penny wondered as they waited to cross the road. She blew out her cheeks and fanned her mouth. "Hot chip," she explained.
"They've never been near China. She was probably born and brought up within a mile of here. You expect them to sound Chinese, though. It always sounds wrong."
"I can't come out next Saturday." Another of her sudden statements.
Billy ought to have felt relieved, or at the very least unconcerned. As it was, he pretended to choke on a piece of hot fish. He realised he was covering his disappointment. She patted him gently on the back, like burping a baby.
"I can't come out. Me mam's got one of her heavy dates, so I've got to stay in. if you wanted to come round..."
"Round to your place?"
"Me sisters would all be out. All of 'em. They all go out on Saturday nights. That's why I have to stay in. I have to make sure they're all home at the right times. And babysitting, of course."
"A baby? You said..."
"It's not another sister. In fact, they're not other sisters. They're my nephew and nieces. My sisters' kids. I'm sorry, I shouldn't have asked. You'd be bored stiff..."
"No, I wouldn't. I'd like to..."
"We could watch the football on telly. Or anything else you fancied. Mam won't be home while Sunday dinnertime. She's got this bloke picks her up in a Jag, he's got a place over Norton-cum-Upperdike." She hung her head shyly. Her accent had broadened as the evening had progressed. "I could cook you supper. I'm good in kitchen. All my sisters reckon I am."
What the heck? Why not? Billy's Saturday nights tended to fall into a pattern. The anticipation was followed by the realisation. The two never matched. "I'd like that, Pen. What time?"
"'Bout eight? We sh'll have house to ourselves by then."
"You're what? You're seeing Penny again? Hey, what's she like? Did you?"
"Did I what?"
"Get yer leg over, of course! Hey, guess..."
"Guess what?" Billy had a feeling he knew what was coming. He was right.
"Guess how many times!"
"I dunno. Three?"
"Billy! Three? We'd done it three times by nine o' clock. Try again!"
"No idea. Five? Six?"
"Eleven! Eleven times for me. Annika lost count of how many times she came. Eleven times between eight and nine in the morning, mate! I told 'em at work and they didn't believe me."
"Whaddya mean? You believe me, don't you? Anyway, you didn't answer the question. How many times did you get your end away? Is she any good?"
Billy patted his friend gently on the cheek. "Oh, yeah! She was good, all right!"
"He said what? Eleven times?" Penny smothered a giggle, then returned to stirring the casserole. Her glasses steamed up again. "That's not quite what Annie said."
"Annika told you?"
"Annika tells me everything. Here, try this. Enough salt?" She watched critically as he sipped at the spoon.
"What is it?"
"Lamb, mostly. And vedge. Spuds and stuff. Swede..."
"I don't like swede. They used to have it at school..."
"Yeah, it's great!"
"That's the swede." She added another pinch of salt and a drop or two of Worcestershire Sauce. "Another hour. C'mon in the front room. Telly's on, but we can turn it off. It'll make a change. The girls have it on morning, noon and night. Bring a couple of wine glasses, there's a love. On the dresser. Top shelf. I can only just reach..."
With her hair down and her glasses off, Penny curled up in a corner of the couch and raised her glass. "To young lovers," she said, taking a sip. Then she put the glass down in a hurry. "Eleven times! Bullshittin' blokes!"
"It sounds rather a lot."
"It will sound even more to Annie when I tell her. She said she gave up trying at eleven o' clock and went to sleep. And she tried again in morning, and he still couldn't."
"He couldn't what?"
"He couldn't get it up. Poor Annie! A whole week, waiting for it, and what happens? Wonderhorse can't raise a gallop! She said she'd have been better off going with you. She wouldn't have had to bend down to kiss goodnight, either. I told her to sod off!"
Penny hastily picked up her glass again and buried her nose in it. Her face was as red as the wine. "I forgot the pepper," she said, scrambling to her feet and heading for the kitchen. When she returned, he was staring at an old movie on the TV, not seeing a thing. "Hi," he said, as she took her seat.
"I've seen this one. The whole place blows up at the end. The nice blond one gets killed rescuing the boy. And the woman who fancied him. They just manage to get off on the last plane as the Germans drive up on them funny three-wheeled motorbikes. One of the Germans, Hauptmann Grindl, he's a goodie, really, undercover, and the Gestapo suspect him but they can't touch him 'cos his dad's a General and when the soldiers are just like a hundred yards behind their car, they all get blown up with this hand grenade that Grindl's got up his tunic..."
"You've seen it before?" Billy went to change channels.
"No, leave it. There's a bit near the end I can't quite remember. And I always have a good cry. Do you like her?"
"Who? That woman? She's all right. They all had these funny padded shoulders."
"No, not her. She's all right, I s'pose. But her boobs aren't much to write home about. No, Annie."
"Yeah. Now you could write home about Annie's boobs, if you were writing home. I don't know why anybody would want to write home about a pair of boobs, but hers are worth writing home about. Not like mine, I mean."
"Yours?" Billy was surprised. At that moment, he realised, he hadn't even thought of Penny's breasts. As far as he'd been concerned, she hadn't any.
"I've got some, you know!" She sat up straight on the couch and pulled her shoulders back. The grey sweater remained irresolutely baggy. "Big ones," she added with a grin. "Course, they don't show under this sweater. You can't really see how big they are." And she slumped down again, her eyes fixed on the screen. "He's going to blow up the bridge in a minute. Grindl." She sipped her wine again, then with total concentration, reached a stubby finger into the glass to catch a stray piece of cork. "You could, of course."
Billy's head spun. What was the girl on about? Blowing up bridges?
"Not until they're all home, then you can see them."
"The first two will be in at nine and half past. Then there'll be two more at ten, one at eleven and the other two at midnight. You can see them after that."
"Won't I see them when they come in?"
"Not the girls. Not them girls, anyway. These girls!" She gestured towards her chest. Billy had quite forgotten about that thread of conversation. "And if I catch you staring at my sisters' chests, I'll send you upstairs for a cold shower. There! All that with one hand grenade! It wouldn't make a big bang like that, would it? Not on its own?"
"There must have been demolition charges under the bridge, and the hand grenade set them off."
"I suppose so. Is that what them blokes in black hoods were doing right at the beginning?"
"I don't know. This is the first time I've seen it."
"Oh, Billy! I'm sorry. And I told you the ending. You should have said!"
Where was she off to now? She went out into the kitchen again, bustling importantly about the stove, then came back, clutching the wine bottle by the neck. She had a framed photograph under one arm.
"Here." Wine glugged into two glasses. "The whole family. So you'll recognise them when you see them, okay? It won't really matter about the names. They'll all be miserable as sin when they come home. They always are on Saturdays when our Mam's away. The thought of her getting her oats while they have to be home in time for bed. Now, that's Mam, in the middle, and that's me, of course."
"With a dress on!"
"I don't wear this stuff all the time! I told you, the others all pinch my stuff. Stop it, Billy. Concentrate!" She covered the photograph with both hands, leaving a hole just big enough for herself and her mother.
Billy tried to concentrate. In a pretty frock, he could see, there was certainly something quite substantial inside Penny's bodice. "Your mother's nice," he said dutifully.
"This photo was taken a couple of years ago. Our Mam's only thirty-one now."
Billy blinked. "Thirty-one? You mean... ?"
"That's right. I'm eighteen. Mam had a family of three before she got married. She always said they were Dad's anyway, but he didn't believe her. The oldest three of us are all dark-haired and short." She scrabbled around and came up with some dog-eared magazines which she arranged strategically on the photo so only the mother and the three eldest girls were visible. "That's Serena and that's Mary-Ann. Serena's Paul's mother. He's nearly five."
Billy arranged his features to display open-mindedness. Inside, he was deeply shocked. Like mother, like daughter. Daughters. Pretty girls, though, Penny's immediately younger sisters. Dark hair down to below their shoulders, just like Penny's. And just like Penny, well-filled bodices. Penny adjusted her glasses and started moving the papers around to reveal more of the family.
"After she married Dad, she didn't have any more babies for two years. We thought she'd forgotten how. Then she had four straight off. And they're all tall and slim, with Dad's red hair." The first two appeared. "Maxie and Rhonda, they were ... ooh ... eleven and nearly ten at the time of this photo, and Jilly and little Thomasina; not quite nine and seven and a half. That's the lot!"
"Whose are the other two babies?"
"The girls? Bridget's Rhonda's, Dawn belongs to Maxie. Rhonda had hers first, when she was twelve. She's pregnant again, the silly moo. There they are, though, the whole brood. They all look pretty much the same, bearing in mind that they're all two years older than when this picture was taken. And Tommie's late home," she said sharply, looking at the clock.
"You let her out until nine? On her own?"
"She's not on her own. She's got a boyfriend. She's probably snogging on the front porch. That's why she doesn't complain about having to be home half an hour before Jilly. She knows she can grab an extra five minutes before I come out and yank her indoors. Hey, let's put the fear of God up her."
"You go out and bring her in. Just go out there, open the front door, and say, 'bedtime for you, young lady!' She'll be shitting herself!"
"What if she's not there?"
"She will be. Trust me!"
She was. Billy quietly turned the handle and eased the front door open. A young couple were deep in an impassioned embrace. It seemed cruel to interrupt them. The girl was taking the lead, bending the boy backwards as her tongue probed noisily into his mouth. She was taller than the boy, and wearing an absurdly short skirt with a T-shirt that stopped short of her waist to reveal an expanse of bare skin. She'd catch pneumonia! At the moment, though, she was practically boiling with lust, one powerful thigh thrust between the boy's legs, her bottom jerking as she pressed herself against him.
The action slowed. They could hardly have continued like that without setting fire to something. The boy opened one eye and peered over the girl's shoulder. The eye closed again, then opened wide. "Eeek!"
"What's up? Thomasina wriggled round and looked over her shoulder. "Who the fuck are you?"
"Bedtime for you, young lady!"
"I'm off!" The boy wrestled himself free, backed away a few paces, then spun round and shot away up the front path.
"Night, Danny!" Thomasina called into the darkness. "You're Penny's boyfriend," she accused Billy. "And you can let go of me arm, thanks. I'm quite capable of coming in on me own. I need me sweater first," she said, bending to pick up a thick sweater from the ground. She tied the arms round her waist and stared confidently up into Billy's face.
Nine years old? There was deep cleavage showing at the scooped neck of her T-shirt. Nine? He'd never seen a girl as young as this with such a pair. She'd pass for twenty easily. "Inside," he said, opening the door. The girl insinuated herself softly past him and slid indoors.
"Hi, Pen! Who's the gorilla?"
Penny came out of the kitchen, tying an apron round her middle. "Don't be rude. That's Billy. Billy, meet my youngest sister."
With the light catching her red wavy locks, Thomasina was even more pretty than in the photograph, and considerably more busty.
"Where's your bra?" Penny gasped, outraged.
"Too tight. I left it off. It only gets in the way, any road. What's for supper?"
"Irish stew. You stink of fags. Get your arse upstairs and have a shower. Your supper will be ready when you come down. And decent, mind! None of your striptease stuff, madam. We've got guests!"
Thomasina giggled and winked at Billy, then set off up the stairs with an appallingly exaggerated wiggle. "Bloody hellfire!" Billy lurched into the kitchen and leaned against the dresser.
"Nine and a half going on twenty-five, that one. At least, with her boobs being so big, she borrows all my clothes, and if I'm feeling really daring, I can just about struggle into her tops. This is all ready now. We'll have ours when the two youngsters are in. The other two kids ought to be old enough to be trusted. They have to get in to see to their babies. And before you ask, yes, they're all built like Tommy!"
The front door creaked and closed with a firm slam.
"Uh oh! Watch out. Little Miss Jilly's home early. Bad news!"
"Shit!" A slightly larger version of Thomasina burst in through the kitchen door. "What was going off out there, with Tommy and that Daniel of hers? You let her stay out there for ages." She turned an accusing glare on Billy, looking him up and down. "Who's this? Is he yours?" She advanced on the stove without waiting for an answer. "Is this ready? I was hidin' in t' hedge for twenty minutes, bustin' for a piss while little Tommy were sayin' goodnight."
"Well get upstairs to the loo, then, and out from under us feet."
"It's too late now. I did it outside. S'all right! I didn't have any knickers on. I got them off down at bus stop, but Adie said he had a headache. I reckon he's only interested in me tits." A concerned expression crossed her face and she shot out of the room and thundered up the stairs.
"She's got a problem bladder, our Jilly. Ten minutes is 'bout all she can manage. Get us some of those big dishes down, there's a duck. Yeah, them. I can't quite reach..."
"Well, what do you make of them, then?" The last sisters had made their way upstairs, carrying their various infants. Penny lounged in her favourite corner of the couch, stretching like an animal.
"They're all ... I dunno! Enormous! I've never seen any girls like them. Especially the younger ones."
"Yeah, well. I s'pose you did okay, really. Your eyes didn't actually pop all the way out of your head. You probably disappointed them. They enjoy making a big impression. Anyway, you'll not be interested in mine, not now."