FICTION: Turtleneck by Andrew Carter

The disaster was, in no small part, down to a jumper I was wearing. I have benefited from my brother’s hand-me-downs many times over the years but on this occasion, I fell afoul of our age gap and generational fashion fads. When John was sixteen, Take That were famous the first time around and curtain haircuts were cool. Turtleneck jumpers were also in, so as he cut his teeth on the nightclubs of Leeds, I imagine dancefloors were filled with sweaty men whose odour was masked by Lemon Hooch and Lynx Africa. When he grew out of his prized turtleneck – a gleaming white number – there was pride in his eyes as he handed it over.

“This jumper has served me well. Treat it with respect.”

I’d admitted that John looked trendy in it but there was a nagging doubt in my mind that apart from Andi Peters on CBBC, I hadn’t seen anyone else wearing one for a while. Did any of my friends own one? Pushing these fears to the back of my mind, I chose to debut it at a house party my friend, Michael and I were going to. It was hosted by a guy I didn’t know very well who was a bit weird.

When pulling the jumper on at home my head got stuck. Wrestling through the cotton I was hit by the early throngs of a panic attack before emerging through the neck hole, red-faced and breathless. I was pleased with the look but it was too hot so I took my t-shirt off and put the jumper back on to my bare skin. Itchy but cooler.

The party was in full swing when Michael and I arrived.

“Uh, hi,” the host answered, hesitantly letting us in before leaning over the bannister to kiss a bespectacled girl. We walked in with trepidation and I realized I didn’t recognize anyone. Arriving at a party as an outsider is tricky and can go either way. There’s a chance you’ll be new and exciting and talk to some girls but the likelihood is that you’ll find yourself stood alone in the hallway, peeling the label off your beer and feeling anxious. Michael, who’d brought a flask of Glen’s vodka, ploughed straight into the action, swaggering into the living room. He was wearing a new Bench t-shirt and was going through a purple patch where several girls fancied him. I glanced through but the room was busy. Too busy.Intimidating. I’ll have a drink to settle my nerves, I told myself. Upstairs sounded quieter but would have meant interrupting the host’s on-stair romancing so I made a beeline for the kitchen. Once there I could put my beers in the fridge. It would give me a reason for being in the room. A task.

On the way through, I overheard two lads in baseball caps.

“Looks like Ian Botham’s walked in,” one of them said. They laughed.

This seemed a dated reference. Could it have been deliberate? A double-edged insult, suggesting that my jumper belonged to a bygone era. I pretended I hadn’t heard and put my head down.

“Oi, Botham.”

I continued walking, thinking that I might go straight out the back door – call it a bad night and get home for Match of the Day. A vague acquaintance stopped me in my tracks. He was wearing a solitary golf glove.

“Easy, Andy. Fancy doing a bucket?”

I didn’t know what this meant so wasn’t sure whether I fancied it or not. He hadn’t mocked my turtleneck though and I appreciated this.

“Sure.”

I followed him into the backroom conservatory where drum and bass music was playing and the stench of cannabis stung my nostrils. We sat down among a group who were cross-legged on the floor huddled around a half-full bucket with a cloudy Pepsi bottle bobbing around on the surface. They grunted a few hellos that were neither friendly nor hostile.

“Your turn, dude,” a small chap said.

I didn’t know what to do.

“It’s alright, you go first,” I replied. “Dude.”

“Nah man, I’m baked.”

Shit.

An energetic mixed race guy stepped in. He was older than everyone else and wearing coloured contact lenses making his irises appear purple. Coloured contact lenses were fashionable for about two months in 2003. God knows why. He looked frightening.

“If you pussies want to have a little chat, I’ll go again.”

Okay, an opening. Just watch what he does carefully. He put the bottle to his lips and plunged it into the water. A girl in a Nirvana t-shirt lit the half joint which was stuck in the side of the bottle like a straw in Kerplunk. The bottle filled with smoke and purple-eyes sucked in, smoke flooding into his mouth and out through his nostrils. He’d done this before.

“Fine, I’ll try,” I said.

The apparatus was repositioned by the girl in the Nirvana t-shirt who was evidently a bucketing expert. I copied my purple-eyed predecessor, sucking in as the bottle filled up. It was strong. And it kept coming. I tried to take it back but was hampered by my lack of smoking experience and burst into a coughing fit, causing my chest to hurt and my eyes to stream. I felt my stomach churn and metallic saliva forming at the back of my mouth. Oh god, was I going to be sick? The cross-legged crowd were laughing as I did everything in my power to hold back vomit. After a succession of small swallows and deep breathing, the nausea ceased. I was, however, very stoned.

“This guy nearly pulled a whitey!” someone said. It sounded like they were speaking from the other end of a tunnel.

“That’s even funnier because he’s wearing cricket whites!” the small guy said. He looked like a wooden puppet. I sat, out of my mind, as the crowd – including my fickle acquaintance, the bastard – mocked my turtleneck, and inability to do buckets.

“Yeah, but cricketers don’t even wear turtlenecks, so what are you on about?” I managed to muster but it fell on deaf ears. After I’d said it I wasn’t sure if I’d spoken at all. Had I just thought it? Following another round of buckets, which I politely declined, the piss taking and all conversation petered out into silence. The drum and bass music stopped so the girl in the Nirvana t-shirt stood up and pressed play. She came and sat next to me.

“Hey, don’t let them tease you.”

Was she stroking my back?

“Thanks.”

“I’ve got a nipple piercing.”

I mustn’t have heard her correctly. I chose to ignore it.

“So, do you like the jumper?” I asked.

“No, it’s awful. And you’re sweating. Why don’t you take it off?”

I couldn’t tell her that I had nothing on underneath.

“It’s okay. I think I’ll just keep it on.”

“Suit yourself.”

She shuffled around the circle until she was sat next to the man who looked like a puppet. Was she stroking his back now? What the hell is going on?

This was too much. I stood up. I was feeling dizzy.

“Yo, cricket man,” purple-eyes said. “I’m off to the shop to get some munch. Wanna come?”

This was the second last thing I wanted to do. The last thing I wanted to do was sit in this circle of strangers who’d been taking the piss out of me.

“Sure.”

We left the conservatory and walked up the drive where the host was now kissing either a different girl or the previous one had removed her glasses. Outside, the cool air felt good on my sweltering skin.

“Guess how many days I’ve been awake for cricket man,” purple-eyes asked on the way to the shop.

“Um, I don’t know. Two?”

“Try again.”

“Three?”

“Four mate. I’m on speed. I’m buzzing.”

Excellent. We discussed what he’d been up to over these four days. It turned out he’d done quite a lot, he’d kept busy. Mostly doing drugs and dancing. One thing he hadn’t done, he informed me, was eat. He fancied a cheese string and some Pringles. He dance-walked as I stumbled alongside him, dehydrated. I was feeling too cold now. After walking for fifteen minutes there was still no sign of the shop. My companion continued to chat away, regardless of whether I responded or not. I felt very odd, like I was outside myself, watching the two of us walking along. Why did he have cat’s eyes?

We got to a corner shop where the bright lights and buzzing of fridges were unnerving. Was the man behind the counter starting at me? He knew I was stoned. Shit. He’s going to call the police. I needed to go. Purple-eyes was rummaging through the shelves, grabbing numerous items, including a can of minestrone soup. He should have picked up a basket.

I decided I didn’t want to be hanging around with a weird guy on Class A drugs anymore. As a stoned, paranoid and insecure teenager, I would have felt much more comfortable sat in my bedroom alone. I turned and darted out the shop and broke into an unsteady jog, heading the opposite way from the party, towards a park.

Purple-eyes shouted after me.

“Oi, cricket man.”

Shit.

I continued running.

“Go on then, fuck off!” he yelled as I ran into the night. “I don’t give a fuck anyway.”

“Okay, see you around.” I shouted back. “Nice to meet you.”

“Fuck you and your shit jumper!”

I never wore the jumper again and I never saw him again. I wonder if he’s been to sleep yet.

Andrew Carter

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Andrew Carter is an author from Leeds. His debut novel Bright Lights and White Nights is out now, published by Proverse. He also writes a weekly blog, Monday Musings, which you can read here: https://medium.com/@andyc1421.

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If you enjoyed Turtleneck, leave a comment and let Andrew know.

 

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