At sixteen there was so much you didn't yet know, so little you could face with confidence.
You were still learning how to watch the others, picking up the right words to say, the right things to talk about. You were beginning to understand their reactions, starting to see when it would be better to laugh off a clumsy comment as a failed joke. You almost knew when you shouldn't say what you really thought, or felt.
You already understood that it was better if you looked ok. So, as you got ready that New Year's Eve, you applied the lilac shimmer eyeshadow, oh so carefully. You stroked the black mascara over and over your lashes, eyes staring, mouth wide open, glancing every now and then at the dress hanging on the cupboard door. You still weren't quite sure about the dress, even though you'd saved for weeks, setting aside the money earned from your Saturday job in Woolworths; even though you'd taken the number 3 bus up to Oxford Circus and spent almost a whole day browsing through the racks downstairs at Top Shop. You'd practised how to use the hair tongs, how much hair to slip between the metal jaws, how long to hold it before your hair would singe.
You'd told your Dad you were going out, but not where you were going. He hadn't asked, hadn't really paid attention, seemed quite relieved. You were too wrapped up in your own plans to wonder what Mum was doing, who she'd be spending New Year's Eve with. You didn't even think about your sisters.
There was no need to hesitate at the door of the Railway Tavern, you knew the others would already be in there, that someone would offer you a gin and bitter lemon as soon as you arrived, so you didn't have to go to the bar yourself. You had no cause to worry about being under age, this was already your regular pub, where the landlord valued his 'young crowd' and didn't ask any questions.
Before long it would be time to leave the pub, pile into the orange Hillman Imp that waited outside and head off to Streatham. To the Cat's Whiskers, the one-time Locarno Ballroom, the only place in South London to spend New Year's Eve. You'd never met the boy squashed in next to you, though you'd heard his name at school. He didn't try to talk to you, but shared a friendly smile that reached his eyes, that made you feel ok.
You didn't know then that he'd stay by your side all evening, that he'd be the one who'd kiss you when the clock struck twelve, the one who'd ask for the last slow dance at the end of the night, the one who'd walk you three miles home and the one who'd take you to the pictures the following week.
And you didn't know then, that it wouldn't get any better than that. That for the next year you'd try so hard. That you'd turn up at the Railway Tavern every Friday and Saturday, knowing he would walk you home; even though he hadn't bothered to take you there himself, or call to see if you were coming. You'd be so ridiculously pleased, so grateful, on those Thursday afternoons when he'd telephone, just after you'd both finished watching Little House on the Prairie, when he knew you'd be at home, that you'd pick up the phone, that he wouldn't have to explain himself to your sister or your Dad.
You didn't know that you'd spend fifty-two weeks putting a circle round the days in your diary, the days when you saw him or spoke to him. Marking the days to show this was something, each circle a proof that he must really like you. Not wanting to ask any questions of him and not brave enough to talk to your friends. Telling yourself this was how things should be.
At seventeen there are still so many things you don't understand, but you know a little more.
You know that there will be another New Year's Eve and another night at the Cat's Whiskers. You know that there will still be a quiet boy. By the time the clock strikes twelve, you will also know that however carefully you get ready, however hard you try, his friendly smile will be for another girl, not you.