read the first chapter of TRY NOT TO BREATHE by Holly Seddon
18 July 1995
Music thudded through Amy’s body and seized her heart. Music
so loud that her eardrums pounded in frenzy and her baby bird ribs
rattled. Music was everything. Well, almost everything.
Later, the newspapers would call fifteen-year-old Amy Stevenson
a ‘ray of sunshine’, with ‘everything to live for’. Her headphones
buzzed with Britpop as she trudged the long way home, rucksack
Amy had a boyfriend, Jake. He loved her and she loved him. They
had been together for nearly eight months, walking the romance
route around the ‘top field’ at school during break time, hot hand
in hot hand, fast hearts synchronized.
Amy had two best friends: Jenny and Becky. The trio danced
in a perpetual whirlpool of backstories, competition and gossip.
Dizzying trails of ‘she-said-he-said-she-said’ preceded remorseful,
sobbing hugs at the end of every drunken Saturday night.
Nights out meant lemon Hooch in the Memorial park or Archers
and lemonade at The Sleeper pub, where a five-year-old wouldn’t
have been ID’d. School nights meant 6 p.m. phone calls once it hit
the cheap rate. She would talk until her step-dad, Bob, came into
the dining room and gave her that look: it’s dinner time, get off
my phone. Thursday nights were Top of the Pops and Eastenders;
Friday nights were Friends and The Word.
Amy’s Kickers bag grew heavier with every step. She shifted it
awkwardly to the other shoulder, tangling her wires so that one
earbud pinged out of her ear, the sounds of the real world rushing in.
She had taken the long way home. The previous day she’d got
back early and startled Bob in the kitchen as he stirred Coffee Mate
into his favourite mug. At first he’d smiled, opening his arms for
a hug before realizing that she’d made it back in record time and
must have gone across the field.
She’d had to sit through half an hour of Bob’s ranting and raving
about walking the safe route home, along the roads: ‘I’m saying
this because I love you, Ames, we both love you and we just want
you to be safe.’
Amy had listened, shuffled in her seat and stifled yawns. When
he’d finally stopped, she’d stomped upstairs, flopped onto her bed
and smacked CD cases around as she made an angry mix tape.
Rage Against the Machine, Hole and Faith No More.
As she’d surprised Bob the day before, Amy knew he was likely
to be home already. Waiting to catch her and have another go at
her. It wasn’t worth the hassle even though the longer walk was
especially unwelcome on Tuesdays. Her bag was always really
heavy as she had French and History and both had stupid, massive
Amy hated learning French with a passion; the teacher was a
dick and who needs to give a window a gender? But she liked the
idea of knowing the language. French was a sexy language. She
imagined she could seduce someone a bit more sophisticated than
Jake by whispering something French in his ear. She could seduce
someone older. Someone a lot older.
She loved Jake, of course, she meant it when she said it. She had
his name carefully stencilled onto her bag with Tippex, and when
she imagined the future, he was in it. But over the last few weeks
she had begun to see the differences between them more and more.
Jake, with his wide smile and deep-brown puppy-dog eyes, was
so easy to spend time with, so gentle. But in the time they’d been
going out, he’d barely plucked up the courage to put his hand inside
her school shirt. They spent whole lunch hours kissing in the top
field, and one time he’d climbed on top of her but she’d got a dead
leg and had to move and he was so flustered he barely spoke for
the rest of the day.
It had been months and months and she was still a virgin. It
was getting embarrassing. She hated the idea of being last, hated
losing at anything.
Frustrations aside, Amy hoped Jake had skipped judo club so
he could come and meet her. Jake and his younger brother, Tom,
were driven home from school every day because his snooty mum
worked as the school secretary. His family lived in the doublefronted
houses of Royal Avenue. He was always back before Amy
reached the two-bedroom terrace house in Warlingham Road where
she lived with Bob and her mum, Jo.
Jake’s mum, Sue, didn’t like Amy. It was like she saw her as
someone who would corrupt her precious baby. Amy liked the
idea that she was some kind of scarlet woman. She liked the idea
of being any kind of woman.
Amy Stevenson had a secret. A secret that made her stomach
lurch and her heart thump. None of Amy’s friends knew about her
secret, and Jake certainly didn’t know. Jake could never know. Even
Jake’s mum, with her disapproving looks, would never have guessed.
Amy’s secret was older. Absolutely, categorically a man. His
shoulders were broader than Jake’s, his voice lower, and when he
made rude remarks, they came from a mouth that had earned
the right to make them. He was tall and walked with confidence,
never in a rush.
Her secret wore aftershave, not Lynx, and he drove a car, not a
bike. Unlike Jake’s sandy curtains, he had thick, dark hair. A man’s
cut. She had seen through his shirts that there was dark hair in
the shallow dip at the centre of his chest. Her secret had a tall,
When Amy thought about him, her nerves exploded and her
head filled with a bright-white sound that shut out any sense.
Her secret touched her waist like a man touches a woman. He
opened doors for her, unlike the boys in her class who bowled into
corridors like silver balls in a pinball machine.
Her mum would call him ‘tall, dark and handsome’. He didn’t
need to show off, didn’t need to boast. Not even the prettiest girls
at school would have thought they stood a chance. None of them
knew that Amy stood more than a chance. Way more.
Amy knew that he would have to stay a secret, and a short-lived
one at that. A comma in her story, nothing more. She knew that
she should keep it all locked in a box; perfect, complete, private,
totally separate from the rest of her soundtrack. It was already a
memory, really. Months from now she would still be snogging Jake
at lunchtime; bickering with her friends; coming up with excuses
for late homework; listening to Mark and Lard every night on
Radio One. She knew that. She told herself she was cool with that.
The feeling Amy got when he touched her hip or brushed her hair
out of her face was like an electric shock. Just the tips of his fingers
made her flesh sing in a way that blocked out everything else in the
world. She was both thrilled and terrified by thoughts of what he
could do to her, what he would want her to do to him. Would they
ever get the chance? Would she know what to do if they did?
That kiss in the kitchen, with the sounds of the others right
outside. His hands on her face, a tickle of stubble that she’d never
felt before. That one tiny kiss that kept her awake at night.
Amy turned into Warlingham Road and the ritual began. She
put her bag down on the crumbly concrete wall. She unrolled the
waistband of her skirt so it was no longer hitched up. She decanted
her things, finding her Impulse ‘Chic’ body spray and cherry lip balm.
Amy shook the spray and let a short burst of sweet vapour fill
the air. Then, after looking around self-consciously, she stepped
into the perfumed cloud, like she’d seen her mum do before a night
at the social club.
She ran the lip balm along her bottom lip, then the top, kissing
them together and then dabbing them matt with her jumper. On
the off-chance that Jake was waiting, she wanted to be ready, but
not make it obvious that she’d tried.
Amy’s Walkman continued to flood her ears. ‘Do You Remember
the First Time?’ by Pulp kicked in and Amy smiled. Jarvis Cocker
smirked and winked in her ears as she set everything back in the
bag, shifted it to the other shoulder and continued down the road.
She saw Bob’s van in the road. Amy was twelve doors away
from home. As she squinted, she could make out a figure walking
She could tell from the way the figure walked ‒ confident, upright,
deliberate ‒ that it wasn’t Jake. Jake scuttled around like a startled
crab, half-running, half-walking. Amy could tell from the figure’s
slim waist that it wasn’t Bob, who was shaped like a little potato.
When Amy realized who it was she felt a rush of nausea.
Had anyone seen him?
Had Bob seen him?
How could he risk coming to the house?
Above everything, Amy felt a burst of exhilaration and adrenaline
thrusting her towards him like iron filings to a magnet.
Jarvis Cocker was still talking dirty in her ears; she wanted to
make him stop but didn’t want to clumsily yank at her Walkman.
She held her secret’s gaze, biting her lip as she clicked every
button until she crunched the right one down and the music stopped.
They were toe to toe. He smiled and slowly reached forward. He
took one earphone, then the other from the side of her head. His
fingers brushed her ears. Amy swallowed hard, unsure of the rules.
‘Hello, Amy,’ he said, still smiling. His green eyes twinkled, the
lashes so dark they looked wet. He reminded her of an old photo
of John Travolta washing his face between takes on Saturday Night
Fever. It had been printed in one of her music magazines, and while
she thought John Travolta was a bit of a knobhead, it was a very cool
picture. She’d stuck it in her hardback Art and Design sketchbook.
‘Hello…’ she replied, in a voice a shade above a whisper.
‘I have a surprise for you… get in.’ He gestured to his car ‒ a
Ford Escort the colour of a fox ‒ and opened the door grandly like
Amy looked around, ‘I don’t know if I should, my step-dad’s
As soon as her words were in the air, Amy heard a nearby front
door, and ducked down behind the Escort.
A little way up the pavement, Bob set his tool bag down with a
grunt. He exhaled heavily as he fumbled for his keys and opened
his van. Unaware he was being watched, Bob lumped the tool bag
into the passenger seat and slammed the door with his heavy, hairy
hands. He waddled around to the driver’s seat, heaved himself up
and drove away with a crunch of gears, the back of his van shaking
like a wagging tail.
As excited as Amy was, as ready as she was, a huge part of her
wanted to sprint off up the road and jump into the van, safe and
young again, asking Bob if she could do the gears.
‘Was that your step-father?’
As she stood up and dusted herself down, Amy nodded, wordless.
‘Problem solved, then. Get in.’ He smiled an alligator smile. And
that was that. Amy had no more excuses, and she climbed into the car.