Naive, Once Seventeen
By lisa h
Naïve, Once Seventeen
I still cry when an ambulance screams past. Maybe the glare of the lights, the penetrating siren, attacks my emotions. As the alarm fades, my face heats up and tears fill my eyes until the world is underwater. My feet drift off the path, and I swim down the road. A spiked, wrought iron fence encloses the park. I find an entrance and climb out of the water.
I miss him, even now.
“Where’s your PE bag?” Mum shouts across the park.
I realise she’s not there, not following me from the train station. She’s been gone five years, decomposing beneath a cheap gravestone. Still, I search the hill, between the sunbathers, the lovers entwined. Bright snatches of fabric on writhing bodies, under the midday sun. Their clothing is disappearing, reducing until they’re all naked. They merge, an unrepentant orgy.
I turn, sneering my distaste at their open carnal lusting. At the bottom of the hill, where the woods begin, I catch sight of something, ethereal, white, gliding through the trees. I follow it, floating alongside on the path.
A dog bounds out of the woods, all yapping, tail wagging merriment, his coat dripping. He makes my trousers damp as he licks my fingers. I’m still focused on my mother’s phantom.
A voice calls from behind the wide trunk of a gnarly oak tree. “Billy, come here. You bad boy!”
A man with a creamy shirt, XXX printed in drops of blood across the front, emerges. My ghost. He flicks oily black hair off his forehead, bares his teeth, and growls at me until Billy runs from my side.
I remember where to go, to tiptoe alongside the saplings to the hidden place. The younger growth is new, but I’ve seen it all before. I travel to this park most nights. I float down from the stars on the cloud of my nightdress. He pulls me between the trees, over the bracken and bramble the council left to grow. I grasp at plants, to stop the pull. Shouting and screaming makes no difference. He takes me, silent and unyielding.
“Where’s your PE bag!” she shouts, behind my left ear.
“I’ve got the kit, only the bag’s missing!” I cry back. Without pause, I spin around, half ducking.
She’s there. Blue grey hair, and a soft squidgy chest, huge in proportion to her cake indulged frame. Some children cuddle up to mothers like that. I cower.
“How the bloody hell did you lose only the bag?” Her arm rises up and back. She does it slowly, savouring the terror on my face. The joints ping and pop as she extends her hand, clamps the fingers together. “Stupid girl!”
I’ve been watching for movement, to duck and run. She’s too fast and my cheek burns as her palm catches my face.
“I’m sorry, Mummy.” I start to blubber. In the middle of the park, by the copse of trees the locals call The Woods. She hates crying. Using the back of my sleeve, I wipe at my eyes, my nose. When I look up, she’s gone. I’m staring into the red embers of the setting sun.
A jogger has stopped, seeing me cry. Listened to me talk to Mummy.
“You okay?” He starts towards me. I turn and run under the canopy, to the cool green-tinted shade
Before secreting further, I watch the man. Wires hang from his ears, feeding him messages. His shirt sticks to him, a patch of sweat down the middle. He’s running now, pulling something small out of a pocket. The trees sigh, and the moment freezes. Jogger-man suspends in the air. Pollen, falling from white blossoms, sparkles like gold. Two birds, previously dipping and diving, show me their best colours, captured as they play. The lovers on the hill are clothed again, books in their hands, the flapping pages still. A Scottie dog is jumping for a ball, almost catching it. His eyes roll around and find me. He wants his toy so much. I run into the woods, and time restarts.
The space between the plants increases with each step I take, until I’m creeping through a Redwood forest, a mere ant tripping over roots the size of trucks. The journey takes longer this way, feels like hours of hiking before I reach the place, by a brook that snakes past my favourite silver birch. I grow enough to wade through the water. The current pulls at me, I struggle, but I need to get to him, to the hidden place.
Bark from the tree weeps in strips, the ground ankle deep in its sorrow. I nestle down, and throw my arms around the trunk. Slivers float through the air. I want to hide here. Shrink back to my ant size, and wait until the peelings to cover me for good. I’ll join him then. Twenty years too late.
Before I start digging, I peer between the trees surrounding me. I’m looking for my mother. She doesn’t understand. She’d kill me if she did.
The woods chirp and chatter. Twigs fall, and leaves, as wood pigeons court up high in a chestnut tree. Somebody loved me once. Then they left. I pull the trowel from my bag and stab the ground.
I dig for days. Not sure how I survived the starvation. The hole is bigger than my house, and I’ve still not found him. When I finally see the corner of the bag poking out, the sky has darkened so that Venus is staring through the leaves at me. She’s tut-tutting, arms on hips. And black, she’s dark as coal, and the prettiest woman ever to be born. Her hair cascades in thick dreadlocks, past her feet, they wave in the sky, float there, like Medusa’s snakes. But hers won’t turn me to stone. She’s interested in Doing The Right Thing. That’s why I’m brushing the last crumbs of soil from the bag. That’s why I’m not frozen in my grief, forever with one hand in a crater the size of Scotland.
Venus is setting. Her lips are blood red, and releasing their pout. She’s spotted the material under my fingers. I know she approves, and wave her a silent goodbye.
I reach down over the edge, and tug at the bag. It’s so small. The PE bag still has my nametag stitched at the top by the pull cord. I release the string, open it up and pull out a tiny bundle wrapped in two tea towels.
The jogger is standing some ways off, talking into his mobile phone. And a siren, getting louder. I’m brave for my boy, and hold back the tears.