Kissing Friday was a Yorkshire Tradition of unknown ancestry. It was considered “the greatest day of the year among children” by the Yorkshire Evening Post in 1938. “Old people used to look on and enjoy it all, for it reminded them of their own young days”.
It fell into obscurity in the mid-20th century.
Hope no bruises this time. He’s having a right go, ’cause he knows the day.
Not crying though. He’d love to see tears…
He knows the day… He’s taking his time with it. Big old pauses between strikes. But between them horrible stings there’s relief in between. A drawback, a pause, but then fwwwwiiip through the air before the next hit.
Fwwwwwwwwiiip! I think airplanes must sound like that. Like the one Pa showed me… The one he flew. Must make that noise. Ready for take-off. Ready, set, go… Fffwwwwwwwiiiip!
“Nine. Not smirking so much now, are you, Master Dalby?”
Shut up. Leave me be. I weren’t ready that time. I press my mouth onto the desk and don’t respond. Mr Boothe sees this and smacks his hardest.
A little tear. Damn. Quickly wipe my face while he puts the ruler back. I stand up from where I were bent over. Legs feel wobbly, but I can’t show it. Stand tall. Chest out. Look Mr Boothe straight in the face.
“There we go,” he says. “I’m ’appy to give you another ten, Dalby, if you ’aven’t learnt yer lesson.”
“Yes sir,” I say. “I am very sorry sir. Thank you very much sir.”
He steps closer. “Watch that attitude boy. She’s lucky I caught you when I did. I tell you, if I so much as see you looking at another, I’ll tell yer father and get ’im to give you a second ’iding on me behalf.”
“Yes, sir. You’ll just ’ave to find ’im for me first, sir.” And I turn and walk out.
Any other day and he would have grabbed me by the hair and given me another ten for that, but I know today is different. Friday afternoon. He’s gained the look in his eye where he’s had too much of it. He’s sick of me and I’m sick of him. Best that we give up for now.
He watches me go. He’ll save them for me for Monday.
I walk down the empty school corridor toward the main gate. But then a nasty scraping sound to the left of me. Poke my head round a door and see Mary, coughing under chalk dust, writing on the blackboard.
“Oh. Robert,” she says. She looks worried to see me. “What… did you get?”
“Just a canin’. You got writin’?”
Pause. I check. The coast is clear. Don’t know how to bring it up, but I want to. “Um. Could try again.”
She’s even more worried. She looks around too, then shrinks. “Er. Aye.”
Guess that’s groundwork done. I slink forward and kiss her. When I draw back, her eyes are still open.
“Thanks,” I try.
“Aye,” she turns away, but then back. “You goin’ see Bea?”
“Yeah. ’er too.”
“Aye… Alright.” She looks away again to the blackboard, still staring. Like a ghost.
I head off again, thinking. Bea. Now were my only chance. Got to find Bea before day’s end.
The air is nice in town, but there’s too much shrieking. I’m wobbling over the hard stones of the village square, trying to think, but them girls are not helping. Harriet screams past me, chased by two boys. Three other girls squeal whilst boys lasso them together with a skipping rope. Two men walk by, laughing.
“Eeya, Rob,” one of the boys shouts – Thomas. “Look at our catch.”
Can’t think about Bea with all this shouting, but I come over anyway. “Oh aye. Well done.”
Mavis is caught up in rope with two other girls. She giggles while the rope is pulled tighter. “You think you got us!”
“Think? We know so!” Says another boy, Henry. “Just ’ow are you goin’ to get out of there, eh Mavis?”
We watch her struggle, trying to force herself under the rope. She elbows the other two girls trapped beside her, who aren’t giggling.
“Yer can’t,” says Thomas. “We ’ave you. Now pay up.”
They lean in. The two girls, unwilling, let the boys kiss them, whilst Mavis ducks and weaves with a giggle.
“No! No, you can’t get me!”
“Stop movin’,” says Thomas, who’s got angry with her.
“You can’t get me!”
“Aye I bloody well can.” I watch him grab Mavis’ face and tug her to his mouth, and she squeals with shock. Then he throws her back into the other girls.
Henry turns to me. “Go on. You take a kiss too.”
Uh. Not time really. Got to find Bea… But then again Henry watches me. And Thomas. Might as well. And Mavis has nice hair.
I take my three kisses quietly. Try not to look Mavis in the eye. She’s shaking.
“We’ve only found a few,” says Henry. “Think the other girls are ’idin’ out on the fields.”
“Ha, aye. Rabbits.”
The skipping rope is released and the girls run off. Harriet shrieks past me again, crying. Now three boys run after her. I turn to walk off.
“Wait. Rob,” Thomas calls. “Where’s yer sister at?”
“Yeah. Yer young sister. What’s ’er name? Annie? Where she?”
I begin to run and I don’t look back.
Clack clack clack on the cobbles below. May not know where Bea is, but I have no doubts about Annie.
I shove him into the stream.
“Alan! Alan!” Annie cries out, watching him splutter about in water. She turns to me. “You killed ’im!”
“Don’t be daft,” I say, twirling her around by shoulders to face Alan again. “There’s nowt in stream. Look.”
Alan stops thrashing to realise he is only ankle-deep.
“Why did you do that, Rob?” Annie demands, wriggling out of my grip. “We were just playin’!”
“Oh aye,” I turn to him. “Were you really?”
Alan sniffles and nods, eyes running.
“Rot! I know what you were thinkin’ about doin’. Come on Annie.” I take her wrist and we go back up bank and on to stone bridge.
“Get off me Rob! Get off! We were catchin’ frogs, alright?” She squirms but I don’t let her go. She got no idea. We set off. “Where you takin’ me?”
We veer off dirt road onto a muddy field path.
“I’m takin’ you ’ome, Annie.”
“What? Why? What’s goin’ on?”
“Don’t you know what day it is?” She don’t respond. She don’t know. “It’s Kissin’ Friday, Annie.”
“Yer lucky I could guess where you were. Now remember this good. Kissin’ Friday is one Friday a year when boys kiss girls, an’ girls don’t say no. You get it now?”
Annie, who were staring at some wildflowers, looks at me suddenly. “Girls can’t say no?”
“Girls ’ave to. Didn’t you wonder why you girls left school early an’ we ’ad to stay behind? Annie! Listen!”
She tries to pick a flower. I tug her.
“Didn’t Ma warn you?”
We walk along in silence. In time, I let go of Annie’s wrist and hold her hand. More walking. Scuff scuff.
“Are you goin’ to find Bea then, Rob?”
I’m surprised she brought it up. We stop, but I say nothing.
“You like ’er, don’t you? I’ve seen you together at school.” Annie scuffs the mud with her shoe. “I think she’s nice.”
A sparrow speeds out of a bush in front of us, squeaking, followed by a black cat.
“Do you want to kiss Bea?”
I watch the bird take height and speed away from them claws, up and over green fields beyond. The cat also watches it, then turns around, and goes back into bush.
I remember when the tractor were green, but sometimes I don’t know if I made that up. Annie only remembers this rusty brown, but I think green were there before she were born. I think Pa used to paint it, and he were proud. I remember a paintbrush and a green smudge on his ear.
As we walk past the barn beside our house, I see the tractor peeping out from behind peeling walls. Looks embarrassed, like it were in the nip. Or waiting. Don’t think it works no more. When I were little, I used to get rides all up and down field… Vroom, vrooooom, chugger, chugger. Now when Annie plays, she pretends it moves.
Ma has already seen us coming. The door’s thrown open after one knock.
“Annie. Where’ve you been?”
Annie lets go of my hand and steps forward. “Were walkin’ ’ome Ma.”
Ma smacks her on the head. “Walkin’ ’ome? A few minute journey now takes two hours, does it? Where were you really?”
She steps back. “Catchin’ frogs.”
“Bridge near post office.”
Smacks her again. “’Oo?”
Ma looks at me. “’Oo were Annie wi’? Any boys?”
Ma takes a moment before believing me. “Lucky,” she says, folding hair behind her ears. “Them boys are gettin’ worse every year. And you, Robert? No trouble?”
I look straight in her eyes. “No, Ma.”
Another pause while she judges me. Don’t trust me. “…Alright. At least yer both back now. Come on. I’ve got some cake.”
Annie, rubbing her head, cheers up at the mention. “Cake?”
“Aye, child. D’you not listen? I told you we would be ’avin’ our special fruitcake today. Wi’ the other girls.”
We trail through house. I take a big breath in. Home smells like the Garden of Eden… or what it should smell like. Old wood walls and the snap of a lit fireplace. From somewhere come the scent of bread, and closer lie the sweeter song of cake. Happy to get caned a hundred time by Boothe just to come home to Ma and Grandpa baking.
The dining room’s been spruced up. Best tablecloth and cutlery. Annie and I arrive at dinner table to find company. Opposite sit five girls, all from school: Norma, Julia, Louise, Dorothy and… Mary, again. She widens her eyes to see me. Each of them sit around our farmhouse table with a slab of fruitcake and a glass of water.
“Take a seat,” Ma says. “I’ll get you some cake.”
Silence at the table, all of us listening to Ma as she disappears into the larder and talks with someone. Mary tries to lock eyes with me, worried. Shake my head at her, just as Grandpa emerges.
“Afternoon children,” he says, voice gravelly. He trudges to the table and presents a fresh loaf of bread for us all. “’ere you all are. Go on, young ladies. Don’t worry about politeness. Dig in.”
Gingerly, Julia picks up bread knife but is beaten to it by Annie, who begins to rip chunks away.
Grandpa laughs. “Lord, are you ’ungry. ’ow are you Annie? Good day at school? You were late back.”
Annie turns to Grandpa and nods sadly, mouth full of bread.
“But yer Ma says you met no boys, right? Nothin’ ’appened.”
Annie nods again, chewing. Ma returns with more fruitcake and joins the table. Julia finishes cutting up the remainders of loaf and I pick up a slice.
“Good,” Grandpa then turns to me and slaps the bread out of my hand, onto table. “Just a minute there, Robert.”
“I ’aven’t asked about yer day, boy. Yer Ma said ye got into no trouble. True?”
I avoid his eyes. “True.”
“An’ you’ve been good to the girls too? None of this debauchery today?”
Quickest of quick looks to Mary. She shoves her entire wedge of cake in her mouth.
“Good,” he gestures back to my bread, which I pick back up.
Ma serves the rest of the cake. A silence while people eat. Not hungry but I try to look it. Bea’s still out there, somewhere, and I don’t know how I’m going to get away from Ma’s gaze.
Pause. Suddenly Ma puts down her fork. “Thought more girls would be ’ere…”
Grandpa wrings up his sleeves and rubs his pale, leathery arms. “Aye. Me too.”
“A place where girls can be safe today, an’ ’ow many do I get, Pa? Five. Not even me own daughter – not by choice. What an ’orrible day this is-…”
“I ’ate it too.” Grandpa chews. “What wi’ all this wickedness, plain as day. All these godless children…”
“’Orrible. Boys doin’ whatever they like an’ girls ’avin’ to suffer…”
“But then they don’t come ’ere? Bloody mystery what girls want now’days, in’t it-”
“Want Jesus, Edith.”
“If yer kissin’ ’em, then yer should be marryin’ ’em.”
Silence. Ma and Grandpa have stopped eating, focused on talking across the table. Agreeing but also not. The girls round the table are not eating either, nervous about the conversation.
Put down my fork. Haven’t got long left. I stare out the dining room window, searching for escape, and suddenly spy the sheep trough at the back of our field. Aha.
Ma speaks again. “I would ’ave thought, now the war’s done, boys would be better behaved as some ’ave their fathers comin’ ’ome. But no. An’ you know some girls encourage them…”
Suddenly, Louise’s voice chirps up: “Thank you for the fruitcake, Mrs Dalby…”
She starts to leave. Her voice sets off a chorus of others. Grandpa and Ma continue to talk.
“Aye, thank you for the cake…”
“I must be goin’…”
“Some girls just love the boys’ attention, Pa…”
“The devil’s influence, Edith, I tell you…”
I stand too and head out back of house. But nothing slips past Ma.
“Robert! Where’re you goin’?”
“Yer Grandpa fed them this mornin’.”
“It’s an ’ot day. Bet their water’s already gone.”
Ma raises an eyebrow. She got no trust at all. Annie watches me from across the table, sucking on the last piece of bread.
“Let ’im go, Edith,” Grandpa says. “I could do wi’ a sit down, an’ someone doin’ me a favour. Off wi’ you, boy.”
As I put down the filled water bucket, letting it slosh over its brim, I see the shape of someone further down the hill. They are sat by the brook that tails around farmland, staring off in a direction, surrounded by sheep lapping the stream.
I have a feeling, but it’s almost too good to be true. I begin to run, legs thump thump thumping and slipping down the steep green hill, towards the person, picking up speed as I went. Sheep see me first and scatter, causing Bea to look behind her.
I struggle to stop and run right past her, stumbling into the brook and catching myself on the opposite bank. I wade back to her. “Bea. You were ’ere!”
“Aye…” she looks at me shyly, pulling her knees up to her chest. “Didn’t think no one would find me ’ere.”
I take a step back. “Oh. I’m sorry Bea. I didn’t know you didn’t want no…”
“Oh! No, Robert! You can stay. I… didn’t mean I didn’t want no one to find me… Well, most, but not all…” Her face goes red. She tries again. “You can stay.”
“Alright…” I go sit beside her on the muddy bank, slipping and knocking shoulders with her. “Oh, sorry.”
Idiot, Robert. You’ve embarrassed her… now you’ll scare her off. Half expecting Boothe to launch himself from behind the bushes: “You’ve ruined yer only chance, Mr Dalby! I expected better of you. Ten lashes for not getting yer kiss.” Almost half want that. At least it would break this silence.
But then again… I look at Bea next to me. I see her long orange hair and pale lips. I see her chin resting on her knees and her brown eyes overlooking the brook… Now I don’t feel so bad. After all, I found her, didn’t I? Here is Bea. It’s alright.
She catches my eye suddenly and I snap my gaze away. “Sorry.”
“Robert,” she begins. “I keep sayin’ stuff wrong… I came ’ere ’cause I know it’s yer farmland. The other boys can’t go ’ere. But that were one reason… an’ the other reason were that I might see you.”
My heart squeezes… Badump badump badump badump. So happy but so scared. Worse than any beating. Happier than any Christmas.
A sudden glare in my eyes. We look above the trees to see the bright sun beginning to shrink into pink and blue tiredness.
I point. “The sun… Oh no. When does Kissin’ Friday end?”
“Dunno,” Bea don’t seem bothered. “When boys get bored of girls an’ go ’ome for tea.”
We face each other.
“I’m not ’ungry.”
A moment. Then Bea leans in and kisses me. My body jerks and hair stands on end. Bea! I taste her lips and smell her breath… The… sweetest! The best! The… strangest.
I draw back eventually. “You… kissed me.”
Bea moves back too, smile wide, trembling with delight at what she had done. “Yes.”
“I… But Bea… I’m supposed to kiss you. I dunno. I’m supposed to.”
“Oh. Are you? I. I thought… Does it matter?”
Can’t bear to hear tiny disappointment in her voice. “No, it don’t. Well, maybe a little. I dunno. I’ll try.”
I kiss her this time, and the same rush hits me like a thunderclap. But… not exactly same.
“You alright, Robert?”
I struggle. “It’s just… somethin’. Bea… you kissed me first, do you see? The first kiss were wrong way round.”
“But you kissed me then.”
“But it weren’t the first time!”
Bea turns away. Silence. I throw a stone into the brook. Have I ruined it? She picks up a twig and starts to peel it. More silence. Bea still isn’t looking at me. Now I’ve done it. Everything in my head, all my thoughts and feelings, are on fire. Everything’s over. No tears. Strong.
Something else. Try. “There must be another first time.”
We try to catch eyes but suddenly realise light is dimming. Darkness is falling, and between us everything else is fading but the sounds of our mixing breath… and it makes me feel different. A jolt in my mind. Bea drops the stick. We touch shoulders. Something changes between us. Something is over. Something has started.
It’s late. Not Kissing Friday no more. Don’t know what it is. Whatever it may be, it’s worse than what Grandpa, Ma or Mr Boothe ever imagined, and that thrills me more than anything.
With an unsteady hand, I reach over and touch her breast. Bea smiles.