The eldest brother could do no wrong in his mother's eyes. He was quiet and studious. The teachers at school said that he was destined for great things - provided he tried his best - which echoed his parents' long-held hopes for their first-born child. Despite being unpopular, bullied and having few friends, academic achievement was the only thing that seemed to matter in his life, or so he was told by the adults he came into contact with. Wanting to please those anxious faces that looked on, scrutinising every piece of schoolwork, exam grade and report from teachers, he had allowed himself to be moulded into the 'perfect' son. Dressed by his mother and developing no independent identity of his own, his impeccable manners and good behaviour had other parents clucking with jealousy, as their own children were defiant, argumentative and seemed intent on ruining their futures.
The youngest brother was infantalised; babied; mollycoddled. Adorably cute, he had a look in his eyes that could melt any heart and the entire family delighted in showering this child with physical affection and encouraging childish traits that were seen as funny and part of his delightful young character. The words he mispronounced were adopted, so that grandfather became "Gaduda" and a favourite uncle became "Cunigu". The babbling of a baby created an entire new and impenetrable lexicon that only the family knew and understood.
The middle sister held her place in the family as a gender-stereotyped girl. Dressed in pink and floral outfits, she had been showered with traditional toys like dolls, plastic ponies and role-playing sets for obedient housewives. She seemed to be developing normally, playing nicely with her soft toys - having make-believe tea parties for all her bears - as well as thriving socially at playgroup and school.
After puberty, the girl had grown into a young woman more quickly than any adult was able to comprehend or adjust to. When they looked at her they could not see beyond the image of a child that had cemented itself in their minds. Clearly, at the age of 13 or 14 she was still very much a child, but there was a kind of denial amongst family and teachers that this girl was maturing much more rapidly than her peers in a way that denied her a place as either adult or child.
At school, only the children could see what was happening to Lara.
Becoming quiet and withdrawn, Lara fell out of favour with her friends. She wasn't fun anymore. She didn't want to laugh and giggle and gossip and exchange misinformation. Talking about who had started their periods and what bra size they were having to buy, some confusing changes were slowly slotting into place, as the adult world careened into their carefree childhood existence.
The family were distracted. Lara's eldest brother was being coached for important exams and groomed for a top university place, even though his education had many more years until its completion. Lara's youngest brother had a streak of star-like quality now, and it was being considered whether the family would try to get him into a school with better drama and music facilities. A future in the performing arts seemed to beckon for Lara's little brother. The family indulged him as he sang, danced and generally entertained them, captivating every available bit of their attention.
Under the auspices of furthering her studies, Lara had started to travel into the city centre to visit the main public library. Without adult supervision, she had been free to peruse the shelves and select whichever books she wanted. Peeking at older girls and young women who she thought dressed nicely, she imagined that they could be the role models or peers that she seemed to be missing in her life. Listening in to snippets of conversation and looking at the books they chose, Lara came upon a cache of literature that was 'age inappropriate'. The elderly librarians didn't know much about the books that they stamped for Lara to take home.
Magazines provided a trickle-down of information through the girls in school. Well-thumbed copies of Just Seventeen were mostly read by giggling groups of 13 and 14 year olds, who pored over the agony aunt sections and articles about boyfriends. The children mostly came from reasonably wealthy and well-to-do families where they had led sheltered lives, but there were many who had been involved in fumbling trysts and could combine their first-hand knowledge with the information gleaned from the pages of teen magazines.
Lara drifted further from her original childhood friends who covered their bedroom walls with posters of boy bands and listened to saccharine-sweet pop music.
Print media slowly sexualised the schoolgirls, with magazines that were supposedly pitched at adults being more commonly read by 14, 15 and 16 year olds. These magazines - such as Cosmopolitan - featured sex positions and even blow-job techniques under titles like "How to Please Your Man". Fashion magazines were boring by comparison and Lara found Vogue pretentious.
There was a disjoint, a gap, between magazine articles that were light on any real detail, and what was shared between the braver and more adventurous girls who had experimented and fooled around with their first boyfriends. There was no romance in being roughly fingered by an overexcited 14 year old boy on a cold park bench, both tipsy from swigs of cheap cider straight from the bottle. The experiences were confusing, unpleasant even.
Lara had filled the gap with romantic and erotic novels, and the detail of not only the mechanics of the acts but also the feelings of love and lust filled out a much fuller picture of what boyfriends and sexual activities were all about. Lara started to feel contempt for the spotty horny boys at her school and the gaggle of catty girls who circulated vicious rumours about each other as well as boasting of experiences that were missing the caring caress and vital connection that Lara now desired in a boy who was as mature as she was.
By broadening her sphere of knowledge through reading, as well as careful observation of the mannerisms of young women rather than her peer group, Lara began to take on an aura of being quietly self-confident, knowing. As the school year wore on, she started to appear dark and brooding in a way that had a sultry kind of attractiveness. Lara wasn't becoming a goth but there was an intensity in her eyes that was extremely intimidating to other girls, as well as to her teachers. More and more boys started to take an interest in Lara. She was becoming more and more removed and aloof from day-to-day school life, making her seem unattainable. Rumours circulated that she had an older boyfriend who rode a motorbike.
The children elevated Lara to a status normally reserved for 'cool' adults. To treat Lara like an ordinary pupil brought anarchy to the classroom, as if the teachers had started calling each other names in front of the children. To her teachers, Lara was now untouchable, in the interests of preserving some authority. Lara wasn't interested in making trouble, so an uneasy truce came to pass. Lara would not show any disrespect for her teachers or contempt for her schoolwork, but no teacher dared to ridicule and belittle her for fear that they themselves would be laughed out of their class.
Nothing was especially wrong that warranted Lara's parents being contacted, but Lara was becoming feared and revered at school. The girls knew that their boyfriends' eyes were drawn to her and Lara could feel herself attracting an increasing number of staring faces. She started to become comfortable with male attention and would even delight in returning a boy's gaze in order to make him blush, caught looking. A kind of unspoken reputation made her unapproachable. No boy from her school was bold enough to try and speak to her anymore. The legend of the older boyfriend became cemented as fact, even though Lara by now had started to feel a little disappointed that the older boys seemed somehow immature. Refining her style, her sense of dress, in a subtle way that she copied from young women who seemed confident and happy, she started to draw attention from young men, some of it unwanted. These men were crass and crude, and harassed her. They had nothing cosmopolitan, cultured or urbane about them. They were likely lads who fancied themselves as a hit with the ladies. Lara was repelled by these ugly creatures who dressed in sportswear, had gold chains, earrings and wore far too much aftershave. These young men were only ever brave enough to make an approach when accompanied by a group of their friends, watching with a slack-jawed smile as the sullen Lara silently dismissed them with crushing indifference.
Lara imagined that when she left school for university she would find a completely different set of people. Young men who were more mature and romantic, she imagined a boyfriend who could be her equal; somebody she could respect. It wasn't that she was saving herself for true love, but more that she hadn't yet met anybody who measured up to her expectations. The more she read, the more she developed a better sense of the kind of guy she wanted to date, which included a kind of worldly-wiseness, experience and a self-assured manner that was lacking in schoolboys and men who hung around near schools trying to pick up teenage girls.
Age 15, with a mature body and the comportment of somebody older, Lara started to draw the attention of more predatory and silken-tongued men who attempted to woo her with more subtlety. Hanging around on the fringes of school social events and struggling to find a group where she belonged, several well dressed young men struck up casual conversations with her. At first, she felt as though she was beginning to make new friends and would perhaps soon have a new gang to hang out with. Brutally, she found that it was a ruse and these men would try and kiss and grope her after some perfunctory chat. Lara became despondent, beginning to lose hope that there was anybody out there for her who didn't want to just get in her knickers.
At weekends during a mild late September, she had taken to reading a book in the park on a favourite bench that was partly shaded, but still had enough sunlight that she was pleasantly dappled with warming rays. Today, there was a young man sat on one end of the bench who was ghostly pale, wearing a winter coat but still shivering. His coat was pulled up to cover the bottom half of his face, but his eyes were shining brightly, with dark rings underneath. He looked as though he was suffering with a fever and his forehead was a little sweaty.
Lara hesitated before sitting down, but she decided that the man's body language suggested he was trying to make himself as small and inconspicuous as possible. He seemed non-threatening and he was sat right at the other end of the bench. Lara took her usual seat and began reading, somewhat distractedly.
She imagined that the man would get himself up and off home to bed soon, but as the afternoon wore on, he was still sat there. Lara was hardly getting any reading done, but she had a stubborn temperament and was determined that she would attempt to read for as long as she normally would, even though her thoughts were filled with concern about the wellbeing of her companion on the bench.
Eventually, her patience ran out and Lara stood up to walk home.
"Are you OK?" she asked the young man.
The man lifted his eyes slowly to meet hers. There was pain behind them. Not physical pain, but something else. His expression of discomfort softened with her question, but he seemed shocked that anybody had addressed him or even acknowledged his existence. It was as though he thought he was invisible up to that point. There was something incredibly vulnerable and raw about this man; not just the sickness that he seemed to be suffering with. Lara felt a surprising protective instinct for this slim and pale young man who had a haunting gaze.
"I'll be alright" he said.
Lara started to leave and then she stopped.
"What's your name?" she asked.
"Do you have somewhere to go? You don't look well" Lara said.
"Yeah. I'm waiting for somebody. I had to get out of the flat. I was going crazy at home, waiting" Sam replied.
"Do you have a number for them? Do you want me to help you try and contact them?" Lara asked, confused and concerned.
"No. No. They'll turn up. Sometimes they just make me wait. Feels like forever" Sam said.
Lara didn't understand and she couldn't think of anything else to say or ask.
"Oh, OK. Bye then" she said.
"Bye. And thanks" said Sam.
"Thanks for what?" asked Lara.
"Thanks for asking"
When she got home, Lara could still vividly picture Sam's face. He was pale and sick but he was clearly a good looking young man. She was intrigued and also worried about what was going to happen to him. Was he going to be OK? He hadn't asked her name. She wanted to know what he'd meant; why he couldn't wait at home.
Lara wanted to go back out that evening and see if Sam was still on the bench. What would she say if he was? What would she find out if he wasn't? She resisted the urge to go back to the park.