[Comments and opinions very welcome!]
She smiled at me, I think. It was hard to tell, because she might have been smiling already and just happened to glance up and catch my eye, but I think it was for me.
Of course, that wasn’t why I walked over. I was with Danny, who was meeting Amy, and since the girls’ school broke up at 3.20 and we were in until 3.45 they would always come and wait outside the gates for us to come out.
It was quite a sight actually, with hindsight. Small groups of heavenly angels (surely they must have been as spotty as us?) would constellate outside the gates, each keeping furtively to themselves, applying make-up and touching up their hair in the grimy and fractured mirror of the vandalised bus stop.
When we came out of the gates they came quickly away from the mirrors and make-up, but did not deign to lift their make-up smeared eyelashes to us, excepting of course the one or two wildly enthusiastic screaming specimens whose excitement was only exceeded by the pitch of their voices. And excepting Olivia, who smiled. Probably.
Danny was taking Amy to prom, so the plan was to shop for dresses, a task to which I could pride myself in being only slightly less qualified than Danny. His role was to tell her she looked good, which would be helped by the fact that she would, at least to his eyes. My role was to keep Danny entertained, which would be hindered by the fact that Amy affected my tongue like salt on a slug. Olivia’s role was as yet as mysterious as that subtle smile.
We slowly wended our way down the street, past the smoking sixth-formers and the tutting and spluttering old women who might just have been waiting there since they had been checking make-up and flashing might-be smiles of their own. Amy was complaining about Maisy or Daisy who had been bitching about Lucy or Susie, the exact details seeming so much less important than the slightest hint of a bra strap through her white shirt, which for some reason seemed a resting place for my eyes more appropriate than Olivia’s eyes.
We wended our way down past the police station, through the churchyard, across the main road (you didn’t need to wait for the lights if you pushed the button and kept walking down, because it was one-way) and into town. As we went I first rolled up my sleeves, but then, worrying about the unsightly goosebumps, slid them down again, settling for an undone top button which was intended to look more alternative than it perhaps did.
We first went to the department store, where we walked around for what seemed like hours. Whatever Einstein said about time flying when it was spent with a pretty girl, he obviously didn’t go prom dress shopping. When we had traversed every aisle Amy had finally accrued five dresses to try on, and disappeared off to the changing rooms. But Olivia didn’t.
“You not been asked to prom Liv?” asked Danny, hands shoved awkwardly in his pockets, removed from his comfort zone of nodding and smiling.
She smiled again, I glimpsed her eyes looking shyly (or slyly) down in the second it took me to lose my nerve and look away, finding a sudden inexplicable interest in the nearby lingerie department, before the reality of my unnoticed shame dawned on me.
“Nah Dan. Not yet, anyway.”
She might have been looking my way, but regrettably her eyes weren’t on the floor so I can’t say I saw.
“Oh… Cool.” I think Danny must have won Amy’s heart with his way with words.
Amy returned, none of the dresses had fit, prompting her to claim she had gained weight, which Danny and Olivia quickly and confidently refuted, while I helpfully muttered something that was meant to be ‘no’, but wasn’t quite so well articulated.
The department store morphed into a high street shop, then a charity shop (very briefly, and more, it seemed, for comedy value), then another chain store, with sufficient time to walk disdainfully past the shops where all my clothes were from (excepting, of course, those bought by my mother).
Finally we returned, inevitably, to the first department store, where four more dresses were taken back to the dressing room. An awkward silence filled the air, once again my wandering eyes fell into the trap of the lingerie-clad mannequins, once again they darted away, this time they met Olivia’s smiling glance and I went still redder.
“You bringing anyone to prom then Matt?”
It took me a brief second to realise that Matt was my name. What to say? Words flowed rapidly through my mind without troubling to stop at my tongue. My mouth was dry.
“Erm, nah, don’t think so… Nah.”
There wasn’t much to say.
Amy returned, wearing a short blue dress that almost tore my eyes away from my shoes. Appropriate approving words were provided, and the dress was returned to the hangar for Mum and Dad to buy later.
We left the shop and went back down the street to the bus station where we would head our separate ways. Danny’s bus was there when we arrived, and with a quick peck on Amy’s lips he was gone, leaving me with the girls, shuffling from foot to foot.
Amy was next to go, leaving with a kiss on the cheek for Olivia and a smile for me that never quite reached her mouth, let alone her eyes. It was just the two of us left, listening to roar of traffic. I bit my lip.
Olivia’s bus pulled in, a number thirty-one, single decker, heading out to Trenton, so it said. I didn’t know where she lived, indeed my geography was so poor I couldn’t even have said where Trenton was. I bit harder.
I caught her eyes properly for the first time. They were a deep brown, so chocolatey you could almost taste them. She smiled, definitely this time. At me.
“See you round.”
* * *
I would have considered myself an open-minded person, but I knew as soon as I saw the croquet set that I shouldn’t have come.
Danny, the birthday boy, had his back to me as I arrived, almost as if he was ashamedly concealing the mallet in his hand, which I for one felt would have earned him some credit. The boy next to him (spectacularly pink in both pastel shirt and Englishly sunburnt face) could make no such claim, openly displaying his ridiculous by using his own instrument to prop himself up, while swigging an unspecified liquid from what looked to be (if such things exist) a tie-dyed mug.
I stood for a moment, my mind churning in an unspoken frenzy as to the propriety of interrupting a game of croquet. A deliciously plumy voice from my left came to my rescue.
“Oh are you one of Daniel’s friends from home? Was it you at trashings? It is Chris, right?”
Chris had always been considered very attractive at school, which leant a benign edge to my apprehension as to whether a trashing was something with which one would want to be associated.
“No… no, its Matt actually. But yeah, from Danny’s school…” I had never been so aware of my elocutionary defects, but thankfully my plumy guide took it in her immaculately enunciated stride.
“Oh right, of course, I’m so sorry. I’m Lucrece, as in the rape of, you know, but my friends call my Lucy…” She trailed off, as the impeccable composure with which she had described her sexual-assault-based etymology floundered as to whether I was to be counted as ‘friend’. She recovered splendidly, flashing a wide (friendly?) smile. “I’m Daniel’s girlfriend.”
A lightbulb flashed in my head, but since it originated in some barely remembered Facebook stalking I thought it had better remain unspoken. So this was Lucy Winterton, of airbrushed-and-on-horse profile picture fame. With surprise I realised she scrubbed up far better in the flesh, something which was unthinkable for the girls back home. They must do things differently here.
Looking back there must have been some diversity there (I’m sure I remember a Becky in blue Doc Martens who offered me a can of Strongbow), but between the croquet and the English sparkling wine (certainly not Champagne, I was told, as I was handed a glass and a joke about the Eurozone bubbling over), I quietly found myself drowning in a sea of Sebastians, Bellas and Toms, and even the Tom was on course for a first.
Eventually I found my way to Danny, on a break between matches (sets? innings?).
“Matt mate! Great to see you! How long have you been here?”
“Not long man, the train was delayed…”
“Oh cool. Have you played croquet?”
I think it was at that moment I made the decision I was going to get the last train back to Reading.
With hindsight I suppose I was insecure, that their posh drinks and posher voices made me acutely aware I was a cider and glo’al stops boy. But it also seemed not quite to be real life, in the way that a dream might not be terrifying, but in its endless movements of time and space it is not quite so nice as the warm bed beneath it. What’s more, one girl kept quoting Sartre.
Eventually, flitting from debates on American presidential debates to arguments on the need for peace in Afghanistan to enthusiastic endorsements of the significance of wine bottles without those pesky screwtops, I found myself alone leaning on the garden wall (the children on the other side were making disconcertingly realistic siren noises), from memory sipping slowly from Becky’s Strongbow. I knew when I got home I might be able to catch some friends coming home from the pub where they would be watching the football, “some friends” who might include amongst them a certain Kate Li, the thought of whom produced an irresistible lightness to my being.
“Long time no see Matt.”
Her long hair was gone, reduced to a boyish length with a dark fringe that led me to those ever chocolate-brown eyes which exerted almost as irresistible a pull as the flash of cleavage from her dark green dress. Olivia. I recognised her at once, of course, but she seemed so out of place here that she made as much sense as all the other elements of this dream-world.
“Shut your mouth, Matt, you’ll catch flies.” I blushed, not just at her words but also at that smile. Three years of university had led me to the ludicrous confidence that I could do the whole girl thing now, but those three years had not counted on Olivia Wood.
She took a seat next to me, pulling her long bronzed legs to her chest (what a dress!) as the sun disappeared behind a mite of a cloud, and the coolness of the evening made itself known. I went for the conversation topic that had been dominating my internal monologue all afternoon.
“You didn’t fancy croquet either then?”
She smiled, not knowing (as, to be fair, I myself didn’t) how one was expected to respond to such a proposition. “Nah, not really my scene.” There was a distressing silence.
“So, how’s Uni?” I blurted. “Are you finished now, right?”
“Yeah I am, until next year, fingers crossed.”
“Oh are you a four-year course?” I knew that I knew what she was studying, but in my moment of conversational need it had fled.
“Nope, but next year might be a PGCE, if I get my grades.”
Obviously, it is unsurprisingly that a graduate might want to be a teacher, and indeed I knew numerous friends who were taking (or thinking of taking, if plan A collapsed) the same option, but to my mind that Olivia was doing such a thing was akin to the news that the first bacteria had grown legs. I suppose I was lucky that that wasn’t the first thing I said in response.
“Do you want to be a teacher?” Even now I am impressed by my insightful line of questioning.
“Wouldn’t you want to be taught by me?” She smiled again, giving me a look that just moments before would have left me dumbstruck, but inspired by my recent success I was motivated to take up conversational arms again.
“I’d be scared the kids would hate me”
She laughed again, but only in the way girls often do, independently of whether you’ve said anything funny. “I wasn’t, until I came here. I bet this lot would have murdered me for misspelling Fortley-Smythe on their reports.”
“Oh I don’t know. See that guy over there, in the pink shirt?”
She followed my gaze, to the group engaged in an increasingly threatening debate as to whether we could think without language, where the croquet player from earlier was gazing into space with a vacant expression. “What about him?”
“Apparently his surname’s Jackson.”
She looked at me with terrifying blankness.
“So you’d be fine in the report?”
It wasn’t funny, but she smiled anyway. “So what are you doing next year?”
I had reached the point where I knew I would quite like to be a writer, but not quite progressed far enough to be able to deny to myself that it was a ridiculous suggestion. “I’m not sure really. Maybe journalism. Maybe writing…”
“What would you write about?” She was looking right at me, almost as if she might be interested. I desperately cycled through my legion of unfinished opening chapters, searching for one that might sound impressive.
“I don’t know.”
She laughed. “You’ll figure something out.” The sun was dipping now, and the light was beginning to fade. She got up, smoothing down her dress, and walked over to the abandoned mallets, smiling back over her shoulder. “So, call me crazy, but fancy a game?”
I checked the time on my phone. 9.07. It was a long old walk to the station. I’d already texted Kate to say I’d be there. Not that she had replied, but still. I hesitated, the sound of birdsong filling the long silence.
“I’m sorry, I better head home.”
* * *
It took three rings (and a firm nudge beneath the ribs) before it registered that the untimely call was not a fittingly absurd addition to a dream that had already taken in a chocolate lake and a dancing duel with my dentist.
I fumbled for the jumper which we used to cover the too-bright lights of the digital alarm clock. 2:41. Hoping groggily that the ringing had not woken Holly, I picked up the phone and mustered the best of my sense-making skills.
Someone was snuffling intermittently.
“Hello? Who is this?” I panicked. “Jess, is that you?” Obviously it couldn’t have been, she had been in when we had gone to bed, and (bless her) was far too tame to have snuck out, and even at that age couldn’t have been lazy enough to ring the home phone rather than come downstairs to knock on our door.
The sniffs continued, and then a voice. “Sorry Matt…” Rejuvenated sobbing. “It’s… it’s me, Olivia.”
I rolled over. Rachel squinted at me, her look betraying concern, sleepiness, and the fact she lacked her contact lens. I mouthed Olivia’s name at her. She rolled and closed her eyes and snuggled back under the covers.
“Hold on a second, Olivia, I’m going to get the phone downstairs.”
She snuffled her assent.
I clambered out of bed, feeling the cold draft of a winter night before the central heating kicked in. Having wrapped myself in my dressing gown (a father’s day present, and a far more useful one than the build-your-own tram that had followed it last year), I eased the door open and shut, and edged into the corridor, feeling the benefit of the new thick carpet we’d installed only a few months earlier.
Edging down the stairs was an ordeal at which I was not unpractised (I think at that point I was still very much in a doctorphobic denial of the possibility of my prostate’s involvement), but I still held my breath at every creak, dreading I would hear the tell-tale whimpering. Eventually I made it into the living room, where I picked up the phone and curled up on the sofa, knowing that if I shut my eyes I would be asleep in no time.
“Olivia? I’m here”
“I’m so sorry Matt, I’m so sorry.” Her words were slightly slurred, I judged, now she had finally produced a whole sentence.
“What happened? Is it Darren.”
Darren was her third fiancé. I had only met him twice, as he and Olivia had moved up to Manchester for his work. I had reached the point in life where I now intuitively knew that men with tattoos and shaved heads were suspicious (especially if they were near Jess), but Darren had supplemented these telltale signs with a refusal to come to the theatre with us because there was greyhound racing on.
“He… he… he hit me Matt, he hit me.” Her voice broke, and deep gasping sobs flooded out.
“Oh Ol…” I had nothing to say, but we’d had these conversations before, and I had soon realised all that was needed was that I say nothing at all. My eyes still prickled though.
She sobbed on. More awake now I closed my eyes, wishing once again I could pull her close, but now only for a long (probably damp) hug, and to wipe tears from those chocolate-brown eyes. A lot had changed over the years, the boyish hair had grown and ill-advisedly stained itself blonde, the slender figure had swelled in all the wrong places, but through it all those rich smoky-brown eyes remained.
Twenty years ago that might have been the sum of my memories, but that croquet day had changed everything. As her hair grew so did my appreciation of her humour, but as her hair turned blonde so her smile was more regularly strained. I winced at the metaphor, but smiled at the smile.
She had become a teacher, as she had wanted, but she hadn’t enjoyed it – she blamed the red tape, but I think the children might have had something to do with it. She had taken a job as some kind of analyst (junior manager? researcher?) for a large multinational in London, and while she’d hated it she seemed to have loved life at the time – we lived close to one another at the time, and we’d spent many a long night with a Chinese and Rachel and Oliver (of all the fiancés he was the best, if only for the name) setting the world (and, in particular, our rowdy neighbours) to the rights. She sobbed on, and I wept too.
She’d lost that job when she lost Oliver (the two, from what I remember, weren’t connected) and just as I finally, improbably, took Rachel down the aisle, Olivia’s life started to fall apart. After Oliver came Richard, who brought with him bruises and tearful phonecalls, and after unspecified office-work came unemployment. It was hard to hold together a job when she couldn’t quite hold together a conversation.
“Matt?” She cut across my memories.
“I know Ol, it’s ok.”
I laughed out loud. “I’d say sleepy, in the main.” A noise somewhere between a laugh and a sneeze came down the phone. “Do you really want to talk about me?”
“Please… I haven’t had a chat in days…”
I was surprised, and faced the not unfamiliar, but still uncomfortable challenge of trying to arrange my life into a story worth telling. Jess, Holly, Rachel (I hadn’t really, I would have to confess, ever gotten over the running around after girls). You reach a certain moment in life where you realise that, as important as it is to you, no one wants to hear any more about Jess’s GCSE results (excellent, thanks for asking, better than Jack next door with the loud speakers and tattoo) or Rachel’s dentist appointment.
“It’s good, Ol, it’s really good. Last night I watched a film with Holly.”
“Oh God how old’s she now?”
“One and a half.”
“Oh… what film was that then?”
“Apocalypse Now.” She laughed again, less phlegmily now.
“Is that one of her favourites?”
“I think she found the ending a bit of a snoozefest, but that was the point I suppose.”
There was a long easy pause. I could almost taste the Chinese takeaway.
“Do you remember when we went shopping before your prom with Amy?”
I laughed. “Yeah. Why?”
“I really fancied you.”
I laughed again. “Why?”
“We all make mistakes when we’re young, I suppose.” I could picture the twinkle in her eye, the smile on her face.
“You’re a twerp.”
Another pause. With a jolt I remembered just a minute before she had been in tears.
She sighed, but her voice stayed clear. “No. No, I’m not. I hate it Matt, I hate it… You know when you’re watching a film, and it’s going ok, and you’re just getting into it, and then suddenly it all goes so so wrong, and you wish it would change back but you know it won’t? That’s how I feel.”
“Sounds like Apocalypse Now.”
She didn’t laugh this time, but I hoped she smiled.
“I better let you go back to bed… Is there school in the morning?”
“Jess walks most days. Probably flirts with susceptible young men, but what can you do?”
“It’s alright, they’re probably too busy staring at lingerie mannequins anyway.”
I laughed again.
“That’s not even a name you turnip.” And with that she hung up.
I closed my eyes, curling into the dressing-gown for warmth. It hurt that she wasn’t ok, but it had hurt for a while. I contemplated the idea of going to Edinburgh and showing Darren what I thought of him, but (as I had realised before on numerous occasions) the only result would be Olivia would have a smug-but-angry fiancé and a sheepish-and-broken friend. Friend.
I opened my eyes, which, by chance, were focused on the fireplace. The photo of the four of us was there, the professionally shot one in the plain white studio which I’d bought Rachel for her birthday. We’d played around with props for what seemed like forever; Holly wouldn’t stop crying, Jess was close to mutiny, Rachel was close to tears.
But then, out of nowhere, the mood changed. Rachel had made a joke, I think, but I can’t even remember what. Jess laughed, which dragged me out of my semi-complacent sulk (I might have paid, but I still thought it was a ridiculous idea), and even Holly cracked a smile. The photograph clearly wasn’t quite right: none of us are looking at the camera and I (completely by chance) look as if I’m about to drop Holly. But it worked. I smiled.
I pulled myself to my feet, and turned to the door. My second novel was sitting, I noticed, on the arm of the other sofa, upturned and open. Jess had awful taste, but we all make mistakes when we’re young.
I crept back up the stairs, stopped off (inevitably) in the toilet, slid back into my room and clambered clumsily back into bed. Rachel reversed into me, her skin so warm against mine.
“Is she ok?” she mumbled, stroking my leg.
Rachel made a contented muffled buzz of acceptance. Her hair still smelt of tea-tree. I wanted a tea-tree, I reflected, we should get one for the garden.
She made another incomprehensible noise I understood instantly. I smiled.
* * *
It was a remarkably bright winter afternoon, the type where paradoxically it’s colder than when it’s overcast or wet. The sounds from the road were muffled slightly by the intervening trees, but presumably that effect would have been greater when the trees were fully stocked with leaves.
At first, the churchyard was utterly empty. It was a slightly haphazard place: some of the more recent graves were aligned in rows, and there were paths through the forest of headstones, but in the main there was no rhyme or reason to the arrangement of Harold Rowlands (1802-1829) and Mary Brown (1991-2004), although most of the stones were at least a uniform grey colour, probably from a shared local quarry.
At an apparently arbitrary spot, perhaps two thirds of the way from the church entrance to the main road nearby, there was a larger structure, that to the uneducated eye may well have been a crypt, maybe containing the bones of several generations of the local gentry. Such details could not be verified without a close expection, and even that would not betray the current fate of the esteemed and interred’s latest-of-kin.
Now the faint sounds of singing from within the church (an old hymn, that even a generation earlier would have been well known, but now was barely even mumbled by whatever congregation lay within. A long pause followed, where neither bird nor beast disturbed the aching peace that filled the graveyard.
A dull clunking of the bolt heralded the opening of the large church door, a historic monument to what a 1970s architect presumed medieval people might have used. The door swung open, and two slightly-too-fat men in black suits and ties shuffled out, looking back over their shoulder nervously, precisely as if pursued by the dead.
The dead, in this case, was encased in the (fourth) most expensive coffin money could buy in the local undertakers, and was carried with solemn dignity by three men of varying ages, and with wheezing concentration by an only slightly chubby teenager, whose footsteps were tantalising close to being in time with his companions. The men in black covertly regarded the sagging corner with some trepidation.
Behind this hardworking foursome came an impressive procession. A middle-aged woman in a black dress was first, her eyes as dry as long-dead firewood, accompanied on one side by a slightly taller and much younger woman, who (even with the pared-back make-up she had painstakingly chosen for the occasion) was eye-turningly beautiful, right down to her teary blue eyes. On the other side of the older woman was a child of five or ten (it’s so hard to tell), dressed in a black box dress almost precisely as Google had recommended, her face registering the deeply earnest sincerity of a girl who knows she is being grown-up, and the wondering (and wandering) eyes of a lost sheep.
The rest of the assembled crowd, walking artificially slowly at the pace a tired and desperate boy carries a coffin, were a motley bunch. They were young, in the main, although there were a dispersed collection of hunched grey-haired figures who must have made such a walk many times before, and may well have been slyly weighing up the competition as to who might be next in the casket.
Equally rare, and just as conspicuous, were the young, whether the erratically dressed children who inquisitively tugged their parents’ sleeves only to be met with variously icy or sympathetic glares, or the self-conscious teens who had not yet learnt to deal with the voyeuristic guilt of watching the last movement of this bland but friendly man, who they had just now heard was apparently once a boy of their own age, before he entered the mysterious worlds of marriage and novels and the long and valiant fight with the cancer that ultimately overcame him. A less generous observer might have noticed that only the first of this illustrious triplet was on their minds, and in a rather cruder form.
In the main though, the mourners were men and women that the stoopers would label as young, the teens would dismiss as old, and that they themselves would gawp at with eyes that could not yet process that the first of their own generation had died, shattering their long-maintained claims to be young at heart. Some seemed less perturbed at this than others, one (without even bothering to look suspicious) was checking his phone and smiling, presumably because United were already winning.
At length the coffin reached the recently dug hole, joining one of the neater lines of headstones, to the left of Margaret Garner but in front of the rather garish white cross of William Carter (1955-2010; That’s all folks!). To the left of the hole was a mound covered by a green cloth that might have been made of the same material as a snooker table. The carriers (gratefully) handed their burden to the men in black, who efficiently laid it on the cloths which lay across the grave mouth.
A priest came to stand in front of the coffin, as the crowd shaped themselves into a watching crescent, no one quite sure as to how eagerly to edge themselves to a prime viewing spot. The lady in the black dress was at the front, just behind the priest, her eyes dry like the sky, her hands awkwardly clasped in front of her, without the hand they might have held.
Eventually the crowd settled into place, the coffin was lowered gently, and the priest throw down some dirt from one supposes ought to be called a dirt-bag, intoning words that might have meant something to someone in an unknown past. The small girl stepped forward, armed with a white flower she had produced from nowhere, and (with a moment’s hesitation) dropped it down after the wooden box. Even the United fan had pocketed his phone.
After a brief moment, where the muffled cars seemed louder than before, the priest spoke again, less formally now, with mention of tea and gratitude and refreshments. Evidently no one wanted to be the first to abandon mourning for coronation chicken, even the portliest man in black whose longing gaze betokened a past of countless slightly stale sandwiches, so it took the movement of the woman in black back towards the church to break the spell. She, and her girls, took up position to shake the slowly filing hands of those who were not quite as hopeless as themselves.
In a surprisingly short time the crowd had almost totally vanished, and from the other side of the church the sound of uncertainly broached conversations began. At last, there was only one figure left, a plainly dressed woman, who had she tried might have passed for thirty, but as it was a tear-and-mascara-stained forty-whatever. She laid down a small bouquet, and stayed crouched for a few seconds; she might have been praying. Then she stood, wiped her chocolate-brown eyes, and with a sodden smile hugged the black-dressed woman who had silently come to her side.