Exclusive extract: Fire Child

Tessa Armstrong

Northwood Road, Highbury, N5

Friday 1 September

I am very thin and find it hard to eat. Sometimes I think I’m starving myself to death because I’m tired of existing. I don’t like myself. Ever since I killed my father I have lost hope. That was five years ago. I was just fifteen.

Before that my only problem in life was to decide whether to be an actress, a journalist like my father, or a chat show hostess. But at the same time, I realize now, I was cold. The drawer of this desk where I sit is full of love letters. I used to read them out to my girlfriends at school, in particular to my best friend Nicola, who was prettier than the other girls and wickeder. They were children, while Nicola and I were born old. She was the daughter of a politician. I haven’t seen her for five years but we fell out long before that, one evening; an evening which caused quite a scandal.

I still like to read my old letters. I think I was made with a very large Tessa-shaped hole in my mind and heart. I also think I was very brave to manage without you all those years. I loved you so instantly, and it’s the same love I feel now, much stronger and deeper now, and growing so much all the time, but it’s the same love. It’s hard to see how it arrived like that, just suddenly and fully formed and without a moment’s hesitation or doubt. You were the one, you are the one, you always will be the one. Darling, if I didn’t know from experience that I will be more in love with you tomorrow than I am today and will be more in love with you still next week, I would say that I love you absolutely.

That one was written by a photographer I met in a park. He left the country when I grew bored and refused to see him. Even at the time my ability to inspire intense love rather surprised me. Especially as the love was always unreciprocated.

In those days, when my father was alive, we had a house in south London full of windows – bay windows, round windows, French windows – next door to three young boys and their parents.

When the eldest boy Philip was thirteen, he started to want to swap stamps with me. Before that, I had been good only as a snowball target. I caught him staring at me intently as I examined his lovely Chinese stamps covered in dragons and sputniks on the floor of my bedroom. I suggested he give them all to me in exchange for just one dull brown Norwegian stamp featuring a man with a small beard. He agreed, and for the first time I recognized my power. I remember the faint dark hairs above his lips and the furtive way he looked at me.

He never tried to touch me. Occasionally my arm would brush his, as if in error, and he would blush. He had big ears, short hair and an excellent stamp collection – until it was decimated by my unfair offers.

One day during an endless hot summer holiday I called round to swap stamps with Philip wearing a pretty backless dress, hoping to get better stamps that way. But Philip was out, playing cricket.

His two brothers and mother were out too.

His handsome father, however, was in.

He had been mowing the lawn in his shorts, and had sweat on his face and a beer in his hand. He invited me in for a Coca-Cola.

 ‘Your lawn looks very nice, Mr Brown,’ I said as I stood at the window of the breakfast room.

I felt his hands on my bare arms.

‘Yes it does, doesn’t it?’ he said in an ordinary voice as though nothing out of the ordinary were happening. His hands on my arms gave me an agreeable sensation, somewhere between a shiver and a burn. He kissed the hot nape of my neck.

‘Where’s my Coca-Cola, Mr Brown?’ I asked softly.

He stopped kissing to reply: ‘It’s on the table behind you. Do you want a glass or a straw?’

‘No thank you very much. I’ll drink it from the can… in a minute.’

His hands were round my waist – big, tough, man’s hands. I liked the smell of his sweat. His hands moved upwards and pushed my breasts up. I closed my eyes in pleasure as Mr Brown kissed the back of my head and murmured into my hair. He turned me round and put his lips on mine.

It was not the first time I had been kissed but it was easily the best. The kisses of boys were inept: a slobbery blurring of lips.

Mr Brown gave complicated kisses. His tongue became one second like a small fish let loose in my mouth – it darted delightfully all over the place. The next second his tongue changed into a warm snake thrusting and pushing.

I stood limply and gave myself up to the pleasure.

His hand was undoing the buttons of my dress when the phone rang in the next room.

He started.

‘Don’t answer,’ I said.

He looked down at me with a dazed expression, as though he didn’t know who I was or how I’d got there.

‘Don’t answer it,’ I repeated firmly.

His forehead puckered.

‘Don’t frown at me like that,’ I said. ‘You don’t look quite so handsome when you frown.’

He continued to stare at me.

The phone seemed to be ringing louder and louder into the silence.

‘Tessa, tell me. How old are you?’

‘Nearly thirteen,’ I replied, with a hint of pride. I was fed up with being twelve and being treated like a child.

He took a step back, then swung away, out of the room.

A minute or two later he returned. His eyes were piercing and blue and sort of scared.

‘That was the boys saying they’ll be back soon.’

I crossed my arms. ‘I haven’t had my Coca-Cola yet.’

He handed me the can. I watched him as I drank. A little dribbled down my chin. I wiped it off with the back of my hand.

His face was flushed.

He looked past me, through the window, at his garden with its tree house and its swings.

‘They’ll be back soon,’ he repeated.

I put my arms around him, and looked up, big-eyed, sweet, very young.

His lips returned to mine.

We made love a few minutes later on the floor, before the boys returned home. It was my first time. I quite enjoyed it.

Afterwards, he dressed quickly and would not meet my eyes.

For the next few weekends I watched his house from my parents’ bedroom and when I was sure he was alone I’d call round asking for Philip. Always Philip’s father offered me Coca-Cola. Always he tried not to make love to me. Always he did make love to me, and always he dressed quickly afterwards and would not meet my eyes.

During those weeks he lost a lot of weight and by the end was rather haggard and not as attractive as at first, so I became less interested.