2002. I'm ten, but I've been ten for long enough that people have stopped saying "ooh, double digits" every time they see me. I like horses, books and maths lessons, and right now, I am at a school disco.
The DJ is set up on the movable stage blocks in the assembly hall - speakers, disco ball, smoke machine - and he's playing The Ketchup Song. Asereje, ja, deje, dejebe tude... it's one of those songs which has dance moves, apparently, as the kids on the dance floor are showing, but I'm not sure where everybody learnt them.
You won't find me in the hall.
The corridor outside is busy, too, because this is where the food is - chocolate fingers, triangular sandwiches, and Panda Pop. I'm not eating, either, though, so keep going, right to the end of the corridor. You'll see two doors - the Year Six bathrooms. Take the left.
This is me: the girl at the sink with the mirror, scrubbing at my face with cold water and bar soap. Blue jeans, long hair, my new, glittery top. The soap isn't working. I guess make-up doesn't come off that easily?
Yeah, I actually tried make-up. People keep giving it to me for Christmas, and this is a disco, so I went for it. Shiny red on my lips, shimmery blue on my eyes, glitter all over my cheeks. I look fab.
At least, I thought I looked fab, until I walked into the disco fifteen minutes ago. Gave Mrs McEwan my pound coin, got a stamp on my hand. Found Anna Maltman, and Ella and Jennifer, straight away, and said hi. They looked at me and giggled, and Anna said,
"Have you put eyeshadow under your eyes?"
I didn't have to make an excuse, or run away. I just had to not follow, as they laughed their way past the sandwiches to the hall. And then take the burning in my chest and the crushing feeling in my skull away to the bathroom, which is where you came in.
* * *
2008. I'm sixteen, which is better than ten, so far. Old enough to do a bunch of things I don't care about; almost old enough to drive, which I do care about. I like anime, books, and messing around in maths lessons. Don't worry: the maths is all easy anyway. But right now, I'm at a school disco.
Someone plugged an iPod into the sound system in the hall, and there's a set of lights flashing between the speakers on the stage. Up front, there's a pulsing crowd of teenage girls in fancy dress - burglars and cats, nurses, pirates and Tyrannosaurus Rex - jumping and shaking to the beat. It's Katy Perry, it's Lady Gaga, it's the Time Warp from the Rocky Horror Show.
It's okay, you won't have to push through the crowd to find me.
If you pull back a little, to the far end of the hall, you'll see a small group of five or six, rocking out with a level of headbanging that's kind of at odds with the Top 40 pop thumping through the room. They're all kitted out in all-black, not so much fancy dress as an excuse to break out the subculture fashion statements. Note the spike-studded collars and New Rocks.
I'm not dancing with them, but I am with them. Look to the side, at the pair sitting on the catwalk, arms and legs cosily entangled. Not the one with the blue hair, the one with the skinny black coat, and eyeliner thick enough to hide how much I blinked when we put it on.
I'm having a good time! This is a party, and these are my friends, and if I concentrate on the throbbing beat, on Sam's hand on my arm, and the antics of the group in front of me, I can just about forget to wonder whether the cats and dinosaurs are looking at us funny. Easy. I'm definitely not remembering the eyeroll Jess got when she broke out the spiky collar, or the eyebrows that went up when Sam and I sat down together. The awareness of other people definitely isn't pressing in on my forehead and the back of my skull, like the weight on a deep-sea diver. I'm fine - can't you tell?
* * *
2010. I'm eighteen, which is officially adult! But I'm also at uni, which is like the cycling-with-stabilisers of adulthood. I like video games, books, and commiserating with my classmates over the fire-hose of confusion that is our Calculus lecture course. And right now, I am at a college disco.
The bar is the undercroft of a very old building, all low, arched ceilings and weird brick pillars, and it is packed from wall to wall with students. The air is solid with heat and smell and sound: the sweat of the crowd, the nostril-stripping reek of spilt beer, and the blast of Taio Cruz. If you value your hearing, or your personal space, this is not the place to be. But if you're looking for me, you'll have to come on in.
I'm in there.
Right in the middle of the crush, pressed up against the guy with the periodic table on his T-shirt, and the girl in the black-and-white lace dress. Yeah, there - the one with five colours in my hair. The whole room is jumping, and I'm jumping with them; the whole room is shouting out lyrics, and I'm joining in. Check out the smile on my face!
My feet ache, but in a good way. My chest is filled, not with smouldering worry but with the glorious fire of energy; my head is bursting with the bliss of being a voice in a chorus of approximate unison.
This is good. I am good. We are good.