how is being back at school again? hope u good
lady, i’ve been chasing my tail mon-fri. xxoxo
She read his message late on Sunday morning, about three hours since he’d sent it. About three weeks since his last message. Relief and satisfaction washed over her like a warm wave. Followed by rising pleasure. The latter’s intensity like a dormant energy saver bulb just turned on, dull at first, then almost blinding. ‘So he really was busy with his new job,’ she breathed, curved lips stretching as she gazed at the two repeated letters. The stretch of the lips seemed to snap open something else and a bevy of butterflies’ wings beat up a cloud that bubbled and threatened to burst from her widening mouth. Which abruptly shut as she remembered something other than what Mum would say to the shriek. About bloody time. She closed the laptop with a clear click. She would reply later. A lot later.
His message was in fact a comment left below her current Facebook status, updated last night to indicate her imminent curling up with Coetzee and falling for his prose all over again. The same book she’d had in her bag that day, three weeks ago.
‘So what’re you reading right now?’ He’d asked after they’d benched in a sun-dappled spot near the gazebo and flowerbeds, deeper inside the Castle grounds.
She fished the slim grey copy of Youth from the pink bag that could barely contain itself, grateful to have something suitably highbrow in it. His eyes gleamed palely, haloed as he was by the brighter if more taciturn sun.
‘Ah, I’ve read Disgrace, you know the Booker winner… Is this good?’
She said she wasn’t sure yet, having only started it on the train up today. But she’d read and loved another of his, Foe. No Booker winner, but brilliant.
‘Another one, in fact, that was on the Postcolonial lit. reading list at Uni.’
‘But was it all good Postcolonial lit.?’
‘Well, it was all very obviously Postcolonial…’ Migration, clashing cultures, interracial relations… Tick, tick, tick…
Hmm, the young Bengali Muslim thought as she chatted to the charming young Malaysian Theist sitting near her. She could have been talking about their own lives. Partially. Potentially.
Later, after they’d argued the merits of lists and winners versus recommendations from real people and he’d pretend-elbowed her at the last comment, she’d flashed what she hoped was an amused rather than disappointed grin at the missed contact. Nevertheless, her fingers lingered over the deceptively slight volume he handed back, before bagging it and agreeing to continue her guided tour of suburbia, and of her guide’s new flat.
‘tht ws nice of him 2 send u a msg:-) somehow I knw u wd appreci8 his comment;-) butterflies! hehehe’
‘Look, if he really wanted to see you again, he would have come down by now – distance slash low on cash or not!’
‘He’s probably busy with his new job and flat, don’t forget what it’s like...’
Her friends’ advice, like the proverbial box of chocolates, merely echoed the mixed meanderings of her own mind. One moment she settled on a particularly delectable piece, only to suspect the next moment that it had an unpleasant centre. If any. Which reminded her, she never did like hollow chocolates, the kind whose holes or bubbles meant the thing disappeared before it was barely tasted, dissolving swifter than the passage of summer.
The steadily cooling autumn term dragged on, like a reluctant big coat. She’d replied to his comment late that Sunday, almost early Monday,
pretty sucky, otherwise same old. i am good thanks. how is being the new kid at school? hope all else is well?
Short and not too eager. At least one question. No Xs of course. Or Os. Satisfied, she’d posted the comment. And waited.
The ensuing days became busier in direct correlation to the traffic in her inbox growing quieter. Hardly surprising, seeing as most of her friends were also teachers. However, she noticed with mixed feelings that he still found time to update his Facebook status and leave equally concise and ambivalent words in reply to others’ posts.
‘NO. Facebook is a stalker’s paradise!’ One friend said for the umpteenth time, after her umpteenth refusal of their umpteenth request for her to join. She reflected on her own observance of his page ever since she’d accepted his friend request, sometime after their initial meeting and emails, shortly before the illicit meet-up up north. She found herself agreeing with her friend.
She used to think she was a patient person. Until she became a teacher. But now, even waiting for one of her bottom set year 7s to answer a closed question was a far more satisfying situation. At least the kid responded. In fact, he even demonstrated his understanding of the question type by asking a closed question of his own. So when she in turn reluctantly answered yes and let him go to the toilet, she decided that in this case it was the effort grade that counted. Whereas Mr Notts’s grade was plummeting faster than the temperature and light outside, now a murky mockery of former months.
Even the short walk home became an obstacle course as she dodged puddles of mud and decaying leaves that had once proudly sprouted with a healthier sheen. These now lay abandoned, a sodden brown sludge that stained her shoes and her memories of other tree-lined walks. She sucked in the raw October air as the wind whipped at her scarf and coattails, trying to kid herself that it was just a breezier than normal late summer day and the air invading her lungs warmer than it was. Her efforts failed. Like having withdrawal symptoms, she thought, recalling how she felt during the summer…
'Hey, just wanted to say goodbye and good luck for your interview, hope I see you again… And you're a very beautiful lady.'
Hey hey lady, how was the interview? I imagine you dazzled ’em… Next time I'm in London, let's see if we can meet up for a cup of tea or something. J x
nope, they haven’t called me yet either. but i got to meet u. i'm still supplying around notts… lets meet again next time we can. keep in touch pretty pretty lady. j xx
hello beautiful beautiful lady, london move plans have been halted, accepted a job here and moving into a flat… would love to see u again pretty lady but cash running low organising all this so not sure about a london trip before starting work… but if u free mid next week and near notts… xxoxo
'And you still look really beautiful.'
…and you look like the sun
When she met him at that interview. When she read his longer, more frequent emails. When she visited him on that stolen day… She had always wondered how genuine the attention was, if it was just harmless flirtation from a charming new friend. At least it was attention, as opposed to the vacuum in which she currently floated. Like a fried moth skimming the ground. Or a frozen gasp. Now, it was like trying to turn over an hour glass, before realising and then wondering if it had always been empty.
Finally, almost two weeks since that Sunday, she decided that, actually, her last comment didn’t, you know, really require a reply… and that she’d send a message that definitely did. If he didn’t this time, then that was it; time to move on. So she grabbed the next opportunity that seemed natural. By casually commenting on his new Facebook status, some kind of quote about griffins and gold, not least of all because it reminded her of the Harry Potter books. Thankfully she realised, if a good ten minutes later (she was still calculating her casual response) that it was probably from Herodotus, recalling him mentioning it as a fave. The casual comment was thus redrafted and edited as
hey that reminds me of a classical lit course i did at uni, fun times… are u gona be around london over the half term? would be great to see u if u r free…
and posted before she changed her mind. She shut down her laptop in order to make more of what was left of her weekend (maybe she could sort her beloved books into her new shelves… Or put up some posters on her recently whitewashed walls…), all the while agreeing, not for the first time, that sometimes white lies were better than the truth.
There. She lifted her fingertips from the corners, balled up the remaining blue-tack and stepped back.
Thick swirls of blood red versus deep blue. Wavy body dangling from the dull lightbulb of a head. Pinprick staring eyes and the red mark cutting the left pupil like a bloody stitch. Impossibly elongated O of a mouth. And the dark, austere figures in the distance, watching.
For a moment, she reconsidered putting up the famous image in her room, the white walls emphasizing the chalky highlights of the pale face and its surroundings. She’d always resisted before, thinking, But do I really want to wake up to that every morning? Now, it was the first thing someone else would see when they opened the door to her imperfect L shape of a room, positioned on that small wall like a KEEP OUT sign. Or at least a WARNING one, she thought with a suppressed grin. But it was a passionate canvas; that bloody sunset above the blue black fjord must’ve been spectacular, and that apparent terror gripping the central figure like an embrace nonetheless unforgettable. So she left it up. It would give her something else to think about.
Sunday came, went, left zilch. She resigned herself to the working week busily stretching ahead with even less possibility of a response. So it would be un understatement to say that she was pleasantly surprised to see an email from him at lunchtime.
Well, whaddya kn-
Mr Notts wants to keep up with you on Twitter. To find out more…
Funny how swiftly pleasant surprise can find itself rugby tackled and taunted by irritable disappointment. Another invite to join another social networking thingy. (As if.) Or perhaps it was more. Either way – he was thinking of her. She started to smile again, buoyed again, then deadpanned again as a colleague walked into the workroom. Not sure about joining, but might be fun to check it out later, at home. Thus, as the end of lunch bell rang and she headed off for her period five class, the butterflies trailed high behind her.
It was rather a strange word. A silly little word. Completely inadequate. One short stressed mono-syllable, beginning with that lulling onomatopoeic sound used to get children to be quiet, ending with that sharp, whip-like double consonant. A word normally associated with a strong jolt of sensation, totally arresting due to the force of its impact.
Yet she knew it was the right word. Even though all she felt was nothing.
It had been so easy to go to the Twitter website, to enter his name in the search and read his sole three posts, all entered that day. The first was in fact his current Facebook status, later repeated and left as his last post. It was that little one in the middle, seemingly in reply to his sole contact on there so far, that at first made no sense to her whatsoever, despite the rare simplicity of the message.
hey hey ivan… all is change here man, been working working and... expecting a baby with a lovely girl i have met here... poppa j in may!!!
When she remembered to breathe again she told herself that it had to be a joke. Yet, no matter how many times she re-read those casual lines, for a long, long while her open mouth could not be persuaded to make any other shape.
‘…it’s probably not a joke. It’s just not the kind of thing he’d joke about. Which means he’s at best, a player, at worst, a total wanker.’
‘OMGGG!!! AND, i actually said this out LOUD when I read yr mail! wat a bastard! i'm so sorry hun. no, actually u should feel relieved for such a lucky escape!’
‘…seems to me to be a classic case of men can be fickle, insensitive pigs. Stay away from him – if he's into free thinking then he may be in to free loving too. What an arse.’
And so on. Her friends, like loving furies, wielded the lashings she was unable to mete out. However, the strength of the united outrage was, if not a balm for the burned, then a scalding torrent welcomed by her frozen inner landscape.
Frozen, of course, soon became melting, then warming, for the eerie numbness was replaced by something considerably more stormy. A warm fizz beneath her cheekbones precipitated a hot surf that rose and crashed again and again against her ribs, drowning any pathetic creatures that might have once fluttered or rested there.
Continued surveillance of the suspect’s profiles and the discovery of further evidence referring to babies and congratulations confirmed her suspicions. Thus, rather than risk time and growing indifference drop kicking her existence far out of his, she decided to precipitate the reverse.
And so, before the fortnight was over, almost four months after she’d met him and accepted his Facebook friend request, she blocked him. (Alas, no more spying or photo-ogling!) Any other messages or phone calls would simply be ignored. (Although, chance would be a fine thing!)
(NO, actually, it wouldn’t!)
‘You don’t have to forget, just let him fade…’
Of course it was never real, probably could never have been. Too many waves to be made and fought in so shallow a basis. So, as galling as the reality was, at least she’d tried. In her own way. Put herself out there. Made the effort. Not exactly the stuff of epics, but she’d avoided the epic fallout that was the only certainty of risking deeper involvement and being made public. She could still walk away unhurt. -ish.
Finally, she made it to half term. Made it home, made it up the stairs, made the short distance from doorway to bed, onto which she promptly belly-flopped. And was then greeted by a screaming man. He looked exactly how she felt.
Or did he? It had been a long few months, but perhaps she wasn’t quite the same as she was, say, when she’d rested like this after a long day a few weeks earlier. Before Mum would called her down to dinner, complaining that she didn’t know how to cook it herself, then complaining again because she wasn’t eating enough of it. However, trusting her enough not to starve or die of malnutrition, the parentals had left her in charge of fending off the burglars while they took the chance to visit the homeland. Thus, as she pulled the big coat she was still wearing higher about her face, which she propped on her forearms, she was in no hurry to leave her current spot just yet, or to take her eyes off of that…
Sunset? No. She blinked, yawned and her eyes re-focused on the now somewhat tanned figure before her, as the golden orange highlighting the folds of her net curtains radiated further into the room and danced over the walls. Though the mouth maintained its O, rather than a scream during a bloody ending of a day, it could just have well have been an immense yawn during a brilliant beginning of another. Either way, whether or not it was a before, during or after shot, and whether or not it was involuntary, at least it was something. He was so alive. And afraid and flawed, possibly. But so passionate. And so himself, definitely.
Finally, finally, her own O of a mouth and raised arms settled to a more comfortable shape. Gently, but deliberately, she pulled herself up and stood in the brightening pool of brilliance, still tired, but ready.