Eve of Destruction: Factory Girls

Dunbar, Scotland, 1939

Val Reith threaded the final button on her overall, adjusted her cap, and with the deep unconscious sigh that always heralded the beginning of another shift, crossed onto the factory floor. Approaching six oclock on a Tuesday in July, the grey of ordinariness as some obscure Scottish poet had once put it. Nothing grey about this one, though - clear blue skies had accompanied her walk to work, and it promised to be another scorching summer day. This did not bode well for the next eight hours in the Aurora bottling plant - it was a bitter irony shared by the entire workforce that a building dedicated to producing cold, refreshing drinks was itself an airless, stifling metal box in summertime (that it was also draughty and freezing during the winter came as little consolation). By mid-morning, the temptation to tear off ones overalls and work in just your undies would be nigh unbearable - but not an option if you wanted to keep your job.

All around Val there was the deep, intimidating grinding of Auroras machinery stirring into life: the waterfall whoosh of the washer; the heavy chug of the syrup pumps; the piercing, locomotive-like hiss of the carbonator; and above all, the discordant, high-pitched trill of massed glass bottles in motion. She glanced towards the door where the line workers were piling in, falling over each other to punch their clock cards ahead of the 6am hooter; looking out for her girls. At 30, Val was the youngest line-leader at Aurora, definitely considered a mere whippersnapper by her peers. Not only that, she had put a target on her back by taking charge of Line 3, which produced the elite beverage of Steely Pop, with its uniquely non-specific flavour supposedly created in the Clyde shipyards. It hadnt been easy, but Val had faith, not so much in her own supervisory abilities, but in the people she had chosen to do the work. And here they were now, emerging from the throng like particularly bright bubbles rising through a glass of Auroras finest.

Jen was first, of course. Jen Munro, twenty years of age, beautiful and smart and frankly wasted at Aurora, something Val hoped she would never actually come to realise. Honey-blonde hair peeked from under her cap, framing a wide, oval face subtle of cheekbone but firm of chin. Jen had a high brow, an impish nose and a discreetly voluptuous mouth, but her key feature was her big brown eyes. Normally those eyes were full of fun, for Jen was not only a steadfast worker but a great sport. However, of late the girl seemed a little serious, a tad subdued - Val wouldnt pry, but she surmised there had been a tiff with Neil, the boy shed been going steady with for several months now. Frankly, Val mused, if the idiot didnt realise what a prize was his for the taking, there was no hope for him.

And then, there was Steff. Steff Stark, seventeen going on twelve, as wild and unpredictable as a teenager could ever be. Val had inherited Steff after the youngster had flunked out on pretty much every other line, being considered both uncontrollable and impossible to train, like a wild filly. She was one step from getting the sack, and seemingly unconcerned, but Val had managed to straighten her out, and even make her a productive member of the team, most of the time - it was her greatest managerial achievement to date. Steff, too, was blonde (all Vals girls were blondes, which was mere coincidence but had given rise to some off-colour rumours), although her colour came from a bottle - stripes that varied from bright silver to her natural mousy brown could be seen spilling beneath her cap, as ever worn at an angle designed to bend the rules into a u-shape. Steff was angelically cute in the way only the baddest girls can be: a round face with adorable baby cheeks; the sweetest little nose and a small but very full mouth; dark brown button eyes that positively glowed with impending mischief. There was no doubting Steff was trouble, but on balance it was trouble Val was quite happy to have.

And finally, Willa. Nineteen-year-old Willa Kerr was a jewel Val felt inordinately proud to have unearthed. Shy to the point of inertia, her extreme quietness had been mistaken by all previous supervisors as sign of a mental handicap - Val had always doubted that, and when she finally got a chance to add Willa to her coterie it took only a modicum of coaxing to expose a smart and ferociously focussed worker, good enough to be put in the demanding role of giving the filled bottles their final inspection as they whizzed by. There was even an understated rebelliousness about Willa that Val found much more intriguing than Steffs brazen cheek - her sandy-blonde hair hung long and straight down her back, requiring a restraining snood to meet Auroras stipulations. She was a tall, rather skinny girl with a high-cheeked, strong-chinned face; a firm, vaguely aristocratic nose and a subtle,

thin-lipped mouth that was genuinely beautiful when caught in a rare smile. Her brown eyes were deep and penetrating, seeing far more than she ever let on. Willa was a dark horse, one that Val was still in the process of trying to light.

As the girls headed in her direction, Val was seized by a sudden, panicked thought - she turned and fair sprinted into the lavvy for a quick inspection of her own face in the mirror. No marks: Alex had been as good as his word, despite being seriously bevvied from the Cock & Bull last night. The nightly love taps were becoming a real nuisance, but so long as there was nothing visible Val was prepared to put up with them - Alex had a tough time working down the boatyard, and with all this war talk the prospect of being called up grew ever more real, so small wonder he needed to let off steam.

In spite of the hooters imminence, Val found herself lingering by the misty, silver-fringed glass. She herself was definitely not a blonde: despite her best efforts, unruly curls of deep russet peeked their way from under her cap. As a natural corollary, her round, cherubic face boasted a pale, peaches-and-cream complexion that even at age thirty was still vivaciously girlish. Full, cinnamon-dusted cheeks, a snub nose and elegantly curvaceous mouth; brown eyes with a thoughtful, vaguely Asian cast. And underneath her bulky overall a curvaceous, even voluptuous frame: full in bust and hips and buttocks. It was all still there, everything that Alex had fallen in love with a decade before - and yet, something had gone missing in the interim. She wished to God she knew what it was.

Snapping out of her reverie, Val hustled back to the shop floor just as the hooter blasted its ear-shattering summons. The girls were arrayed like a chorus line, ready to receive the oncoming rush of gold-filled bottles. Val smiled at each of them encouragingly, and then the quartet set to work.

*

By mid-morning tea break, as predicted, the heat was stifling. Sweat poured from all of them, overwhelming whatever scents and deodorants they had affected, setting a sharp, localised counterpoint to the sickly, overwhelming aroma of the syrup. There was only one thing for it: highly illegal, of course, and probably instant dismissal if they were caught, but Val was not only prepared to bend rules for the comfort of the workers - if necessary she would snap them in two. Having collected their tea and buns from the works canteen, line 3 slipped unnoticed through a little-regarded access door, there to climb a service ladder that took them out onto the factory roof. The benefits were twofold: first, a cooling breeze coming straight off the sea; second, an unparalleled view of Dunbar, from the entire length of Spott Road to the harbour and Scart Rock beyond; over to the Long Crags and distant Belhaven Bay; a sweeping panoply of blue sea, black rocks, white sand.

Well, ladies, Val announced, as they settled with their backs resting against a skylight, How are we all this morning?

Hot, Jen replied listlessly.

Aye, too fuckin hot, Steff spat, relishing Willas slight recoil at her total lack of refinement. Ive got sweat tricklin in the cheeks of my arse.

Im sure we all thank you for that image, Steff, Val sighed, raising her eyebrows at Willa. But think of it this way: the hotter it stays, the more the tourists flock to Dunbar, and the more Steely Pop they guzzle

I think most of these tourist typesre too high and mighty to bother with Steely Pop, Jen grizzled. Its only us commoners that really drink the stuff, isnt it?

Val was disgruntled at this vague hint of disloyalty from her putative second-in-command. Steely Pop appeals to all sorts, she said, slipping unconsciously into a kind of radio ad voice, Thats why its our most popular product.

Its also our cheapest, Willa put in, and as ever it was difficult to decide if she was being dry or simply pointing out a fact.

Just what I mean, Jen nodded. If you can afford a holiday here, you can afford something better than fizzy iron filings.

Steff guffawed, but Val was not entirely sure Jen was joking. As much as she was maternal towards her team, she also felt fiercely protective of the brand that gave her a living.

I wonder what its like? murmured Willa thoughtfully, and when the other three turned questioning looks towards her, she added, Being a tourist, I mean, here in Dunbar. We all live here, so we dont know what its like to be on holiday here, do we?

Its bloody borin, tourist or no, Steff blurted. Her desire to flee Dunbar at the earliest possible opportunity was not only worn upon her sleeve, she would point it out to you at every opportunity. Feck all to do, day and night

There must be something, Willa countered, Otherwise people wouldnt come.

Steff glared at her. Itd be well fine for you - all you like to do is sit readin books. I wanna be out dancin, meetin blokes, havin fun.

I do have fun, said Willa quietly.

Yeah, right, Steff snapped. You wouldna know what to do with a boy if he climbed bollock-naked through your bedroom windae

OK, thats enough, Val chided, clapping her hands. She was all for a spot of banter, but nobody was allowed to dig too deep.

So maybe we should find out, Jen put in airily.

Find out what? Val was momentarily nonplussed.

What its like to be on holiday here, said Jen patiently.

How dyou propose we do that, you daft eejit? Steff countered. We live here

Well, I dont know, we could book into a bed & breakfast for a night, or something. Spend our days on the beach, pretend were on holiday. So long as none of us went home She looked to Val for moral support and , as ever, found it.

I see what Jen is driving at, Val observed thoughtfully. It could be like a weekend away, but without actually going anywhere - wed save on travel, if nothing else. But Jen, dyou think you could bear to be separated from Neil for two days?

I think it might be good for us to be apart a little while, Jen replied, with a slight but noticeable sour edge. Anyhow, what about you - think you could get away from hubby for a bit?

Oh, I think maybe I could manage it, Val said with a half-smile, and there was a flicker of understanding between the pair of them.

I think it sounds great, said Willa. Ma and Da would love to have me out of the house for a bit.

Aye, I bet they would, Steff chimed in. Me, I think youre all bloody daft

So you dont fancy the idea of a dirty weekend, with just us girls, Steff? Jen asked archly. Sounds like it would be right up your street.

Steff paused, her eyes darkening in thought. Aye, well, when you put it like that I spose it might be nice to blag some time away from home. But theres no way Im stayin in a bloody B & B. I want a swanky hotel, somewhere like the Rossburgh or the Royal MacAloon

Dont be daft, Jen interjected. Theres no way we could afford anywhere like that.

We could if we shared rooms, Willa stated, blushing as the others all turned to look at her.

Im no sharin with you, Steff spat, earning a reproving look from Val. From below they felt, rather than heard, the hooter summoning them back to work. As one they got to their feet.

So, said Jen, firing a challenging look towards Val. Are we doing this, or not?

Val sighed. You know, I tend to agree with Steff, she said. Its a bloody bonkers idea. But on the other hand, it just might be a helluva laugh - Lord knows, we could do with one this summer. Let me think about it

*

Val, of course, did far more than just think about it. With line 3 operating at usual smoothness, she slipped away to the office and managed to wheedle access to the telephone from a friendly secretary. By the time her motley group had reconvened on the roof for lunch break (the high sun now beating down like a particularly fierce hammer), there was something approaching a plan.

OK, she announced, Heres what we can get: two twin rooms at the Bayhill, special rate if we go Friday through Sunday; two guineas per room all in.

Two guineas?! Steff gasped. Thats a bit bloody steep.

Hey, youre the one wants a swanky hotel, Jen countered. Told you a holiday here doesnt come cheap

Im sure we could manage it, if we all club together, said Val, suddenly anxious the idea was not immediately shot down. Maybe we could siphon off some of the tea bar money

It is rather a lot, observed Willa glumly. Im trying to save up

Yeah, and Id like a place of my own some day, added Steff. I mean, ideally Ill be marryin a millionaire to get it, but just in case Id like to keep some cash back.

Oh, for fecks sake, Val blurted, in an abrupt rash of Titian anger. Dyou lassies want to do this or not? Look, if itll make you happy, as Supervisor Ill pay half the cost - how does that sound?

There was no immediate response, and Val was unsure if the girls were stunned more by her offer or her outburst. The four of them nibbled their sandwiches in awkward silence, the matter unresolved between them as the sun continued to crush Dunbar in its glare, with only fleeting relief from a fitful onshore breeze. And then Willa lifted one long, languid arm, and uttered the fateful question,

Whats that?

With a curious, seemingly schooled synchronisation the other three craned their necks to follow her point. Out to sea, the water was flat calm, beaten into submission by the pounding sunlight. But upon it, something moved. Not a boat, not a bird - it seemed to be a large, long-necked animal, with a head shaped like a horses and huge, dark, prominent eyes; its body showing behind as a series of undulations or humps. It left a distinct, wide wake behind it, and the strangest thing was simply that it remained clearly visible as it made its unhurried way parallel to the shore, less than a few hundred yards in - it felt to all of them like it should be an illusion; that they should merely shake their heads to reveal the truth of a buoy, or floating log. But they continued to watch it until it became a mere distant speck, indivisible from sparkles of light on the water. Long after they had lost sight of it they continued to stare in stunned, epic silence. They might have stayed like that all afternoon, had not the hooters distant, unwelcome rumble yanked them from the spell.

Book the rooms, said Jen, to no one in particular, and nobody demurred.

*

Walking home, Val felt the all-too familiar admixture of emotions: relief that the working day was done; trepidation that soon she would have to face Alex. Adding to both sensations was the sheer surreality of the day: seeing that that thing, whatever it was, rendered the whole shift dreamy and quite unreal; then there was this daft business with the hotel, seemingly out of nowhere, and she had somehow wound up being its chief proponent and instigator. Which might have been completely fine, except she now faced the thorny problem of selling it to her husband.

She decided to broach the matter over dinner - her best mince & tatties, a bottle of beer that might make him malleable without the sour self-loathing that alcohol in quantity would bring out in him. He scoffed it all like a man in a hurry, not speaking, barely even seeming to breathe between mouthfuls.

Alex Val began uncertainly. When he did not even pause in his eating, she tried again. Alex, Ive got something to tell you. The girls and me well, that is, the girls at work you see, weve had this idea that wed like to have a holiday, without actually going anywhere.

His eyes flicked up at her, so quick it was impossible to tell if their flash was neutral or hostile. He took a long sip of his beer as she ploughed on.

I cant really explain how it came about, but well, the upshot is, weve all agreed to do it. Weve booked ourselves into a hotel for three nights. Starting Friday, she added quickly.

Alex slammed his empty glass down onto the table, and despite herself, Val jumped.

And what the fuck am I supposed to do? he said, very quietly.

Wh-what do you mean?

I mean, he said slowly, as if addressing a particularly slow child, How am I supposed to eat, to take care of meself, while youre off gallivanting with those Aurora tarts?

Val let the jibe slide - she was too wise to his games to fall for that one.

Ill make your dinners before I go, she said reasonably. All youll need to do is warm them up in the oven. I mean, its only a couple of days

He glared at her a moment, cold eyes full of hatred, then he hunched back over his meal. Val exhaled very slowly - he had not actually said no, but she knew his acquiescence would require a fee. When he had finished eating, she carefully removed their plates and set about the washing-up. It was while standing at the sink that she felt, rather than heard, him approaching behind her. He put his hand lightly, almost gently, on her shoulder, and turned her around. She looked to the floor, to the side, anywhere but directly at him.

Please, Alex, she said softly, Not my face. You promised

He nodded, almost smiling. And then he punched her, hard in the flank, just below her ribcage. The breath fled from her like water from a squeezed sponge, and she crumpled the floor, gasping. He regarded her a moment, then said flatly, Im going out, before turning and heading for the door and, ultimately, the pub. Val sat on the floor for several minutes, collecting herself - it had hurt, but she had got what she wanted. She had permission to go.

*

They were famous. Or rather, their monster was. Thursday tea break saw line 3 back on the roof, with Willa flourishing a copy of the Courier - a whole inner page devoted to Dunbars mystery animal.

It says here, she read aloud, that the creature has been sighted all along the Firth of Forth, by dozens, possibly hundreds of people. One bloke claims to have watched it for an hour-and-a-half.

We should get in touch with the Courier, Steff bubbled gleefully. We could have our pictures in the paper

Great plan, Genius, Jen scoffed. And just how would we explain that we saw the thing from up here?

Im afraid Jens right, Val added, as Steff sulked. It has to be our little secret.

Jen looked at her appraisingly.

Our secret? You mean, you havent even told Alex?

Val shook her head. What about you? Did you tell Neil?

Neil and I arent seeing quite so much of each other, Jen replied, in a tone that warned off further questioning.

I didnt tell my parents, Willa interjected, setting down her paper. I was afraid theyd laugh at me.

My folks wouldnt give a toss either way, Steff sneered, So fuck em.

So what about that other little matter? Jen continued, her eyes trained on Val. How did Alex react to your plans for the weekend?

He was fine about it, Val replied, keeping her voice casual. Absolutely fine.

So: are we all set? Willa asked excitedly, a little breathlessly.

Were all set, Val beamed. We check in after work tomorrow, 4pm. Just remember to pack clean overalls, cause itll be straight back to here come Monday

Hold on, Steff interrupted. Weve no decided whos in which room. I want to be with Jen, she added quickly.

Val shook her head firmly. No. Im supervisor, and I booked the rooms, so Ill decide. And youre rooming with me, young lady - Jen can be with Willa. Thats fine, isnt it Jen?

Well actually, Id rather Jen began, and then stopped, sensing Willas hurt expression. Yeah - yeah, its fine.

But clearly it wasnt fine. And so, later in the shift, Val contrived to draw Jen to one side, for a private chat.

Look, she said, having to raise her voice above the omnipresent trilling of the bottles, Im sorry about the rooming arrangement - Steffs a laugh, but shes wild, not to mention underage. I really think its best if I can keep an eye on her. I know you think Willas a pain in the arse, but indulge me, OK?

Its no that, Jen responded, with a curt shake of her head. Its just well, given the choice, Id rather share a room with you

Val was both touched and rather taken aback by this reply. Jen and Steff were always in cahoots, be it in tormenting Willa or gently undermining the old womans authority. It had never even entered her head that Jen would want to be roomed with anyone else.

Och, thats nice, she said, in all sincerity, But I cant see Steff and Willa co-existing in the same room for more than five minutes, can you?

No, Jen answered dourly, I suppose not.

Listen, Val continued, I know this is probably none of my business, and tell me to bugger off if you want, but is everything OK?

Jens eyes snapped up, bright with alarm.

What dyou mean?

Oh, nothing. Its just well you dont quite seem your usual self. Things are OK with Neil?

Oh yeah, perfect, Jen replied, after the slightest of beats. Couldnt be better. Again the tone was all wrong, but Val still wasnt prepared to press it. And then Jen spoke again.

Val, is it OK if Im a bit late coming in tomorrow? Say, about 10 oclock? Its just well, Ive got to go see someone

Of course its alright, Val shot back breezily. One last try: Is it anything I can help you with?

No, was the firm counter. No its not. And that was that.

*

And then suddenly, as is the way of the working week, it was Friday again. Admittedly a slightly surreal Friday - the four of them (eventually, with Jen delayed) reporting for work laden with hand luggage that barely fitted into their meagre lockers, drawing looks of curiosity from the rest of the shop floor and vague, unfocussed suspicion from the management. She couldnt speak for the others, but Val herself felt strangely exhilarated by this whole operation, like a teenager on the lam from her parents. First, she had kept their little monster secret from Alex, then she had successfully packed her things under his baleful gaze - a small pair of victories, and neither one had earned her a beating. That all might change come Monday night, but for four whole days she was free and playing truant from her own life: that fact made her heart both lighter and faster in its beat.

At the 2pm hooter they marched proudly through the factory gates, clutching their bags and singing holiday nonsense songs that drew yet further sustained gawping from their co-workers. Such was their enthusiasm that they marched all the way to the Bayhill - no mean feat, laden - where they checked in with noisy bonhomie, ignoring the slightly disdainful looks directed towards their Aurora-emblazoned overalls. Mutual inspection of the rooms (sadly, neither adjacent nor with sea views) followed, along with the inevitable cup of tea, before the quartet separated into its allotted pairs, to prepare for their first evening out on the town. The plan was simple: rendezvous in the hotel bar at 6:45pm. But even the simplest plans have a habit of going awry.

*

Steff had selected a bed, and laid claim by taking a running jump at it, and bouncing around like a kid on a particularly luxurious trampoline. Val laughed indulgently, but in truth she was a little nervous at being alone with the girl. In the context of the factory her authority over Steff, if not exactly absolute, was at least a given. But now they were in civvie street, and Val was not Steffs mother, nor any sort of designated guardian - she was wondering what might happen once Steff realised this.

Steff rummaged in her carelessly-packed case, extracting the most comprehensive makeup kit Val had ever seen, and a dress that, even folded, shimmered vivid, expensively red.

Dont need to ask what you spend your wages on, Val observed.

Och, this? Steff sneered, lifting the thing up. To Vals fashion-deficient eye it seemed to consist of a skirt and very little else. This is nothin - Ive got loads better than this. But it looks good on, an the boys love it. Anyway, I bags the bathroom

And she tripped into the en suite, slamming the door behind her. Val sighed, checked the clock: it was safe to assume that Steff would be monopolising the washing facilities for some time, pushing them very close to the agreed deadline. Really, she too would have liked to have had a bath, done herself up - but then again, what was the point? She was a married woman, definitely not on the pull as Steff would put it, and not exactly a spring chicken any more. She lifted her own best dress out of her bag and held it up - compared to what Steff looked about to wriggle into, it appeared positively matronly, though at the time it had seemed a good buy. Floral patterned, bright blue and nearly new (Alexs drinking habit put constant strain on the household funds), with a circular skirt and padded shoulders, it had required only minimal work with a needle to bring it up to snuff. Val laid it almost tenderly out on the bed, then began to peel herself out of her overalls. A movement off to the side caught her eye, but it was only her reflection in the wardrobes mirrored door: Val rarely looked in mirrors these days, and she found herself curiously, guiltily taken by the image of her own body, slowly being revealed. Pale, voluptuous curves crammed into beige, recalcitrant underwear - she longed to free them. With slightly flirtatious flicks she slipped down the straps of her brassiere, blushing with excitement as the woman in the wardrobe followed suit, her heavy rose-crowned breasts being teasingly revealed. It was hard to reconcile that this creature was indeed herself - she seemed so alluring, so vital, an auburn-curled demi-goddess on display. Twas as if, in a matter of a few days, whatever element she felt had gone missing had been suddenly restored - she could be twenty again, eighteen even - before Alex, before all the trouble. God damn it, she was beautiful.

Val stood there, mesmerised by her own reflection, oblivious to everything but the moment. And then a voice piped up,

I always said you had great tits.

*

Matters in the other room were likewise a wee bit tense. Whilst in the group, it was relatively easy for Jen and Willa to maintain a pretence of friendship. But in truth Jen had little use for Willas company, considering her a largely silent, wishy-washy bore - the polar opposite of Steffs life-enchantingly wicked sparkle. Willa herself was cripplingly shy in one-to-one situations, and really needed to be coaxed out of herself; something Jen had never really seen the point in doing. Besides, she had other things to think about right now. So it was that, after a few meagre pleasantries and a discussion about sleeping arrangements (Willa simply acceded to Jens every suggestion), a heavy and frankly rather cold silence settled between them. Willa was not only used to being quiet, she was perfectly happy in that mode, but Jen definitely wasnt. Once the silence got to her (it took about two minutes), she huffily announced her intention to take a bath before going out, and retreated to the en suite where she ran the taps with what seemed undue ferocity.

Having removed her headscarf, and literally let down her hair, Willa sat on her bed, neither glum nor happy but simply in a pleasing state of neutrality. She took in the alien opulence of her surroundings, still slightly unable to believe she was actually there. It was like living out a dream, a fairy tale - and if it meant spending time with Jen (who patently didnt like her, she had always known it), then that was a small price to pay. Soon she would face the minor indignity of putting on her best dress (in fact her only dress - Willas frugality bordered on asceticism) and enduring the inevitable scorn, but for now she was happy to bask in the vague decadence of all this luxury.

Through the bathroom door she heard the roaring gush of faucets on full suddenly fade and die away, to be replaced by a steady dripping and occasional splash of Jen at her bath. And then, Willa was shocked to detect another sound, echoing off the porcelain despite heroic efforts to mute it - a sound of faint sobbing. Willa stiffened, ears alert and every fibre straining, just to be sure - no doubt about it, Jen was crying. She sat there, paralysed by indecision: torn between her shyness and a very human instinct to help, both facets blurred by the overriding and unavoidable patina of Jens obvious disdain for her. It took an unmistakably loud and protracted sniff to snap her quandary - slightly to her own surprise, humanity won out. She got up, crossed to the bathroom door and, after a moments hesitation, gently knocked.

Jen? Are you all right?

A sudden splash, as if the person within had been caught by surprise.

Y-yes, came the hesitant response. Yeah, Im fine.

But Willa knew the transparency of that tone - she had used it often enough herself to deflect awkward questions. It brought out a hitherto dormant compassion in her, and propelled her into an act of what was, by her standards, reckless courage. She pressed down on the door handle - Jen had not troubled to lock it. Heart pounding, with a deep breath, Willa opened the bathroom door and stepped into the steam-wreathed sanctum beyond.

*

Val started violently, clapping her hands ashamedly, if belatedly, over her exposed breasts. Steff, now sheathed in a backless gown that clung to her still vaguely adolescent curves like it was painted on, strolled indolently from the open bathroom door to the bed where her bag lay unclasped.

Forgot me hairbrush, she said blandly, retrieving the offending item. Val was too mortified to make any response - she felt she had been caught in the middle of something illicit, even if she had no clue what it was. Steff turned back towards her, a knowing gleam in those bright button eyes. She struck a pose, holding the brush by her mouth as though it were a radio microphone.

What dyou think?

Val managed to summon enough decorum for a faintly witty riposte.

I can see why the boys love it.

Steff winked at her, then said archly, I dunno, if youre planning on going down like that, Ill have some serious competition, no?

Val laughed, even as another blush filled her face, so intense it prickled like sunburn. Steff smiled, started back towards the bathroom. Then something seemed to catch her eye, and she stopped.

Whats that? she asked, pointing.

Val stiffened, for she knew what was being indicated - it had, after all, been throbbing away just below her breastbone these past few days. An ugly bruise like a smear of charcoal, vivid on her white skin - she had been careless not to cover it along with her boobs.

Och, its nothing, she blustered, Just me bein stupid. Caught meself on a sideboard, I did.

Theres a rumour goin round that your hubby beats you up, said Steff baldly, her eyes vaguely catlike as they focussed on the spot. So used to innuendo and sly looks, Val was completely taken aback by this overt statement - she could make no rejoinder, merely stand there, her mouth opening and closing like a guppys.

If the bastard did that to me, Steff continued studiedly, Id bite his feckin balls off

And then she turned decisively, heading back to the bathroom.

*

The mists parted to reveal, after all, what you might expect - Jen sat in the bathtub. Her surprisingly voluptuous breasts were just breaking the surface, and for an instant Willa was too entranced by their beauty - and by the curious intimacy of seeing another girl naked - to think straight. And then Jens eyes were looking up at her: surprised, questioning, even rather annoyed; but unmistakably reddened and tear-streaked.

Im sorry, Willa blurted, I just I thought you were cryin. You were cryin, werent you?

Jen nodded glumly, silently, her face quivering as she fought off a fresh veil of tears. If there was one thing Willa could not bear, twas the sight of another human being in distress - it exposed maternal instincts unimaginable to anyone save those few who knew her intimately. Without thinking, she dropped to her knees beside the tub, threw her arms around Jen and pulled her close. Too in need of comfort to protest, Jen leaned her head on Willas bony shoulder and wept freely, her breath coming in harried, guttering sobs. And Willa let her, murmuring vague words of comfort, stroking Jens damp, matted yellow hair; not caring that Jen despised her, not caring that her overalls were getting wet.

*

Val made her way down to the bar in a state of mild, concussive shock. Partly it was Steffs words, and the implication that her troubles with Alex had become common knowledge; partly too, it was Steffs appearance. In her dress, with her gilded hair hanging, with makeup to fill out her lips and accentuate her eyes, she looked almost impossibly alluring. Admiration and mild jealousy fought for dominance in Vals mind, along with a vaguely maternal concern for the youngsters wellbeing. That third element shifted into prominence when they actually reached the bar, which seemed to be overflowing with garrulous businessmen looking to start their weekend with a few fortifying jars. The effect of walking Steff into their midst was akin to parading a canary through a house of cats. Val felt suddenly invisible - invisible, dowdy and very old.

They made their to a (relatively) quiet corner table. Just as they were sitting down, Steff piped up,

So - you gonna buy me a drink, or what?

You, young lady, are under age, Val scowled.

Aw, cmon, Steff mewled, Im on holiday, an its no like Ive never had one before

Even so, Val countered. Under. Age.

Cmon, Val - please. Just one drink is all Im askin. After all, I did say you had great tits.

Yes, Val sighed, blushing hotly at the recollection of Steff not only catching her naked, but also in the - potential - act of touching herself. Yes, you did. Oh, all right - one drink, and one only. Whatll it be?

Gin an tonic, please, Steff beamed. Thanks Val - youre a pal. And she giggled at her own unconscious poetry.

Val threaded her way towards the bar, ordering Steffs G & T and, rather recklessly, a white wine for herself. As she was waiting a vague tingle of premonition had her turning her head -sure enough, one of the cats was moving in on Steff; old enough to be her father, or even her grandfather. As Val watched, he settled beside the girl, who watched him with cool regard. There was a bit of chatter - then Steff glanced in Vals direction, and after a moment the man did too. Whereupon his face fell abruptly, and he scuttled away like a frightened crab. Puzzled, Val paid for the drinks, then made her way back to the table.

What on earth did you say to him? She asked.

Steff shrugged. I just said I was here with me mam, an that you were awfy keen tget me married off as soon as possible. She lifted her glass. Cheers.

Skin prickling at the thought she could so easily be mistaken for Steffs mother, Val automatically raised her own glass.

Heres to holidays in Dunbar, she said blandly.

Heres to sea monsters in Dunbar, Steff countered, smiling. Then, suddenly serious, she added, Heres to us.

Their glasses clinked, and each took a sip, Val never actually stopping to think what Steff might have meant by us.

*

Slowly, gradually, Jen settled down. Willa continued to hold her, no matter that the water was rapidly becoming tepid, no matter that time was ticking on.

Dyou want to tell me about it? she asked hesitantly.

Jen was silent for some time, just slightly harried breathing. And then, quite suddenly, she spoke in a cathartic rush.

Im gonna have a baby.

Willa froze, unable to properly process the information.

But but how? she asked stupidly.

How dyou think? Jen grizzled, almost pulling away. I did it with Neil. I knew right away I was in trouble, an this morning the doctor confirmed it - Im up the duff. Christ, what a mess

But Willa started to argue.

But what? It cant happen to me, because Im the sensible one? I know Val thinks the sun shines out of my arse, and because Ive been going steady with Neil, nothing bad could happen - well, thats bollocks. I did it with him - he kept going on and on about it, so I let him. And it was all very nice at the time, but now Im pregnant, and theres no way hes gonna want to get married, and my parents will kill me when they find out, and Ill have to give up my job Her voice dissolved into a series of hiccupping sobs. Willa tightened her embrace, as if trying to absorb all of Jens hurt into her own lithe frame.

Ssshh, she soothed, Its gonna be okay

No, its not, Jen countered bitterly, then summoned a bleak half-smile. But thanks anyway, for trying to make me feel better.

Willa pressed her face into Jens damp hair, and held the pose until Jen at last shrugged herself gently free.

This waters getting cold, she said blankly, And were supposed to be meeting the others in a few minutes

She got to her feet, water flowing in a myriad glittering rivulets from the ripe curves of her body. Strangely, she did not feel at all self-conscious about exposing herself this completely in front of Willa, nor did Willa feel any compunction about picking a towel from the rail and starting to dry Jen off, almost as though she were a child. Twas as if, having shared this one big secret, whatever barriers had separated them in the past had simply evaporated.

Can I ask you something? Willa inquired tentatively, once Jen was all but dry, the tips of her fingers puckered from prolonged immersion.

Sure, Jen responded, with a slightly knowing, rather adult look.

You said well, you said being with Neil was nice.

I did. And it was, at the time. No thunderclaps, no moving Earth, if thats what you were thinking. But I couldnt complain about Neils, uh, performance - not that I had anything to compare it with. He did his best to make it nice for me, too.

So Willas hesitation was profound. What was it like?

Wonder of wonders, Jen actually smiled at her, and Willa felt strangely, exhilaratingly vindicated.

OK, the best bit, Jen began, Was right afterward. That was just before I realised what a stupid mistake Id made - we snuggled down together in his little bed, and he put his arms around me, and just for a moment I felt so special, so secure She stopped abruptly, and her eyes widened. In fact, it was the same as you holding me just now, in the bath, except She added, in a whisper, Except not as nice

Silence fell between them like a warm rain, at once cleansing and muddying. Jen was standing in front of Willa, stark naked, her skin beginning to gooseflesh. And Willa in turn was regarding her with an appreciative, penetrating gaze.

We should be going down to the others, Jen blurted automatically.

Are you sure you want to? Willa asked gently.

It seemed to Jen that a long time passed before she responded, but if she counted it out in heartbeats, twas but a few moments.

No, she said at last.

*

Against Vals better judgement they progressed to a second drink, and by the time theyd finished it the clock was nudging towards 7:45pm. Even though she was feeling comfortably fuzzy, Val still felt a chill of concern.

Where the hell are the others? she muttered, half to Steff, half to herself.

I dont think theyre coming, Steff responded evenly. Val stared at her, looking for some sort of clue as to where shed obtained this revelation.

What makes you say that?

I just think they mightve found something else to do, Steff shrugged. It doesnt matter - we can have a fine enough time without them

Val wasnt quite sure how. She glanced about her: the businessmen were beginning to drift away, in search of better bars and girls who werent with their putative mothers. She was just wondering where they were all headed when she felt something that froze her momentarily rigid - a hand, light but insistent, upon her knee. She whirled back to look at Steff, half expecting an unseen cat to have slithered in beside them, but of course there was no one. Steffs eyes were dark, impenetrable mirrors; Steffs fingers were lightly stroking her knee. Val was slack-jawed with stupefaction.

I think we should go back up to our room, said Steff, her voice flat as a frozen millpond. Itll be quieter there.

Vals mind seemed to have seized up completely, and yet she somehow found herself nodding in agreement. As Steff stood up she mirrored the action, realising as she did so that her heart was pounding fit to burst. Making her way back through the depleted bar, she tried not to notice the fluid rotation of Steffs taut, boyish buttocks in their scarlet sheath, tried to tell herself that she was completely misreading all of this, that the pair of them were simply a little bit drunk.

Climbing the stairs, Val made one last effort to be sensible.

Mebbe we should check on the others, she said. Make sure theyre OK.

Steff flashed a witheringly coquettish look over her shoulder.

Theyll be fine, she hissed. Theyre both grownup girls - they can take care of themselves. Now, are you comin or no?

Val hesitated, but only for a moment. Her mouth was dry, her head was swimming and she was feeling distinctly unreal, but nonetheless she continued in pursuit of Steff. With epic banality they reached their room, unlocked the door and slipped inside.

Give me a hand with this, Steff whispered, indicating the halter fastening of her dress. Val was in no doubt she could easily unfasten it herself, but still she stepped forward, and with trembling fingers reached in under the silky waterfall of Steffs hair to locate the catch. A simple twist, and it was freed. Steff turned, with a beaming smile, and slowly peeled the dress from her body until it eventually gathered in a crimson puddle about her ankles. That she had no bra on Val was expecting - that she was similarly lacking in panties left her goggle-eyed. Val began to panic - she wasnt sure if she was the victim of some sort of practical joke, or something even worse. Whatever it was, it was getting out of hand.

Steff, she said, fighting to keep her voice even, I dont know what you think is happening here, but

Hush, Steff stilled her with a finger to the lips. Her angelic face was suddenly very serious. Ill tell you whats goin on. You gave me a job when nobody else in that place wanted me: they said I was lazy, was a troublemaker, but you didnt care; you took me on anyway. I always wanted to find some way to pay you back, Val, an at last I know how. Im gonna do you, an afterwards, if you like, you can do me

Vals panic was black now, smothering. And yet, beneath it there lurked something bright and brittle and fiery - something shed thought long lost.

Steff, please, she pleaded, one last stab at propriety, You cant be serious. I mean, youre only seventeen

Mebbe so, but Ive done dozens of boys, Steff grinned. Youll be my first woman. Now, she gestured towards Vals dress, How bout we get this bloody thing off, eh?

Val could only give a little squeak that might have been protest - she would never really know. Her every sensible instinct was screaming at her to turn and run right now, but there was something holding her fast - something in Steffs gaze, the reflection of herself in those big round eyes; like the reflection in the mirror, revealing herself as something still to be desired, still with allure. The sensible chorus was drowned by the simple act of reaching down, grasping her hem, pulling her dress up and over her head. Russet curls crackled and frizzed with sudden static; she could feel her white skin as it prickled flushing under Steffs vivid appraisal. She was stood in front of a teenage girl in only her bra and knickers and shoes, and she didnt feel especially ridiculous.

Your tits, Steff breathed, and her expression seemed at once humbled and slightly sad. I cant get over your tits

And she reached out, her hands drifting over the taut cotton cups of Vals brassiere, slipping stealthily up to the shoulders straps, pulling them loose and free. Val shivered as her breasts were unveiled, immense and milky, their disproportionately small nipples jutting forth like budding carnations, dusky pink. Steffs fingers were remarkably gentle and circumspect, drifting over their tautly pliant surface as though stroking fine linen, feathery sensations like static electricity making Val gasp and shiver. Val knew she should draw a halt to this immediately, now, before it went too far: but so help her, she hadnt felt like this since her wedding night. In truth, she had never really felt like this.

All too soon Steff ceased her silky caresses. She took a step back to the bed she had previously claimed, flicked off her shoes and lay down, patting the narrow space beside her in naked invitation. Val remained rooted to the spot, head, heart and various other organs at war within her.

I I dont know what to do, she stammered, a tad pathetically. Steff giggled.

Im no expert meself, she grinned, pointing to Vals knickers But I think a good start would be takin those things off

Val couldnt help herself flushing vividly at the suggestion, so brazen and yet so natural. Her heartbeat and pulse were like the chiming of some great town clock as she carefully, self-consciously eased the garment from her hips and waist, the sudden coolness about her pudenda at once liberating and terrifying. Not until she had got the thing down as far as her knees did she remember she still had her shoes on - clumsily she kicked them off and away, almost tripping over her own underwear in the process. Steff watched the whole pantomime with a slight smile, but the look in her eyes was hungry and electrifying.

Finally, irrevocably naked, all her bruises exposed, Val stood up, doing her best to look statuesque. If this was about to be revealed as a practical joke, then she would throw herself into it, consequences be damned. If not well, one step at a time.

OK, thats done - now what? she asked, rather taken aback by the throaty, sultry edge that had crept into her voice. Steff again indicated the space beside her.

Just lie down here, an forget all about work, all about your eejit husband - tonight, its just you an me

A couple of epic steps forward: vividly aware of her bare feet sinking into the soft carpet; of her breasts projecting, heavy and tensile; of the unmistakable, purring ooze from between her thighs. As she eased herself down onto the bed it seemed to sag beneath her, the springs protesting with vaguely fart-like noises. Helplessly she was rolled into Steffs enfolding embrace - the brush of skin against skin was thrillingly illicit.

Kiss me, Steff hissed urgently, and Val, her authority now completely surrendered, acceded. The softness of Steffs mouth, its warm receptivity, stunned her: made her weak. This was nothing like being with Alec - not even in the same universe. No coldness, no hardness: just the sumptuous press of breast to breast, as comforting as it was sexual; the stealthy interlace of svelte legs and the latent heat between. When Steff slipped a sweet, insolent tongue between her lips, Val found herself opening as easily, as naturally as a flower to a honeybee. Her thoughts blurred and tumbled, fleeting images of Alex, of Jen, of Willa, of work: she couldnt breathe, but it was OK, because Steff was kissing her. Little Steff, the girl who was trouble, the one they all warned her about - Steff had got her into deep trouble now, no doubt about it; but no one had ever kissed her like this, made her feel like this. She began to tremble, a feverish ripple emanating from somewhere beneath her belly, spreading like a blush to her face, her fingertips, her toes. When Steffs tongue finally eased free of her lips, she felt as if she had become somehow boneless.

Steff, she whispered, and for all the sweet saliva filling her mouth, her voice was bone dry, dusty. Steff, I cant I mean, I dont

Hush, Steff countered commandingly, with a gentle little smile. Just enjoy it The unaccustomed maturity in her tone, the light of lust and adoration in those heretofore girlish eyes, rendered Val utterly quiescent. With a nurses tender skill Steff rolled her onto her back, sliding atop her as Alex had done so many times, but there all similarity ended. Steff had no agenda - did not mean to take her, or hurt her; seemed focussed solely upon her pleasure. Val was awed by this, frightened by it, but only in the way one sometimes is by wonderful things. Now at last she could admit to herself what was truly transpiring: Steff and she were going to have sex. Thirty-year-old woman and seventeen-year-old girl: it was ridiculous, it was impossible, but it was happening nonetheless; and she so, so wanted it.

Steffs fingertip traced a delicate ring about her lips, then drifted down over her chin and throat, onto the sweeping canvas of her breast. As she drew silky monograms about the tautness of Vals areolae, their mouths met again; the wettest kiss yet - hot and sultry as a glass house, tongues entwined like questing creepers. And afterward, Steffs lips followed the lead of her finger, lingering in the soft, sensitive hollow of Vals pale throat, descending to the creamy voluptuousness beneath. Stretched and hypersensitive, Vals nipples seemed to rise in tribute to Steffs eager mouth: the warm brush of lips and the searing taunt of flickering tongue had Val moaning like wind in a broken window; her shoulders flexed involuntarily and she pushed upward, eager to be devoured. Steffs fingers touched and teased, stroking now her hips, her knees, the backs of her legs - caresses at once intimate yet safe, laden with illicit implication, erotic intent. Still Steff descended, her blonde-tinged locks like a soft paintbrush against Vals fleshy flanks; her tongue-tip tickling and worming in the unlikely pleasure vent of her navel. Val shivered and sighed and enjoyed every second of it, but still did not read Steffs full intent until her knees were skilfully drawn apart, her legs spread across the beds full width so that her brimming need, her scented shame was brazenly exposed. Like one settling to read a book Steff nestled between her open thighs, parted her glistening labia with her fingertips, then dipped her face into the scarlet depths beyond.

The sound that Val made was almost a cry of pain, suffused as it was with equal parts raw shock and unimagined delight. She all but convulsed, her back arching, her hips lifting, her breath driven from her diaphragm. It wasnt possible, that Steff should be licking her, down there - fighting to stay rational, Val propped herself on her elbows and looked down the snowy, curving landscape of her own body; sure enough, Steffs bright eyes gazed up at her from above a thicket of russet curls. Containing the quivers that consumed her being, Val reached down and lightly touched the top of Steffs head - a carnal benediction.

Steff, she panted, Where the bloody hell did you get this idea? And then Steffs tongue fluttered butterfly against her engorged clitoris, and the ensuing wave of sensation knocked her elbows out from under her and sent her plunging back onto the feebly protesting mattress. Val shrieked with blinding, undiluted delight; wondered briefly how thin the hotel walls were; instantly lost interest in the issue. Her thoughts were broken into chaff, her senses swamped: it dirtily occurred to her that she had become all cunt; being licked clean as fiercely, as implacably as a kitten with a saucer of milk. Steffs tongue was a relentless, flickering blur; humming now against her clitoris, now about the satin fringes of her labia, now probing the nameless, sodden depths of her vagina. Steff was drinking her in, eating her alive: it was bliss and it was unbearable and she couldnt stop it either way. Before she even realised it, Val was in the throes of orgasm - the almost forgotten sensation of sweet inevitability; the unburdening of all control. She clutched herself, closed her eyes against the spring of joyful tears, and let herself go.

Steff, she sobbed, Why? Why did you do it? Why me? Dear Jesus in Heaven, why me?

No answer was forthcoming, not during her slow return from what seemed a great height to the beds mundane realm, nor the even slower easing of her breath and her heart rate from their uncontrollable, Olympian levels. Steff let her settle, then slid up into her arms, a quicksilver motion, planting a lurid, sticky, scented kiss upon her aching lips before whispering,

Did you like that?

Could you not tell? Val responded, with a cheeky grin. Christ, girl, Im still shaking - where did you learn that kind of stuff?

I Steff hesitated, her face serious, her eyes slightly distant. I just knew it would make you happy, is all - dont ask me how.

Val looked up at her, with her hair tousled and her lips smeared, and thought that she had never seen anything so unutterably beautiful. Quite without shame she reached and cupped Steffs pert breasts in her hands, relishing the little squeak of appreciation that accompanied the gesture.

Do you she began thoughtfully, Think it would make you happy?

Steff gave a gasp of surprise and delight, her wide eyes gone slightly wider.

You mean you want to do it? Are you sure?

Seems only fair - would you like that?

Aye, Steff answered, almost shyly. Id love it

*

In that other room, the clock had moved on towards 7:45 - Jen had wrapped herself in a large bath towel, her sole concession to getting dressed, and made some attempt at putting up her drying hair. She sat on her bed, looking doleful yet stoic, while Willa wandered about and fidgeted like a nervous bride.

Dyou think maybe I should just pop downstairs? she suggested, all in a rush. Tell them were not coming?

Theyll figure it out eventually, Jen replied flatly. Besides, Im pretty sure Steff plans to get Val

steamin this evening, so its no like theyre gonna miss us.

But Willa hesitated, biting a knuckle. What are we gonna do, up here by ourselves?

Jen looked at her intently, a curiously focussed expression on her face.

Well she said slowly, I was kind of hopin youd come over here an give me another cuddle

Willas eyes widened.

Really? But - I thought you didnt like me

Jen smiled, with a vaguely embarrassed shrug. Its true - I didnt. I thought you were too quiet to be real, too much of a wallflower. But youve been kind to me, Willa Kerr, and you havent judged, not like everybody else is going to. And you are so gentle

She patted the mattress beside her, and after a moments hesitation Willa crossed the room. She was just sitting down when, in an casually deliberate gesture, Jen slipped the towel from about her shoulders, to be revealed naked once again. Willa could not giving a little gasp of surprise.

Why did you do that? she breathed.

Oh, I dunno, Jens tone was infuriatingly airy. Just thought it might make things easier, is all. Dyou mind?

Willa shook her head, a little too quickly, her long hair twisting like water from a fall as she did so. Tentatively, she put her arms around Jens bare shoulders, nuzzled her face into Jens hair and neck.

Is that nice? she murmured. Is that what you wanted?

Its a start, Jen replied. She turned her head suddenly, so that her eyes bored into Willas, mere inches away. But I think what Id really like is for you to kiss me.

Willa stared, her mouth hanging open slightly comically. Jen parted her own lips, and slowly, slowly, like felled trees finally toppling, they leaned together. The touch of their mouths was dry, faintly adhesive, almost chaste. But you could read its meaning in the way both their heart rates suddenly seemed to become very fast and very loud. When they parted both exhaled intensely, a release of nervous tension manifesting as a faint mutual giggle.

How was that? Jen asked with a smile.

Funny, Willa replied with a blush. I never kissed a girl before

Like to do it again?

Willa hesitated, checking for traces of irony, still not entirely convinced this was actually happening. Her weak smile faded in the glare of Jens seriousness, her lambent yearning. This time, as their lips brushed both breathed in, sealing the union - a further moments dryness gave way to sudden moisture, the unexpected sweetness of sultry saliva, the quivering of exposed tongues. Willa gave a shudder, a muffled mewl as something passed between them, immense and unnameable. The tips of their tongues were touching now, a fluttering challenge - gently Jen reached up, took Willas hand from her shoulder and guided it onto her breast. Fingertips delicate as dewdrops traced the outline of her nipple, making the flesh beneath ache and stiffen; making Jen tremble. When this kiss broke they were both slightly exhausted, panting and huddled into each other for support, for reassurance.

Willas eyes were drawn to the simple, unfathomable miracle of her hand upon Jens bosom.

I love your boobs, she whispered. I love the way they feel - so soft and warm

I love it when you touch them, Jen responded, a slight catch in in her voice. You touch me like Im china, like Im something precious

Would you like me to keep doing it?

Jens smile was both indulgent and faintly exasperated.

I want you to do a lot more n that, hen - I want you to fuck me.

Willa was jolted, befuddled - instinctive recoil at the obscenity fought with a tidal onrush of white-hot excitement surging in her veins. She was being offered something - or perhaps twas being demanded of her - that her conscious mind could not quite comprehend, but her body understood perfectly.

How? she breathed, all wide-eyed earnestness. Jens look was clear and blinding as a searchlight beam.

Ill show you

And she kissed Willa again, full force, her lips wide parted, her tongue springing forth; a wet invader of Willas shocked and open mouth. The soft power of it, the sweet intoxication, made Willas head reel. She swallowed reflexively, gulping down their mingled fluids, then began to relax: tentatively she dabbed her own tongue forward, meeting the intruder. Gently they entwined, and Willa felt her heart, her very being give a lurch, like a ship shedding its moorings. She knew she was lost; she knew she was free.

The kiss went on, ringing through them like a peal of cathedral bells, melting away all inhibition, drowning all doubt. Willas hand clutched Jens breast so tightly it was almost painful: kneading the yielding flesh, moulding it to her grateful palm. At length Jen took her wrist again, gently peeling her fingers free. With gentle but implacable power she guided Willas touch once more, downward into the narrow but momentous gap between her thighs. Willa shivered slightly but did not resist, allowing her fingertips to brush along a slender canyon of milky, silken skin; to be directed into a dark delta of springing, stiffened curls that crackled faintly like static. Willa held her breath as, with little further encouragement, she pressed home. Nothing, at first - just the vague delineation of a seam beneath the tickling, bristling mass: and then, almost suddenly, a parting of soft, unseen lips; of fierce, humid heat; a splash of wetness so rich and heady it was almost sticky. Shocked, even vaguely repelled, Willa hesitated, but Jens grip tightened on her wrist, almost painful in its insistence. With no choice, Willa pressed again, and felt the oozing flesh recede; her fingers enfolded in glutinous velvet that flexed and gripped and accepted.

Oh, Jen shivered at her ear. Oh, thats good - thats it. Oh, keep doing that - faster, harder

Ever the willing worker, Willa did as she was bidden, though truth be told she was unsure if the activity was at all pleasurable, or even decent. Jens grip on her wrist slipped away, but she kept on, thrusting and retracting, a measured pace like one of Auroras machines, and almost as mechanical. There was no reward save for Jens flexing, both within and without; the desperate clutching of Jens arms about her; the occasional rushed and sloppy kiss; the ragged moans that could so easily have been taken for discomfort, but were clearly something else entirely.

Oh, God! Jen suddenly pealed, her body wracked by feverish spasms. Oh, youre fucking me - youre making me come oh, shit

To Willa it seemed as if the whole room suddenly flipped sideways, but it was only Jen falling back onto the bed, her body suddenly bereft of all support. Doggedly Willa followed, her sodden fingers still pressing, stabbing - now numbed and inflexible. She didnt let up until Jen, gasping and giggling, reached down once more to still her aching wrist. They were in a strange tangle atop disordered blankets, the clothed and the naked; the rooms stale air held a curiously saline scent. And as they settled, Willa had but one question.

Did I do it right? Was it as good as Neil?

God, girl, Jen sniffed, and only then did Willa realise that her eyes were filled with tears, It was

better. It was so, so much better

*