Whenever my Mum asked me why I didn't ask Eliza Myszkowzki out, I always gave her the same answer.
When Eliza moved here from Poland, she was the talk of the school. It was like she was a celebrity or something. Shows how little goes on in this shithole of a town. I remember seeing her for the first time on my way to biology class. Two girls were hanging onto her arm and she looked just about ready to murder someone. She swept by in a swish of blue hair, and I felt myself turning to watch her go. I wasn't the only one. I heard a wolf whistle stalk her down the corridor, to which Eliza responded with a rude gesture. I smiled, continuing to class. I decided I liked her already.
I saw her again at lunch time. She was sat poking at her school dinner, with twelve or so students fighting for her attention like a pack of lions with a piece of meat. They all spoke in loud voices, obviously thinking she was incapable of understanding English. I sat down with my friends, but ignored most of their usual chatter in favour of watching her. I watched her hand move subtly to the hearing aid on her left ear. She fumbled around with it for a moment, and then, with a look of relief, settled down to continue eating her pasta in peace. After ten or so minutes, the crowd seemed to click on to the fact that they were being ignored, and slowly began to ignore her in return. Eliza smiled to herself, looking up and catching my eye. I hastily looked away, realising she'd caught me staring. For the remainder of lunch, I tried to stop my eyes from wandering over to her, but I still noticed when she dumped her tray and left the hall.
She was still on my mind when I sat down in my P.E theory class. Her hair, in particular, dogged me. I've always loved coloured hair. Blue, especially, ever since I watched Scott Pilgrim vs the World. Her hair was like water; ripples of blue falling to her shoulders. Mind you, her hair could have been snot green and I still would have found her attractive, even if I didn't truly learn to appreciate her until later. I'd later notice the little cluster of freckles on her nose. The shiny, crumpled up skin on her shoulder where she was burned by a firework accident. The way her snub nose was the only thing she and her sister shared in looks. But until then, I would look at her the way you look at some modern art; with admiration of its beauty, but without understanding.
But I certainly didn't miss the moment when she entered the room. She was five minutes late; class had already started. The teacher stopped in the middle of his rant about the effects of exercise, and looked at her in disapproval. And then she parted her lips in a sugar sweet smile, clutching a textbook to her chest.
"I'm new here," she said. Her accent was thick, but she spoke confidently, her voice soft and silvery. She was clearly comfortable with the English language.
"Ah, yes. Eliza. I was told you'd be joining us. Take a seat over there by Jonny. Jonny, give Eliza a wave."
I groaned internally, looking over at Jonny. We've been best friends since primary, but he's, to put it politely, a bit of a dick. He waggled his eyebrows at Eliza, raising his hand in greeting. Eliza looked doubtful as she dumped her bag at the desk and slumped into her seat. I think she sensed Jonny is a bit of a douche. He kind of has that sort of vibe.
I turned back to look at the teacher, drumming my fingers on the desk restlessly. The teacher opened his mouth to continue, but then caught sight of something and cocked his head.
"Eliza, is something wrong?"
I turned to see that Eliza was forcefully squinting, eyebrows furrowed together.
"Sir, I have forgotten my glasses. Could you please move me to a seat closer to the front of the classroom?"
The teacher sighed "I suppose." He pointed to the seat next to me "Charlie's usual class partner isn't in today. You can take her seat."
That's me! She's moving next to me!
Eliza gave the teacher a winning smile and said something in Polish, to which the teacher replied with an awkward nod. I watched Jonny slump into his chair, disappointed as he watched Eliza move next to me. I had forgotten how to breathe. The whole time the teacher was talking, I was trying to focus on making my lungs work, seeing as they couldn't seem to function on their own. But when the teacher began to hand out worksheets for us to complete, I began to panic. I had no clue what I was doing, and I was almost certain that Eliza was going to talk to me, and my mind was in a frenzy as I tried to think of something intelligent to say.
Eliza emitted an obnoxiously loud cough to get my attention and looked me up and down. It was sort of intimidating. I narrowed my eyes in return, and we kept it up for a few minutes, until finally I said "I didn't realise you'd be this good at staring people down. I was mistaken. I'm Charlie."
Finally, Eliza cracked a smile "Hmm. Charlie. Now I know the name of the boy who was not-so-casually staring at me from across the hall! It's nice to meet you."
"I was just admiring your hair."
"At least someone likes it. My mother was very mad when I dyed it," she said, fluffing up the roots self-consciously. I noticed she had several sewing needles pinned onto the sleeve of her blazer, and for some reason, it made me want to smile.
"No talking please, Eliza," the teacher said. She threw me a side glance and rolled her eyes, smiling a little. I picked up my worksheet, ripping the corner of it and trying to make sense of the words on the page. I should have been listening. Eliza was already scribbling her answers onto the sheet. She caught me watching her again and smirked.
"Did you listen to a word he was saying?" she whispered. I squirmed, knowing she'd caught me out and she grinned, before pushing her worksheet towards me.
"Go on. You owe me."
I nodded gratefully, and started copying out her answers. But Eliza still consumed my mind, and the words before my eyes were meaningless scribbles in comparison to her. She was already carved clearly in my mind; like a drawing sketched in dark, clear pencil. I'd spend weeks wishing I could draw her, or write a song about her, or even take a photograph of her. It was a sad sort of puppy love; desperate and sudden and totally unwanted. But it was there all the same, and by the end of that P.E class, I'd decided to establish a friendship with her.
She was the first up and out of the classroom. Always a step ahead. But I wasn't just going to let her slip away. I shoved past my classmates to get the door first and followed her down the corridor. It occurred to me that I was acting like a fangirl, which she really didn't need. But I'd never been drawn to a person the way I was drawn to her before.
She turned, frowning as I caught up to her.
"I will be late for class..."
"I was just wondering...after school. Can I maybe show you around town? I mean, if you want to. I just noticed you're sort of on your own and-"
"I would love to. I will meet you by the gate at three o'clock," Eliza said, flashing me a smile. Before I could reply, she was gone. I watched her disappear into the crowd, until I couldn't even see the blue of her hair.
Jonny clapped me on the shoulder and I closed my eyes, trying not to hit him.
"No seriously, bro. You're the only person who's made any progress with her at all!"
"I'm just showing her around..."
"...apparently Michael was trying to talk to her at lunch and she just switched off her hearing aid, so she didn't have to listen to him! It doesn't surprise me, of course, he chats shit...but that girl's a tough cookie, Charlie. Good luck cracking that nut!"
Jonny let go of me and headed off for class, and I went to Health and Social feeling uplifted. The whole day, I was thinking of where I'd take her. Ormskirk isn't the most happening place, but I know all the nooks and crannies. By the time I met her by the gate, not only did I have the whole trip planned, but I'd also shook off my nervousness. After all. Eliza was just a person. A new and exciting person to talk to, but just a person. And though I knew I had to make a good first impression, and the pressure of first conversations made my stomach flutter, I somehow knew we would get along.
It was cold, and sleet was starting to fall. I was wrapped up tight in my duffel coat and thick scarf, but Eliza hadn't bothered with a coat. She wore a thin pair of gloves and a navy jumper under her blazer, but I still couldn't believe how little she was wearing.
"Aren't you cold?" I shivered.
"This is nothing. Poland is freezing. Although my knees are cold...I should invest in some tights."
"Well you're managing to make me colder. Let's get walking."
Eliza shoved her hands into her blazer pockets and walked close to my side. We dodged the gangs of noisy year sevens and grumpy tenth years and hurried down Wigan road. It's only a ten minute walk into the town centre, but I'd forgotten my hat and soon I was soaked through and shivering.
"This must be very different to Poland," I said eventually, when the pathway was a little quieter and we'd moved past the other school kids.
"I suppose it is. Krakow is big and this town is very small. I have never travelled much, though I always wanted to. We were saving money to come here. So it's a big change, yes. But I like the quiet. And the weather is nicer in winter here. I don't have such a runny nose anymore."
"My Dad has been to Krakow. He said it's a beautiful place."
"It is. I...I miss it. Very much. And I've barely been away a month. It is hard, you see. Coming to a whole new country where they do not speak your first language. And you leave all your family behind to start over in England. I know many people who have done it. And my friends who left wrote letters to me. They told me of England's beauty and prosperity. And so...and so I am confused when I arrive. It is very...grey, here. I am used to colour. You have heard of St Mary's Basilica in Krakow, yes?"
I shook my head, feeling stupid. I half expected her to call me an uncultured swine, but she proceeded to explain.
"It is a Gothic style church. It is incredibly beautiful; there is so much colour. Everywhere you look, figures made of gold and beautiful paintings. All the wood in the pews is shiny and polished. All of the altar is lit by candles. Such a lovely place to worship. That is kind of what I thought England would be like. Bright and new and exciting. But it is very different. And though I think I will like it here, it is going to take me some time to call it home, you know? I call home the place where my family is, where my heart is full of love at all I see." Eliza blinked a little, and smiled sheepishly, "I am sorry. I did not mean to talk so much about myself. I did not realise how much I wanted to talk about home."
"It's OK, honest! I like to hear about other people's lives. People who have more excitement in their lives than me, at least. Somehow, it gets a bit boring listening to people gossip about who kissed who at which party all the time."
Eliza smiles "But you must have something of interest in your life."
I shrug "Not particularly. I study hard and get decent grades. I keep to myself. I follow the rules. I go to parties if Jonny wants to hook up with a girl. I make small talk with everyone while he makes out with said girl on the stairs. I go home every day and let my Mum read my tea leaves. She does tarot cards too, and palm readings. I've tried telling her that it's better to have some mystery in your future, but since Dad left...I suppose she doesn't like surprises. I suppose a few surprises might lighten up my life. Everything's so routine."
"Your mum tells fortunes?"
I nodded "Her Grandma was part of a circus. She travelled all over the country with them. She'd set up her stall outside the main tent, and as people went into the circus, they'd pay a penny to have their fortune told. I'm not sure I believe in it all, but I pretend, to please Mum. It gives her some peace of mind."
Eliza seemed very interested in my mum, so she kept asking questions as we walked into the town centre. I was just glad she didn't ask about my Dad. I saw the clock tower come into view and the tacky Christmas lights hanging limp above the market stalls. Market days are the busiest of the week, with stalls selling cheap ladies underwear, Disney merchandise and old DVDS. One stall sells fresh fruit, and that day it emitted a strong scent of oranges. Eliza stopped at the stall to buy one, and then we meandered through the rest of the stalls. I watched her peel the orange slowly. She struggled to dig under the skin; her nails were practically non-existent. But she still managed to peel it perfectly, spiralling around the orange. She discarded the curl of peel in a bin and broke into the juicy fruit.
"I love oranges," she said, holding it close to her face to smell it "It's a Christmas fruit. So are apples."
"We have oranges at Christmas, but not apples. In the bottom of our stockings on Christmas Day."
"There's a tradition back home where children leave their shoes out on the 5th of December...for St Nicholas Day. And St Nicholas comes and fills your shoes with nuts and fruit and sweets. But Christmas Eve is the best, when we have the feast. I don't eat all day to prepare for it..."
Eliza told me all about her Christmas traditions as we wandered through the town, and then I shared my own traditions with her, of how mum and I normally go to Jonny's for Christmas dinner and watch the Doctor Who Christmas special together. It made me realise what different worlds we came from, but it didn't faze me. In fact, I think it's what helped us connect so much that first day together; we were so intrigued by each other's lives, that it didn't matter that we were different.
I couldn't get enough.
The first stop on our tour was the Chapel Gallery. I guessed Eliza was the arty type; the sewing needles had been a big clue, along with the way she'd talked about the décor in St Mary's Basilica. The Chapel Gallery isn't very big, and has quite a small collection, but it's a pleasant place, and Eliza took to it straight away.
The more time I spent with her, the more animated she became. It was as though earlier she'd only just woken up. Now, she was in full flow. She talked to me like we were best friends, and she talked about art like it was a deity. To her, it sort of was. She told me about the stained glass museum where she used to work giving guided tours to Polish and English visitors; a job she adored. She spoke in detail of her only trip abroad; a visit to Amsterdam to see the Van Gogh museum and Anne Frank's house. She was tripping over her words in excitement the whole way to Rennies, the art shop, as she talked about a project she was working on. She loved dressmaking, she told me; she made most of her clothes herself. She was hoping to make enough to sell online or open a stall on a market. I imagined her in a few years time opening her own shop, surrounded by hundreds of colourful dresses, full of ambition and spark. And the whole time she was talking, I couldn't stop smiling.
We wandered around the park for a while, before heading back into the main part of town to grab a coffee. I led Eliza into a cobblestoned side alley, where there's a wedding dress shop, an old-fashioned toy store and a shop selling dress materials. I let her marvel over the silks and fabrics for a while, before taking her into the café in the next building over, Bramleys. We sat by the window and ordered lattes and a slice of cake to share. Eliza couldn't stop smiling. She held her mug close to her face, the steam making her cheeks red. She was looking out the window at the surrounding shops. She looked like she'd just come home after a long holiday. She was content. After a long while she turned back to look at me.
"I want to thank you. For today." She sipped her coffee, eyes downcast "To be honest...I was not sure I would fit in. When all those people were...swarming me, I knew to them I was just a new plaything that they would get bored of soon enough. But...you listened to me. And it is me that has not listened to you, and I feel terrible."
"You have plenty of time to learn about me," I whispered, "I think you and I will be friends for some time."