Girls Like Ours by Ellen Dorrington

If I had to describe that time as a single image, I would tell it like this: the sun trapped in long golden hair, and us, the girls, submitting ourselves to it completely. Here’s the photo: school uniforms, standing with our arms around each other, me as the tallest in the middle, and a pair of girls each side of me. The parched grass beneath our feet. Our frozen laughs, a joke made perpetually funny.

Outsiders would see five fifteen-year-old girls. They would see our round faces, and the puppy fat that clung to us for dear life, knowing it was soon to be shed. 

If they were there, they would see us gripped in the midst of girlhood, and how we had birthed our own family to survive it. They would see the secret language, the looks, the subtleties of speech that we were the gods of. It was a language that survived only in the notes passed in lessons, in the dying pixels of text messages. A language that haunts the places where we used to go. 

And we were envied. Or I tell myself that in the hope that it would be worth it. Here’s another photograph: a year later. Those (same) girls, but the middle girl is gone. There are the same smiles, but different hair lengths, different colours. And a different language.

Back then I saw only happiness, a stunning shade of it. But really there was a growing rift, tension that rooted in us and warped our love. Is it worth telling the story if we know girls will be girls? (And girls fall out, and girls abandon each other in the name of love). But there are always the mechanics in machines. The understanding is in the details.  

Back to the image. Back to the eternal sun, the approaching scent of corridors and sweat. We were joining the sea of white shirts, and they scattered across the field like blown dandelions. I was me and I was them, and the feeling bloomed out into the air, adding a sunflare to the lens, rendering my life pinkish with its nostalgic glow. 

Here we all are in the snow fight – we had only been best friends for a few months. It was December and it was the last day of school before the Christmas break. Overhead was a blind sky, a white sky, the school field no longer green but hidden by a perfect smothering of snow. Our cheeks blushed pink, stained by rushing blood. Snow fell and stuck to our hair. There is a photo of Grace with snow clumped to her eyelashes. When she blinked, it would melt and slide down her face in a tear. But she was smiling her sunshine smile, her concentrated joy, her body slight underneath her royal blue school jumper. It seemed the thrill of play was enough to keep her warm. 

And look again – here is Nadine with specs of white in her blue-black hair, thick and straight as a curtain, a bundle of snow in her hand. I thought of her as midnight, a silken darkness. What happened to her? We know only she was damaged by it.

If we pause here and look deeper, to the way she fought in the snow, tooth and nail, and to how she was queen of girlhood violence, our best defence. She smiled, weapon in hand. This is important to the story. How much happier she was to be armed. But maybe this is unfair.

Maybe back then she was only a girl in the snow.

She ran and dumped it all over Sarah. Her squeals and swears radiated across the empty field. We were the only students left in the school and we may as well have owned the world. 

Sarah dusted the snow off her hat, her red hair shining, unnatural against the white landscape, like neon gold. Jasmine followed us over the hill, ambling down it slowly, wrapping her scarf around her neck so tightly it could have strangled her. She plodded one foot in front of the other – not for a fear of slipping, but because this was how she walked. 

I called over: “Don’t fall.” 

She stuck her middle finger up at me. It set her off balance; she wobbled. We laughed at her almost-fall. 

“Why aren’t you covered in snow?” She asked me. Her voice echoed in the wind. The cold bit at us. I shivered, knowing what was coming next. 

“Because I’m careful.”

But it was too late. The four of them, Sarah and Nadine, and Jasmine and Grace, made their way closer to me. I shook my head. And yet still they came, gathering big handfuls of snow. I could see it clog up in their wet gloves – my own fingers numb to the bone from gathering the ice. 

The world was a blank space. I felt my history, my past and my present, had been wiped clean. All that was, and all that would be, was them. 

I watched them group together, in one long line, stalking towards me like lionesses, malevolent glee on their faces.

So I began to run – I bolted backwards, cornering myself against the fence, aware that there was nowhere to go, and so I braced myself for that icy douse. I pictured the shock of it all over my body, that snow, thrown on me, like I had been buried alive. I asked for it, didn’t I? 

I ran and my feet crunched on the ground like old bones. I heard their screams and their laughs as they followed me, and only then, only underneath the terrified joy, that I realised I did not like to be chased. 

We were girls first and foremost. There were inescapable consequences to this. Our gender was weighty: it came with the attention of men. I learnt to blank the stares, the calls and approaches. I kept my head down, grateful, that they didn’t decide to become dangerous. Men were a bad smell, a sour taste in the mouth. Men were danger and protector. We learnt to live with our skipped heart beats and barely mourned them. They were not ones of romance, but of violence. 

Through this, us girls bonded. We told our stories. 

He drove past and yelled at me through the window. He followed us three streets home until we phoned someone and he slipped away. He stopped us when we were running – he said, keep going, I like your legs, do you live far from here? 

We told our stories because we had survived them. We had been forced to shed our childhood with a sense of ruthlessness – if we stayed ignorant, we would not survive. We told our stories with fear, with disgust, and with a little sense of shameful pride. 

We were attractive enough to be chosen, to be chased after. We learned this, too: we can become something powerful in the eyes of our boys. 

We sought the attention of older boys at school. They were safer than the men who lurked outside the gates. 

We wore lip gloss with flecks of plastic glitter. We rubbed strawberry lotion into our legs on the field, countless summer lunchtimes, and we waited for the scent to lure the boys over.

We learned to treat our bodies like a weapon. I have buttery skin; here’s a piece of it, I smell of sweet and I am using this to get you. Our bodies were a threat to us, and a power. We didn’t know how to respond, and only knew what we all knew: popular girls were the prettiest ones.

Of course, we were in love. We loved the Year Eleven boys. They walked over the hill towards us, our mirages. They stalked past, too close to be casual. We froze. We only had the language of the body. Their ties fluttered freely in the wind, bright blue, the colour of the sky.

Sarah said, after they had gone, ‘I want to buy a dress the colour of his eyes.’ 

In translation: she wanted to be seen. If we pause in this thread of the story, we learn that girls absorb disappointment as much as they do shame. The ending to that– she cried at the party in her coral peach dress. Her boy loved someone else. We held onto her as she wept, lamenting that she was the one he should want. 

“Why is he with her?” She asked. 

It echoed in all of us. Why is he with her? When she’s dancing like that? 

We repeated the things we had seen in the movies. We flung her forward into her future, promising better. What better was, we didn’t know. It was probably being wanted.

Let’s go to the lunch hall, the Friday afternoon before the party. The process of leaving, or abandonment, is slow and painful. Like losing limbs. What’s worse is after, when they’ve gone. Because then you have to grow back solid bone, perfect, and blinding white. 

Sarah was sad, and wanting, again. We waited with her, arms resting on the speckled grey table. They folded the tables up after we left and pushed them to the sides. This building was only a transparent container of our history, of our messes spilled and lives tangled. Schools are designed for leaving, and it’s been five years now, almost six. Soon they will have no more of my skin cells. 

Sarah said, “I remember once my mum kept calling me for dinner. And I just wouldn’t go. I couldn’t go. It was really bad. I was just crying in my room, wanting to eat, but not being able to.”

Grace pushed her thick brown hair behind her ear. Her wrist was thin and breakable in this light. She had white scars that lined her skin that she showed to no one else but us. 

She said, “I used to keep track of my calories in a little red book when I was thirteen or so.”

Nadine said, “Me too.”

We knew it was wrong, even then. Who can say why teenage girls stop eating? Apart from everything. 

I want you to know that they were just girls. It was cruelty, what they did (what we did) but it can be understood. 

School girls stand side by side with secret knowledge. We have sadness that the boys fought out, laughed out, or hid. But it ran in our bones, passed from room to room. We walked in the corridors, brushing each other’s fingers as we glided past. We understood. We said, you’re allowed to hurt. We are all in stages of breaking. 

We passed it in hugs, in notes, in late night voicemails. We watched each other cry, we wrapped pinky finger around pinky finger, holding on, promising that we would bear witness. 

Girls are strong, and made of molten metal. We can bend. It’s what I did.  

I’ll take what happened in the garden and frame it in the party. It’s much more poetic to set pain to music. There’s purple skin, green fairy lights, colours swelled with alcohol and music. But know that this is incorrect. I have the autonomy here when I didn’t before, to morph a memory, to make it cinematic, with a ghostly glow. To turn myself into a lesson. To say that, perhaps, the act of leaving could be beautiful.

The fundamentals of the story are correct. We shoot girls down. Count their losses on our fingers. 

The party was for my boy. He invited us and for days after we were flying high, singing party songs, spinning in our black school shoes. We drank hot chocolate to celebrate, dreamt endlessly of what we would wear, what we would say, who we would become. The night came and it was dark, sparked up. I could feel aliveness in the air and I wanted a piece of it for my humming bones.

He opened the door for us. I was walking into an ending, unaware, smiling at lions. He wasn’t to know what he had let into his house.

In the days before this there were messages left unanswered, suspicious absences, blank time. Where were you guys? Just at home. There were my jokes left abandoned and dried in the air, my words analysed too thoroughly, made offensive when they were innocent. 

I’ll tell you of a few weeks before, when I had an ear ache. Hot white, searing pain, making me dizzy. They were hanging out at the park, and I knew, deep down, that if I didn’t go they would talk about me. I stayed with them and endured it, paid my penance. I thought it was worth it. If only they saw what I would do for them.

It would not happen to me.

Back to the party. Alcohol made my friends free and chaotic. They became blurred figures, smudged like watercolours. They locked themselves in bathrooms. There were tears.

I went up to Nadine. I was wary, even then, of being alone with her. I could sense my impending doom. But she wore lip gloss and a sparkling headband. A soft cardigan made from wool. Girl things. She couldn’t be dangerous. The night had made me brave, set loose, reckless. 

“You look sad,” I said.

“I’m not sad,” she snapped. But she turned to me, worry betraying her. “That Year Eleven boy keeps touching me.”

“Touching you? Like, how?”

“Rubbing my back. Putting his hand down my side. Things like that. I keep moving away.”

“I’ll look after you. It’s okay. Just stay with me.”

“No, it’s okay.” Then we both knew it was obvious. “You stay with your boy. I’ll find

Sarah.” 

I let her go. I danced. It was the best night of my life, holding onto the arms of my drunk friends, trying to stop them from leaving. 

“Where are you going?” I asked Jasmine. She walked past me purposely, her head tipping from side to side. 

“To tell him I love him.”

“No, no, no. Not a good idea.”

But they were in the process of leaving already, had already gone. I was clutching at wrists, at the tail ends of jackets. I could feel it, and feel myself slipping away with them.

It was midnight. The rumour of police had sent teenagers scattering, quickly, burnt through like a house fire. The house was cold without them. There were just green lights, sofas, bottles, a wooden floor. We were in the sitting room. Or we were, at one point. But not for this conversation. 

“We need to talk to you.” It was Sarah. But I felt Nadine through her, her shine on the words, her black venom, dripping like tar. And they tore away at my dream-life, word by word. 

“You’re always so hostile to our other friends. You won’t say hello. You get jealous every time we hang out with someone else. And then we’ve spent some time without you, and it was just easier. We don’t want you to get upset. Don’t cry. We’re just saying this so we can work it out. But the worse thing was when you asked Nadine’s boyfriend how pretty you were. That was the worst thing.”

And it was untrue, but how could I prove it? When they had made it fact behind my back. 

Nadine was skilled in destruction. She sat apart from them, a self-imposed victim. I think she believed the things that were woven in the dark room, like the fabric of her story. It was truth, but not as I knew it. It didn’t matter. When the voices of four girls become one, it’s unconquerable. 

I could feel what I was losing as they spoke. The party music stopped, cold room, furniture pushed back. Messages left in my head, unsent, now only thoughts. No longer would there be anyone after school, no one would say oh, there you are, we were waiting for you.

I left the party after they had finished speaking. I was sentenced, already, but they lied. 

“We just need some space,” Nadine said. “Then we can work it out.”

I was angry, at first. I felt it radiate from me: they shouldn’t have done that. The sparks burst into flames. I could see them on the road, as I waited for the bus, as I snuck into bed.

They protected me from men. I didn’t care – look how beautiful the fire is, eating itself up, dazzling. 

I was jet black, oiled down. It flourished in me, for weeks after, the long, pallid summer.

It kept me warm. Kept me safe. 

Loss is confusing when you’re the cause of it. I wish someone had put it in my hands, a name for it. You’re grieving, they would say, and I would have a navigator. 

Maybe I had just needed a warning, before. Girls are the deadliest things. Watch out.

What came after? 

I made new friends, of course. For once it no longer mattered what I looked like, what I said, what we did. It was new freedom, and slowly, I felt myself undoing the ties that had clung to me before.

“I can’t eat all them,” I said.

And Jun replied, “Why not?”

So, months and months after, the world opened up to me. I relearnt myself. I bought new clothes, cut my hair, discovered the urge to write.

Later I found out that they had regretted it. It was a healing wound, to not care.

Me and Jun, lying on her bed. It was years after. It was the summer; there were birds flying outside the window. I had no words to thank her. 

I said, “I think you’re the best friend I’ve ever had.”

And she said, “Don’t be soppy.”

And now, girls everywhere. I flinch when I see them sometimes, knowing what is to come. I watched my cousins when they turned that age, for signs of inflicted cruelty. For sleepless eyes, pinched skin, worry on them like loose threads. I wondered if they could be pulled apart.

Girls like me, on the bus. With their school uniforms and blue leather backpacks, changing fashions to what I had, an emoji keyring bobbing up and down, flashing its happiness.

Are they happy? It is a mystery, maybe even to the girls themselves.

They stand as three parts of a triangle. They all have ponytails. I hear their innocent laughter, their musical voices, amicable silence. 

Do they know what is coming for them? Perhaps they have already survived it. They do not look threatening, but none of us know what they are capable of, what brutality they have subjected themselves to. 

But maybe they speak of healing. They are born in a world where they ring the song of change, where they demand to pass by, to escape the brushes of girlhood.

Girls everywhere. Girls, and new hope, girls and their noise, unflinching, girls and the push and pull of muscles as they start to run. I hope they survive it. I hope they look up, wondrous, at the sky, away from themselves. 

I hope they continue to hold hands. I hope they watch, tuck hair behind ears, grin toothy grins, eat in abundance, play, laugh, and cry. I hope they promise to bear witness. To see. To hold hands. 

I hope that when it is over, they remember they looked after each other. I hope when they go back into the foggy gaps of memory, what they remember most was looking into each other’s eyes, as they relayed pain, as they hurt, as they became. 

Girls everywhere. 

I have my girls, and you have yours. 

About The Author

Ellen Dorrington is a poet, prose and life writer living in east London. She is a recent graduate with a degree in Creative Writing with Publishing from Kingston University. Her work has been published in numerous anthologies and she was listed as a Special Mention in the Spread the Word Life Writing Prize 2020. You can find more of her work at https://www.ellendorrington.co.uk/

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