By Mark Burrow
It was the girls who starved themselves at school. Never the boys. No-one could explain why.
I wasn’t friends with Minh so I was surprised when Ms Bailey informed me that I had been named as one of the classmates she wanted to see in hospital.
The dayroom had high, double-glazed windows. It was a hot day and the sunlight showed the smears, smudges and soot on the thick glass. We were five floors up and could watch the traffic on Westminster Bridge – cars, buses, bikes and taxis flowing back and forth.
A table was set against a wall in the corner. It was stacked with old magazines and board games and puzzles in boxes that were faded and split at the corners. A TV was attached to a wall. It was switched to mute and the screen had a glare.
Ms Bailey, fresh from teacher training, talked to Joanne and Michael, who Minh had also asked to visit. They were chatting about the humanities teacher, Miss Quinn. She had been beaten up in the school car park.
“I don’t think she’ll come back,” said Ms Bailey.
Michael flicked through a Christmas edition of the Radio Times. He was brilliant at art. His paintings and drawings were unbelievable. “They punched her in the face,” he said.
Ms Bailey puffed her cheeks and blew. “Broke her nose.”
“One of them had a machete,” added Joanne. “It must have been terrifying.”
“Do they know who did it?” asked Michael.
Ms Bailey nodded. “She recognised one of them. He’s a former pupil. I can’t say who.”
We all knew anyway. Joanne made a comment about hell. She was a Born Again Christian and her passion for God appeared to be getting stronger since turning fourteen. She was tall and had a woman’s physique. None of the boys messed with her as she could handle herself in a fight.
I kept quiet about Miss Quinn. She was a sadistic piece of work and liked to make jokes at your expense. I’m not saying she deserved to be the victim of GBH, but the assault didn’t come as a surprise.
Minh was wheeled into the room by a nurse.
We smiled and told her how great it was to see her.
I let Joanne, Michael and Ms Bailey do the talking. Conversation was a skill and they were good at it. They kept telling Minh how well she looked. How the nurses were so friendly and how everyone back at school missed her and sent their regards.
I sat and listened, smiling as much as I could. Her bones were like blades, ready to pierce through skin as thin and tender as cheese slices. It reminded me of when my dad lay dying in the same hospital, watching a whole man steadily vanish like a sandcastle on the seashore.
Minh turned her attention to me. “You’re very quiet,” she said.
“I don’t mean to be.”
“How are you?” she said.
Her teeth gave the cartoonish impression of being too big for her mouth.
“I’m alright. Thanks for asking me to come.”
She had a fine layer of fur over her skin, including her face.
“What’s news?” she asked.
I thought about telling her about Miss Quinn. The real discovery that year for me was alcohol and weed. I spent my nights getting mashed with mates in the stairwells of council flats. She wouldn’t be interested in those things.
“You always make me laugh,” she said. “Can you please tell me one of your funny stories?”
I hesitated. I was taken aback by the sweetness of her request.
“Go on,” said Ms Bailey.
Minh was intelligent. That’s why she was friends with Michael and Joanne. They were boffins, talking about colleges and universities, rather than the dole and job centres. I never thought she’d noticed me in class when I was messing around.
I tried to think of what to say. I had managed to shutdown memories of my dad but suddenly one popped back in. He was a lorry driver and had stopped off at a McDonald’s. He was tired, having driven all the way from Belgium, and instead of asking for a Big Mac he asked for a Big Smack.
It was the best I could think of.
(I don’t think they knew he was dead).
Then I told another story about when I went into a newsagent with my dad. We had a shopping list mum had given us and I accidentally said to the shopkeeper, “Do you smell tomatoes?”
That made Minh giggle too.
I think she wanted more from me. Something funnier. It was the best I could do. I didn’t like to be put on the spot.
Michael chipped-in with a story about his mum leaving their flat with her skirt tucked into her knickers. Joanne remembered how she spent a whole afternoon with her sister drawing on their bedroom wall with crayons, and then they excitedly asked their mum to come and view their artistry, expecting praise.
They were funny ha-ha stories. It didn’t matter. Minh sat giggling in the wheelchair.
We steered clear of sickness and operations and food. It seemed impossible to me that the act of eating could be a struggle, but then I was oblivious to what I had started with booze and drugs and the anarchy of the next three decades.
After about forty-five minutes, a nurse came in and told us the visit was over.
We said our goodbyes. I went to kiss her on the cheek. I put my hands gently on her angular shoulders. It wasn’t the boniness that freaked me out. It was seeing the soft, downy fur on her face and forearms. I turned at the last second, kissing the air. I sensed her wince, like we both understood why I had moved away.
The nurse reversed the wheelchair out of the room, allowing Minh to wave farewell.
Grateful to spend time with us, her friends.
We walked to the lift. Michael made a remark I didn’t catch properly. Probably a comment about the smell of hospital food. He then fell into silence like the rest of us.
In the lift, Ms Bailey gave Joanne a hug.
A few months later, the tide came in and swept away another sandcastle.
I wish I’d kissed Minh goodbye.