In the next installment of our new series of short stories highlighting the rich history and contemporary work in the form being done by Welsh publishers, we bring you a story by the award-winning Welsh writer, Deborah Kay Davies, “Kissing Grace” from her Wales Book of the Year winning collection, Grace, Tamar and Laszlo the Beautiful (Parthian).
Grace first fell deeply in love when she was ten years and six months old.
Until then she had only been practising, going through the motions. Not that she knew many of the motions. She could only watch TV kisses on other people’s televisions, and her own parents never would kiss, that she knew for definite. Grace had thought about the best ways to kiss for a long time, long before she was ten even. She had started by kissing her pillow, at night. Instinctively she made her mouth as delectable as it could be, as soft and eager as she knew how. She took time to close her eyes, concentrating on the fall of her eyelids. She knew how they gleamed damply as they lowered; she felt them cooling as the night air breathed on them. She was aware of the way her thick, spiky lashes would first touch and then mesh together.
There came a time when pillow-kissing was not enough. Grace thought about who would be willing to practise with her; she needed a person to kiss. She had to be sure that kissing a particular friend would, in itself, be pleasant. It wasn’t easy to choose someone, but Grace knew that, of all her friends, Nina was the only one suitable.
Nina was very pretty. The same build as Grace, with heavy, auburn hair that always felt cool. The sort of hair that wouldn’t stay in hair-clips or ribbons, but dead straight, poured down Nina’s back. Of the two, Nina was the leader, and so it was arranged. All through the quiet evenings, in the autumn and winter before the spring that led to Grace falling in love, while they were supposed to be doing school projects, she and her friend Nina tried out all the different sorts of kissing they could think of.
Nina kissed with a sweetly martyred air, eyes wide-open and vacant. Grace loved to kiss Nina’s chilly, unresponsive lips. She began to take care about where she stood when Nina kissed her. She liked to lean against the bedroom door, back and shoulders cushioned by the soft, dark-red towelling of her dressing-gown. Before Nina started to kiss her, Grace would hold the edges of her dressing-gown sleeves tightly in her fists. Not long after Nina began, her kisses as light as falling icing-sugar, Grace would murmur against her mouth, harder, Nina, do it harder. She’d feel a weakness spreading down through her chest, a pleasure shivering on the very edge of fear, which centred in a thick knot between her straining legs. Each time, just before she felt she must fall to the floor, Grace would push Nina away and jump onto the bed. Nina’s hair, falling forward on her face, trembled as if it were alive. Avoiding Grace’s eyes, she’d go back to her books.
Years afterwards, the memory of the waiting stillness of the house, the warm, musty air of the bedroom, the way the darkening sky pressed itself like a lost, lonely dog against the windows, and most of all, Nina’s wide-open eyes, candid as a baby’s, were still vivid to Grace, and seemed part of the spring she first fell in love.
It was the end of January when Grace found out about kissing with tongues. She’d heard about it before in school but wasn’t sure if it was true. Finally she was convinced that people really did it. Now Grace felt shy about telling Nina. The early evening, while she waited for Nina to come to study, seemed to go on and on. She thought about this kissing with tongues. She imagined how she and Nina would do it, what it would taste like. She was unsure of Nina’s reaction. She might get mad, tell Grace to grow up. She was anxious about her parents; she could never be entirely confident that one of them wouldn’t come into her room without knocking, with a drink or something to eat. Grace’s sister was another big problem. Even though she now had the tiny box room for her own, she was always finding reasons to slide into Grace’s bedroom.
But everything was perfect this evening. Tamar was staying at their grandparents’ house, where she could watch television. She’d been talking about a pop band she was mad about called the Bay City Rollers. She’d even got herself a Rollers tartan bobble hat and smuggled it into the house. She kept it under her mattress. Grace imagined her now, sat on the sofa at Gran’s with her hat on, watching the band play. Grace’s parents were intent on tidying-up in the lighted greenhouse. From the landing window she could see them hunched over pots and sacks. There was no danger of them coming in for hours.
Nina listened calmly as Grace explained about the new kissing. She asked Grace to swear she was telling the truth. They decided to do the new way of kissing that night. It was Grace’s turn to kiss first. Nina’s lips seemed different to her, hot and salty. She could feel Nina’s lop-sided smile. Grace licked the smiling side of Nina’s mouth and found the tip of her pointed tongue. To Grace, the taste of Nina, the feel of her sharp teeth, was delicious. As she pushed her tongue into Nina’s mouth, she felt as if her whole life was concentrated there. She didn’t want to stop. Nina’s arms slid around Grace’s shoulders, and they lay down on the bed.
In the warm quiet of the bedroom the radiator ticked. Snuggled on the pink candlewick bedspread, Nina and Grace felt suspended, waiting. They lay on their sides facing each other. Nina’s breath, smelling as sweet as shortbread biscuits, lifted Grace’s fine blonde fringe. They were quite still. Nina’s brown eyes looked into Grace’s blue, and Nina brought Grace’s head close to hers, resting their smooth foreheads together. Can you read my mind? Nina said, and closed her eyes slowly, luxuriously. Linked at the mouth, they fell asleep. Grace and Nina did not talk to each other about the kissing and lying together. To them it was simple. They were very careful, even so, to keep it as their own special thing, something to be protected. But as spring slowly approached, and the evenings started to grow lighter and milder, they did not see so much of each other. There were so many other things to do outside. Soon the times they had spent together in the autumn and winter became part of the past – half-remembered, barely believed.
Grace loved to swim, and spent her Saturday mornings at the pool. Nina hated the water and never went anywhere near it. There was a particular boy at the pool, called Kit, whom Grace began to think irresistible. Secretly, she watched his elegant diving. She loved the way the water ran off his back, the way it made his pale hair darken, how he swam without splashing. She knew he watched her too. They didn’t talk to each other, but gradually they began to swim together. Underwater they circled each other, slick legs twining. Once, Kit pulled her under towards him, where the water was six feet deep, and Grace silently slid down the length of his body, following its contours with her hands, her hair undulating above her. They looked at each other’s eyelashes studded with seed pearls and watched the tiny bubbles escaping from between their lips as they smiled, the sound of the deep water like the pulse of some huge marine creature in their ears. They were evenly matched, alike in build and colouring.
One day, after they had silently swum together all morning, Grace found Kit waiting for her outside the swimming pool. He asked if he could walk her home. Grace smelt the chlorine drying in their hair; it made her dizzy. She held his hand, and they walked home together. At Grace’s house no one was in. The air inside felt heavy and waiting, strange, like the rooms of a holiday home in winter. Grace felt like a visitor, no longer bound by the familiar rules that applied when her family was at home. She felt confident too, unable to put a foot wrong. The possibilities of the empty house seemed limitless.
Grace led him up to her bedroom. The winter bedspread had been replaced by a light cover, splashed with lime and yellow. The curtains sighed, lifted by a breeze from the open window. Spring sun slanted across Grace’s legs, and she felt the familiar tightening and breathlessness in her chest. She sat on the bed and drew Kit down beside her. He smiled, the freckles on his nose stretching, and offered his lips. His kiss felt as sweet and smooth as a green grape. Grace drew back, recalling a hot, salty mouth on hers, and looked at the closed bedroom door. She remembered the warm radiator ticking on winter evenings, the cool hank of shining hair that slipped forward to bump her cheek, the shaggy embrace of her dark- red winter dressing-gown against the door. The light in her room was too bright. Grace shivered. Closing her eyes, she clenched her empty fists and firmly pushed the boy away.
Deborah Kay Davies’ debut novel True Things About Me was released as a feature film in May 2022 starring Ruth Wilson and Tom Burke.
When the book was first released the BBC, the Culture Show named Deborah as one of the twelve best new British novelists. Published in the US by Faber, Lionel Shriver chose the novel as her personal Book of the Year in The Wall Street Journal. Deborah’s first work of fiction was a collection of short stories, Grace, Tamar and Lazlo the Beautiful, which won Wales Book of the Year. Her second novel, Reasons She Goes to the Woods, was long-listed for the Bailey’s Prize and short-listed for the Encore Award.
Her most recent novel, Tirzah and the Prince of Crows, published by Oneworld in 2019, was praised by The Observer for its ‘profound sense of place’ and described by The Daily Mail as ‘spellbinding’. Deborah has a PhD in Creative and Critical Writing from Cardiff University and has taught Creative Writing at Cardiff.