Lenny will be thirteen when she finally crusts over into crystal.
It will happen on a Sunday morning in March, during a double sleepover at Nina’s.
On the first night of the double sleepover, the Friday night, the girls will sit on the
large L-shaped sofa in Nina’s front room, eat salty chips soggy with vinegar and then braid each other’s long hair into twelve tiny plaits. Squashing together so they can both see the screen, they will watch YouTube whilst chewing strawberry laces and sucking
the sugar off pastilles till they slip smoothly round their wet mouths. They will show each other the sucked pastilles, which will look like pink polyps on the ends of their tongues.
Later, at bedtime, Lenny and Nina will walk upstairs, strip off their school
uniforms, now coated in sugar-crumbs, remove everything except their knickers and climb into onesies. Nina’s onesie will be purple, made from thick fake fur and it will
have long ears sewn into the hood and a fluffy white bunny bump on the bum. Lenny’s blue cotton onesie will be covered in neon yellow cursive text which will read ‘party-
girl party-girl party-girl’. The repeating phrase will wrap continuously around
Lenny’s body like a hula-hula hoop. It will be Lenny’s favourite onesie because it
won’t be babyish, not like Nina’s with its fluffy bunny tail, but the material will be
badly sewn and it will not line up properly at the seams so each side of Lenny’s body
will read ‘pa-gi’ and ‘irl-ty’. Nina will notice and she will tease Lenny. She will tease
her non-stop because she knows Lenny’s onesie will be nicer, much nicer, and that fact will make Nina feel bad.
The girls will try, but fail, to stay up all night, staring at the enormous
television mounted on the wall above Nina’s single bed. Their sleepy eyes will
absorb a stream of music videos featuring women wearing PVC bras. The
women’s bodies will glisten with sweat as they dance around fully dressed men.
At 3:54 AM Nina’s tired parents will thump on the thin
partition wall between the bedrooms in Nina’s new build house. They will thump
so hard – thump thump thump – they will thump three times and the television
will rattle in its brackets and Lenny will feel scared on that third thump that the television will slither out its bolts and crush them.
Like most girls, it will have crystallised slowly over time. The slow speed of the steady process will be crucial to the quality of the crystal Lenny forms between her legs.
When Lenny is little,
as a toddling infant with rosy
flushed cheeks and dimpled smiles, Lenny will be obsessed by her toes. A toe
will seem a strange shape and something worth thinking about. At bath time, when little Lenny pulls off her tights patterned with pictures of pink kittens and holds her chubby legs spread wide in the air above her head, she will stare at her soft feet which hinge out at right angles from her ankles and, when Lenny clumsily stands back up, she will be utterly amazed at how her feet spread flat on
the floor and fringe out with five toes.
At two years old, when Lenny is still
young enough to not understand the day after yesterday, or the day before tomorrow, she thinks she will grow up to be a boy. Or a dragon. Or a bird soaring through the air. On long drives, she will hang her head out the open window of the car and with fast wind in her face she will imagine she is a falcon swooping down
to pick up prey.
During those long days before school,
on warm afternoons overgrown with new things – flying ants, golden
ladybirds and baby birds ripped down from low nests carried in cats’ claws –
Lenny will dance in her pants round her garden chopping at the air. As she cuts
her imagined path through, slaying invisible monsters, she will leave it too late
and wet her pants and already knowing wet pants are wrong, that there will be
anger, anger at this always happening, she will take them off, tripping as they
tangle between her legs and she will bury her wet knickers in the corner of the flowerbeds. Seeing the little raised mounds, she will dance naked round them
thinking they look like the graves in Nina’s garden.
She will have just met Nina,
and when Lenny goes around on those first playdates whilst their mothers
sit on the patio drinking coffee, talking about schools and choices, Nina will show
Lenny her goldfish grave. It will be a mass grave. There will be many, many
goldfish buried there. The girls will like sitting naked on the grass beside the
graves and feeling its luscious blades tickle their soft bums.
On the Saturday morning of the double sleepover, the two thirteen-year old girls
will wake up sweating, with a sugar hangover, fizzy dry lips and breath thick
with artificial flavours. Having got hot in the night they will be naked from the
waist up. Nina will pull her onesie back over her bare chest and go to the box-
sized bathroom on the landing. As she walks away, Lenny will stare at Nina’s
childish bunny-bum-bump bouncing behind her. But then, Nina will return
quickly, too quickly, wrapped in a small damp hand towel usually used for
guest’s hands. Nina will stand stiffly, holding something secret, hiding it under
her fingers and she will look worried. Lenny will think she has stolen something
from her mum again, like money.
‘I think I got my first period,’ Nina will say, staring at Lenny. Her words
will sound odd, like she is reading off a script in drama class, and then she will
unfurl her stiff fingers. It will be Nina’s pants folded into her hand and Lenny
will feel sick thinking about the sticky icky thing that Nina might be pressing
into her palm.
Neither will know what to say. So they won’t.
Nina will disappear to find her mother and Lenny will wait, she will sit
waiting on the bed. She will wait and wait and then thinking of her own mother
waiting, Lenny will make the bed. Make the bed, be useful, Lenny will think,
and when she stands, grabs two corners of the duvet and flips it, Lenny will get
covered in the sugar crystals which will bounce up in the air like tiny transparent
ants. Lenny will get dressed, pack up her things and try to go home. But Nina
will want her to stay.
The girls will carry on with their day. They will put gel-glitter on their
cheeks and take turns un-braiding their hair. Lenny will sit behind Nina on the
bed and wriggle elastic bands off the bottom of Nina’s, then drag her thumbs
through and watch each strand spring up like the steps in a steep staircase.
Nina’s hair will stink of vinegar but Lenny won’t tell her this. When they swap
and it is Lenny’s turn to get un-braided, Lenny’s hair will not spring up like
Nina’s when it is undone, instead Lenny’s hair will flop down her back like flaps
of folded wet paper. It will look terrible. Nina will giggle. It will be a mean
giggle. Nina will make the hiding of that mean giggle a big thing and she will
lean in to Lenny and whisper, ‘Your hair did not curl because you are not a real
woman, not like me.’
And that’s how the rest of the Saturday will go.
Nina will be unable to stop herself. She will spend the day gloating from
the other side of that icky divide.
The first stage of crystallisation, the time taken for that initial crystal to form, is called the primary nucleation phase and it refers to that moment when the very first crystal is formed in a solution or gas in which no crystal was previously present.
When Lennie is four she will be told off for cartwheeling naked through sprinklers
in the park. And there will be comments whenever she sits pant-free splay-legged
on a seat but never when she stands and Lenny will notice this. Whenever she
stands and pushes her legs wider and wider no one will say anything about closing them. Lenny will stand splitting her legs wider.
Lenny will be so good at splitting
her parents will enrol her at a pre-school gym club. Every Thursday
afternoon, in a church hall stinking of sweat and rotting wood, teenage girls will
push a Lycra clad open-legged Lenny down, down towards the floor. As Lenny is
spread into scissor splits, straddle splits, box splits and front splits, she will think
of dolls whose legs pop out when you pull too hard. Lenny will worry because she knows that even if you push those popped out legs back in, they never hang right
again. With her legs spread wide, when her vagina touches the soft-landing matt everyone will applaud and Lenny will feel confused. Very confused indeed.
At Nina’s house, on the second morning of the double sleepover, the Sunday
morning, Lenny will wake up first. She will wake up on a deflating blue plastic
airbed on the floor, feeling sharp pangs inside her stomach, like a needle
threading something secret inside her. Lenny will pull up her onesie and go to
Sitting on the toilet with the onesie pooled around her ankles, feeling
fluid flood out, she will see a thin line of brown in her white pants. She will wipe
her bum first. Then she will realise it is not her bum and want to scream. She
will step out her onesie and pull off her pants. She will throw the pants into the
toilet on top of the paper and she will push the handle but the pants won’t
disappear down the pan. They will balloon up with the air created by the force of
the flush. She will push again and again. The cistern will be slow and noisy
refilling but eventually it will work, and the pants will disappear down.
Lenny will take a hand towel, run to Nina’s room and get dressed. She
will mumble about forgotten homework, pack her stuff and go home. Nina will
stand in her front doorway, watching, her springy hair flattened on one
side by her sleep.
When Lenny gets to the bus stop her bag will feel too light and she will
remember her nicer onesie, left slumped on the floor in front of the toilet, like a forgotten skin, like a snake that has shed.
Not all crystals form a precious shape. Some crystals spread out. These thin layers of crystals are not strong and can be picked away. To generate one solid crystal of stunning quality, with a pleasing shape, the solution must not be exposed to impurities. Impurities will affect the quality of the final crystal created.
When Lenny is three, her mother will be momentarily pregnant again. Lenny will
go to the early scans and hear the baby’s heartbeat galloping like a strong horse
running on a drum. She will become curious and ask her mother questions,
wondering how the horse-baby will get out. Her smiling mother will explain,
priding herself on being as anatomically correct as possible, but each time Lenny
will be distracted – she will be distracted by springtime butterflies flipping past,
by summer clouds that look like sharks hunting fish and by autumn spiders’ webs frosted with morning mist, appearing everywhere like ghostly nets slung over box hedge.
Then months later, Lenny will remember
they haven’t spoken about the horse-baby. She will run to her mother,
who will be lying in a hot bath with a flat stomach and she will ask again when
the horse-baby will gallop out. Her tearful mother will climb out the bath and she
will tell Lenny that she is not talking about it again. Lenny will be eye level to her mother's vagina which will be coated in silver bubbles. The bubbles will make a
popping sound like tiny crystals being crushed and Lenny will cry and run to bed.
On the bus home from Nina’s, Lenny will sit at the back biting her nails, worried
she can smell it and when no one sits beside her on the bench she will become convinced they can all smell it too, that everyone knows what is happening to
her. She will swing up her legs worried thick brown stuff might be leaking down,
oozing along the front of her shins pooling and soaking into her ankle socks.
Lenny will have no idea how much blood will come because no one has told her.
No one has told her what it is really like.
By the time her stop approaches, Lenny will be terrified she has soaked
through onto the seats and before she stands she will take off her waxy padded
puffer jacket and tie its thick arms in a knot around her soft waist. When she
jumps off the bus and waddles slowly home the stiff jacket will hoof around her
hips restricting her steps and she will move like a Victorian maiden trapped in a
crinoline cage. The puffer jacket will bounce behind her like a big black bustle.
When Lenny gets home having forgotten her keys again, she will ring the
doorbell which will chime with the charge of the light brigade and her mum will
appear holding a mug and open the door.
‘You’re pale. What time did you get to bed?’ Her mother will say.
‘Why are you always so interested in my bloody sleep!’ Lenny will
scream and then burst into tears. Lenny’s mum will open the door wide and point
up the stairs. Her mum will blame Nina, late nights and parents who don’t police properly.
The second stage of crystal formation, the secondary nucleation, is a nucleation which takes place only because of the prior presence of crystals. Once that first crystal has been formed, the second stage takes care of itself. For girls, the process will speed up as continual comments gather in small clusters between their legs, those clusters form the solid base onto which other crystals can cling.
On her first day of school an excited Lenny will be told off for backflipping across
the playground at lunchtime. The teachers will tell her other girls are getting hurt
on the concrete floor copying her. And then, after lunch, when Lenny sits in that
first alphabet lesson, when the teacher finally asks for words beginning with V,
Lenny will be the only one to proudly thrust up her hand and it is then she will
know for sure that vaginas get you into trouble. Big trouble. She will discover that vacuums, vans and vests are good and breasts and bosoms are never as welcome
The next day in science, when the teacher
talks to them about the quality of materials, of wood, stone and of metal,
Lenny will be thinking of open legs, vaginas and trouble. She will be thinking
about cross comments on sitting, spreading and being told off for jumping naked through sprinklers - what is this thing made of - she will wonder - this thing
between my legs that needs covering and is sensitive to air? When the teacher
holds up old coins Lenny will think - maybe it is metal.
As the teacher talks about rust
Lenny will remember when her mother goes to the bathroom, on those few
times she locks the door, there will be ripping sounds coming out from inside the
room. The ripping will sound like plastic tags peeling back on biscuit packets.
When her mum leaves the bathroom, Lenny will creep in and see rust-coloured
water in the pan. She will lift the lid on the metal bathroom bin and instead of
finding half-eaten biscuits she will discover sticky rolls of plastic backed paper
rippled with raspberry.
Panicking about rust,
when she gets home from school, after supper time, little Lenny will
smuggle her dad’s shaving mirror out the bathroom. In her pretty bedroom
decorated with baby ducks, she will sit on her bed and bend over opening it up,
and when she looks at it, she will wonder why she had never thought of looking
before. Unable to see clearly, she will push her fingers inside and it will not be
metal. No. She will feel full of muscles, strong ridges of muscles coiling around
like a flexible hose, like the thin bones of her throat. If anything, it will feel like
her tough bendy toy which she can stretch and pull but will always find back its
true shape by the morning and Lenny will smile. She will laugh.
Her dad will come in and
be shocked when he sees his daughter like that. Her mother will come in
and she will gently talk to her daughter about privacy, modesty and keeping legs
closed. And as she talks she will tap, she will tap – tap tap tap – on her wedding
ring. Lenny will stop listening to her mother’s sweet words, she will look at the
ring as her mother taps it, stare at its diamonds glistening in the glow of her moon-shaped night light which wards off bad dreams, and as the ring’s light glitters
round her room like small star sparks, she will realise, right then, that something
strange sits in her body between her legs, something that is not made out of her.
Lenny’s mum will barge into her daughter’s bedroom backwards, carrying a tall
pile of washing, crop tops, jeans and bras, which she will dump on Lenny’s
newly bought double bed.
‘I think I’ve got my period.’ Lenny will whisper from under the
bedspread, humiliated. The room will fall silent, the silence will be unbearable
and her mother will finally speak.
‘Can I see?’ she will say in a sing-song sickly soft voice.
‘Your knickers?’ Her mum will sing again in that awful lullaby.
Disgusted, Lenny will point to the dirty linen bin in her bedroom.
Lenny will hear muffled conversation downstairs, the word ‘fragile’
being said and her father slamming the front door. Up till that Sunday Lenny will
never have been called fragile, she will have been called overtired, hungry a
stroppy madam but never fragile.
The word fragile is bad. It means the crystals have finally crusted over.
Lenny will lie naked in her bed running her tongue along the front of her
furry un-brushed teeth. She will hear a gentle noise on her own bedroom door.
The noise will
and eventually Lenny will realise that it is the sound of someone knocking politely on her bedroom door.
Lenny will say,
because no one
has ever knocked on her door before.
‘Hey hon, I’m running you a warm bath with bubbles your father just bought from the shop.’ Her mother will say this with a voice
will bring in a basket,
filled with finger shaped tampons and
brick sized pads displayed like exotic fresh fruit
in a bowl. Looking at that basket, with strawberry smells rising
from the bubbles in the bathroom, Lenny
will vomit a smooth jelly of tablet sized
sweets onto her carpeted
Lou is a London based animation screenwriter. In 2016 when her youngest of three children finally started school she enrolled on the MA Creative Writing at Birkbeck (part-time) desperate to write a novel. However, she fell in love with short stories. She graduated 2018 winning both departmental prizes - Best Dissertation and Sophie Warne Fellowship for Outstanding Graduate. She’s had stories longlisted in the Bristol (2017) and London (2018) short story awards and was winner of the 2017 Aesthetica Creative Writing Award. Since graduating, she was chosen for the inaugural London Library Emerging Writers Programme (2019). More recently, her work was longlisted for UEA New Forms Award (2020) an early career award for experimental writing, from the National Centre for Writing. She is now working on her first novel, Bring Them to Light. The novel was recently shortlisted for W&A Working-Class Writers Prize 2020. She loves uncanny, slanty fiction.