Ella is 14. She has beautiful thick dark brown hair, perfect raw material for an indie-girl block fringe adorned with flowered festival crowns. Ella is however one of those teenagers who is angular, unable to tease her hair into sultry style or find clothes that compliment her still-more-child-than-adult figure.
"I've never even had a boyfriend," she tells me.
"What, not ever?" I ask in some disbelief.
"Nah, I say I had one on holiday and that one is best left on holiday, but it's not true."
She pauses thoughtfully for a moment.
"Maybe next year, when I save up and get some straightners and stuff. I know I'm not really very pretty." She goes on with a list of things she needs and wants to change about herself and I gently chip in and tell her she is pretty, actually. She nods in a noncommittal way.
I want to say it should be about more than just whether she has big breasts or straight hair or ladles of makeup but before I have time to consider how to shape these thoughts into a sentence I realise we're now talking about sex and how she's the only virgin amongst her group of friends.
"How do you feel about that?" I ask.
"Dunno." She shrugs. "Think I'd probably run a mile if the sex thing came up to be honest." She giggles and we both fall about laughing, saying "Oooh, no! Put it away!" gesturing to an invisible make-believe boyfriend and covering our eyes.
Ella tells me one of her friends might be pregnant but she doesn't know for sure yet. Apparently her friend had an abortion a couple of months ago but this time she wants to keep the baby if she is pregnant. Her boyfriend of two years is not keen. Another friend in the group has had five or six abortions.
"Gosh, what a major thing to have to go through," say I. Ella shrugs again and is pragmatic in her response, "Gemma says it's a real pain in the bum having to go to the doctors to get it signed off."
Ella goes on to tell me about a girl she doesn't like, who has a boyfriend and is known to have sex with other boys.
"She's a real slut" she says.
In the conversation that follows it isn't just the having sex with many boys, or the cheating on her boyfriend that add up to the term slut. The sense that the girl is arrogant plays a key part of it. And that her family has gone bankrupt. Basically she's a bit of a stuck up bitch and doesn't have the 'right' to be.
The class 'slut' has had one or two one-night stands. I ask Ella what she thinks of one night stands. To my (well-hidden) surprise she becomes quite animated.
"I'd LOVE a one-night stand," she exclaims, "it's one of my life long ambitions to have a one-night stand."
"Well, it's an adventure isn't it? I mean waking up in the morning and not really knowing who's next to you. And there could be like 7 or 8 guys in the bathroom, waiting to gangbang you, or you could get slaughtered, you just don't know!"
"You know, it could just be a night of mediocre sex and then waking up in the morning and having to get rid of the guy as quickly as possible?" I say. She giggles and agrees and goes on to show me Omegle.com.
Omegle, for the uninitiated, is an online 'chat roulette' system, that allows you to talk to 'randomers' on a one-to-one basis. You can text chat or video chat and disconnect any time you like. You have to be over 13 to use it but must have the permission of a guardian or parent if under the age of 18. We're on her phone and before I know it we're chatting to someone. The first question is 'asl' - Age, Sex, Location. Ella confidently types in '40, f, usa'. We get differing responses to that, some disconnecting immediately. We chat to nearly 10 randomers, never for more than a minute or two. We're always asked sex and age and we're usually asked if we have kiks or skype. Ella does have kiks as it turns out and takes me to the ap on her phone to show me some of the conversations she's had with boys.
Pretty much immediately they are offering pictures of their cocks in exchange for pictures of her tits. Immediately. Ella, amusingly, if rather bizarrely, tends to send them pictures of Ed Sheeran. Clearly none of these guys are particularly clued up on the teen music scene (which makes me question their asl...) as none of them seem to recognise who he is. All of them are shocked and quite outraged when they receive her picture, exclaiming 'You're a dude?!' or having a go at her for making a fool out of them. Ella laughs and is just clicking back into Omegle to give some apparent 17 year old male her kiks name when her mum comes in.
Ella sweeps off, telling her mum that we've been looking at Omegle, though her mum looks frankly blank. I wonder if 'knowing' your kid is on omegle qualifies as getting permission from a parent or a guardian.
I've been pretty cool throughout the conversation but I am shocked at how dark Ella's fantasies are. On the flip side fantasies are a way in which we play out and control our fears, making them (and ourselves) safe. In some senses Ella is using the sort of chat room technology that we hear so many scare stories about in order to arm herself with information about the opposite sex but interestingly she is categorically not playing to 'their' rules.