Memories are an environment, don’t you think? And the longer you live the more that environment grows; like bindweed perhaps or, if you’re lucky, roses tangled round a trellis. Now I find that no new experience comes alone: each arrives enmeshed in things of the past.
I think of this as I walk along the river, the water silver and grey, ochre near the bank where it reflects the autumn foliage. A cluster of small craft float, moored together in midstream, still as an island. Mist lies on the water like silence, and I think of the day, the early summer afternoon, the very quiet, still moment, when Geraldine kissed me. For a few seconds I can even feel the press of her lips on my cheek.
It was the other girls who’d started it, although the boys soon joined in. Puberty was the problem – it’s easy to see that in hindsight. Previously she’d been as inconspicuous as the rest of us. She and I had sat next to each other right through junior school and on into seniors. We had borrowed each other’s pens, caught each other’s bugs, and shared whispered answers to tricky questions, so that often we gave the same wrong answer.
I didn’t recognise her sudden blossoming, I genuinely didn’t, although now that seems inexplicable. I did notice the small gifts that started appearing on her desk. And the way some of the other boys began to stumble with their words when they spoke to her. They, I suppose, were the shy ones. Others started to ply her with embryonic chat-up lines, while she reddened and shrank.
I could tell she didn’t like it. Her head dipped and her long dark hair began to fall forward like a plea for privacy. Before long she stopped putting her hand up to answer questions. She spent more and more break time in the library. I could feel her withdrawing, even from me. If our shoulders touched when we shared a text book she would start and retreat, and soon there was an unbreachable inch of space between us, never before needed or even thought about.
Everyone’s skin is permeable. I know that now. Perhaps hers was more than most. She just didn’t want to stand out, and suddenly, unavoidably, she did. I can still frame her face: the lustre in her hair, the particular blue of her eyes and the small extra crease beneath the lower lids, the simplicity of her mouth and the default gentleness of her expression.
‘Stuck up cow.’ That was the moment it broke out. Before it had just been an atmosphere. Cora MacDonald, standing over her, staring down, Geraldine with her head bowed, not wanting to be seen. Teenage accusations are often wrong, or at least misplaced, but they’re fertile nonetheless. From that point on Geraldine did not fit in, would never regain the chance to.
Cora MacDonald was loud and physically strong. She had her coterie. They quickly fell in behind her. It wasn’t subtle, but it had no need to be. That very rare thing, a pure unblemished beauty, wished only to be invisible. All that was needed was to call attention to it.
Inevitably the boys started too, joining the pack, their teasing blunt with spite. What they couldn’t possess they could at least take part in destroying. I tried to protest and got my lip split. Geraldine looked at me and, almost imperceptibly, shook her head. Anything I did could only make it worse.
So I sat beside her – that was my one option: a single witness, each of us in our own form of exile. I watched as her spirit drew in on itself, as the space around her contracted, as the sense of her nearness diminished.
It stopped abruptly – the day our form teacher announced that Geraldine would be leaving at the end of term. No reason was given. Perhaps, in the moment of victory, the hunter finds compassion for their victim. Or perhaps that final brittle conquest allows them to see just what it is they’ve done. There were even some clumsy attempts at reconciliation, although it was clear Geraldine didn’t want those either.
The imprint of her lips fades from my cheek, and my mind returns to that final day of term, the last time I saw her. I’d said goodbye and walked away, but then heard footsteps running after me. When I turned she was there. She reached up, the press of her closed mouth gentle and deliberate, and then, somehow, I found myself alone, and for a few moments the world around me was silent.
Perhaps that was her parting gift: silence. She knew it better than most. The river mist is damp on my hair and clothes, the ash path still as a cloister, and I can hear no sound from the water.
About the Author:
Mike Fox has co-authored a book and published many articles on the human repercussions of illness. Now writing fiction, his stories have appeared in journals in Britain, Ireland, America, Australia and Singapore. His story Breath, published by Fictive Dream, was nominated for the Pushcart Prize 2019. His story Blurred Edges, published by Lunate Fiction, was nominated for the Pushcart Prize 2020. His story The Homing Instinct, first published by Confingo, was included in Best British Short Stories 2018 (Salt). His story, The Violet Eye, is available from Nightjar Press as a limited-edition chapbook. www.polyscribe.co.uk or @polyscribe2