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Maroon Knickers

by Mary McCluskey

She told him, in those dangerous moments after sex, as they lay in his bed, bodies damp, her breasts bruised like fingered fruit, a trickle of semen on her thigh, about the things she hadn’t known. The things she learned at aged ten, on her first time away from the council flats, the tenement block, when she stayed with a new schoolfriend, a girl who lived in a real house with a wooden gate and carpeting that stretched from wall to wall.

She learned that other people did not use neat squares of yesterday’s newspaper but kept a roll of toilet paper hidden under the pink lace skirts of a toy lady with an embroidered face.

She learned that some mothers cooked a hot dinner and ate with everyone else and stayed in the room, and did not go off to the pub at seven exactly, leaving a candy bar and a big brother in charge of the television remote.

She learned how things could be the same color – plates, towels, cushions. She learned what matched meant.

She learned that a girl, no older than she, could have her own little set of drawers, packed with white knickers and clean socks and nighties in soft cotton.

“I wore my brother’s old shirts to bed,” she said. “And wore maroon knickers, the school gym knickers, every day.”

“Maroon?” he said. “Really?”

“Can you imagine how rank they must have been? Worn every day and washed just twice a week in the bath, with my sister and me.”

“Jesus,” he said.

“Until then I thought everyone was like me, like my street friends. It’s as if the entire world expanded that weekend into some huge space with all these secrets I had to learn.”

“Wear the maroon knickers for me,” he said. “Dance for me in the maroon knickers.”


Mary McCluskey’s short stories have been published in the US, UK, Australia and Hong Kong. A few have won prizes, been included in anthologies or read on BBC Radio 4. She has completed a novel, which is now undergoing a brutal revision.

At the center of this piece: maroon knickers. What would you like to say about them, their role in the piece, their power as image, their connection to what is real, or anything at all?

Ah, those ugly knickers. Pretty ones wouldn’t have worked so well. I needed them to show how the past can haunt us and people surprise us. His desire to see her dance in the maroon knickers is unexpected. She will see that the world is still a huge space with secrets she has yet to learn.

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