As promised, and in a blatant attempt to bump the word count for March, here is a story that was published in Slow Dancer
I saw her in Safeways, it was close to five, the other day. I'd just bought the champagne for the other night, and a small loaf of bread with cheese to stuff myself with beforehand. You know the way she and I are, the way we feel about things like this. You like to act as if you know her better than I ever did, anyway. I was putting the things in a box at the checkout; I'd been looking at a trashy book of yours on the stand, I was thinking about that. She was with a basket and a bloke at the checkout next door. I looked at her and she looked at me, in that contemptuous way she has, and I just hurried away. I'd only paid for an hour in the car park and wanted to go over to collect my pictures from the Lab before it closed. I didn't know what time it closed. You know how seldom I get up town.
You're always looking at my face
to get my reaction to things. Then you go and tell people I'm strange, you can never tell what I'm thinking. It's easy to tell what I'm thinking: for instance, I'm thinking about the pictures and all the captions I've got to write for the album: volume three for this year.
They were mainly of christmas and that day when it kept raining and had to keep wiping the lens of my camera; we drove by the park on the way to get petrol and you keep wondering why I always look at it.
I used to go down there when I was young. The park, you know. The one you was just talking about. Used to chalk on the slide with Brammer and I remember got chased by some bully on a bike. Never been so frightened in all my life, but nothing happened. When he caught us, he just talked big: things like that are never what you expect them to be. You're always mentioning
Brammer like he was something we have in common. I know you like him a lot. I liked him a lot, too, when I was that age. But honestly you can't equate then and now. Talking to him now I just feel nervous and useless like I do with strangers. I didn't even spend much time up there with Brammer, the park. Not after a while.
I know I've spoken to you of it. You were only ever there that once, that day playing tennis when you couldn't play and I felt ashamed of you. You couldn't even hit the ball
. I suppose in the same way you feel ashamed of me because I'm not flash and friendly. I mainly went there before I met you, when I was independent of you, as I almost am again. Really, you ask for statements like that when you turn up like this out of the blue with these fables tailored to make your life incredible and mine mundane. I happen to think my life is fine as it is. I'm a little more chary these days, a little indecisive and cowardly, but I'll get over that like I get over everything else. You know I do: you've watched me do it, often, with your tolerant eyes.
You remember you said about that old shed, with the green seats which got smashed up. Used to be the Pavilion till they built the new one, with the toilets.
Used to crawl inside that shed with her, you know. She had chocolate breath. This was before kissing with tongues was the vogue. Chocolate. I wonder what made me say that. She used to think she tasted of kitchens, but it was chocolate, albeit cooking chocolate, melted in a Pyrex bowl over a saucepan of hot water. So, you know her. You were only telling me about it yesterday, how she'd seen me in town and everything, how she is now and so on. I know I didn't say anything then, but I saw the way you looked at me, looking for a response. Practising your superiority again. You act as if all I ever wanted to do was keep in touch with all my old friends. Your eyes always thinking they're three steps ahead. So funny and naive, laughing at my artlessness. But I can tell you a thing or two about the way people are. You've always been the innocent, here: I've seen you thinly disguising your ignorance. Why do you think I always stuck with you? Because you know so much?
It was just because you didn't, because you always said and did the wrong things, thought you were being good when you weren't. You still say all the wrong things, in your books, but they've made you act differently in real life and it seems contrived, these days, as if you do it for effect. I've always been the sassy one, and now you're trying to make it the other way around and I suppose my ego doesn't like it. You see I never pointed out to you that you were being silly, I just held fast by your side and together we made the rest think they were dull. Nowadays you turn it all against me, with the tone of your voice and those eyes, frowning at my overdraft. I took a while to consider and now I think I will tell you something, though you're thoroughly undeserving and I can't afford to give things like this away.
We played "London" on the roundabout. She called it the Witches Hat, but I always hated that name. I hated playing "London" too, if truth be told. I didn't like it when they made it swing and banged it against the pole. There was never anybody like that lot for making me feel I was out of my depth.
There was Kent, you know him; he's still got a book of mine. Grace, sometimes her violent brother (bet he ends up in prison). Sometimes Migsy, always going on about the size
of it, and way way too dangerous for you to know. Collins, who had curly hair and was white, but his skin was very brown, looked like his granddad might have been black. Andy-O, Baz, Ratty, Gibbo, but hardly ever them lot. In the main it was just the two girls (Bill and Ben) and her brothers: Simon, the boring one, and Patrick, the trendy one with the lisp. God, what a lovely name, I just thought. Not Patrick: Pavilion.
One day we were all down there, we were on the swings. She and I used to share the yellow and the blue one; I always had the yellow because she loathed that colour. I do, too, but you know what I'm like around girls. The other kids used to play on scabby wooden swings, banging around, swinging very high, standing up and so on. Ben used to stand near me and Bill, talking nine to the dozen, or whatever your expression is. Someone got bored and suggested a game of "Tinpanalley" over by the water fountain.
You know that game, that word, you must have played it. Draw a snake, this finger did THAT, count to a hundred, five hundred in fives, a thousand in tens, everybody hides except It, who has to find them and say, with one hand on Home, which was usually a pole or a corner, "Tinpanalley I see Fred!", or whoever, before Fred can sneak or run in and say, hand on Home also, "Tinpanalley in!"
You know over by the tennis court? We sort of played it round there, away from the swings, but we never went over the other side of the court, unless to hide. Somehow the magic wasn't there, in that corner with the compost heap and gardens. The people who owned those houses always seemed so indignant that anybody should want to play in the park. The reason we played it there anyway was because of the drinking fountain, which was in front of the bowling green and the Pavilion. It was very hot and we all wanted a drink. A corner of the Pavilion, at the back by the steps to the toilets, was Home. The drinking fountain was along an asphalt path, round the edge of the green. It was great fun. It was metal, about three or four feet high, and you had to press or twist (I can't remember) a tap on the side and the water tasted pretty metallic
, but I don't think anything ever tasted so good on a hot summer's day. Water fights were always until the park keeper rushed out of the Pavilion and ordered us to stop.
We all went to hide, I went with her, and this time I think Deb and Debbie were there, although they lived over the other side of the Estate, Collins was there, and Kent, who was It (I don't remember how we decided who was It). Simon was home, Patrick and Andy-O were there (Andy-O always was with Collins), but not Grace. She hardly ever came. We ran off, different directions, round the bowling green, the Pavilion.
Kent was counting five hundred in ones because nobody liked him very much and we all knew he'd cheat anyway. She and I ran off to the old Pavilion where we kissed chocolate and waited on the lookout for Kent to go in the other direction. The best thing was, if you drew him far enough away you could run back and say, "Tinpanalley in," before he reached Home. But Kent was a very fast runner (whoever was caught first would be the next It).
There was a cricket match on that day. Although I love to play and you laugh at me, I never pay much attention when other people play, but I remember the teams had been walking in as we ran to hide. It was very hot, from the range of our vantage point, the Pavilion was in a haze.
Collins decided to climb on the roof. The tiles were red then, not black as now, and he was a very striking figure dressed in blue and white in a heat mist crawling over. You know how sometimes things happen and you can't believe they're real. Collins appeared on the roof, in the background, a tiny puppet, waving, pleased with himself, white teeth in a hot summer vapour. He kind of got on his knees and began to crawl across the roof, the red tiles. We were watching from a distance, she and I.
It was around four in the afternoon, about the time we'd all be on our ways home from school, but school was out, and teams were in the Pavilion having tea.
I can see from the look on your face that you've guessed what's going to happen, and you're enjoying the fact that you've guessed. That's what I mean when I say you've lost your innocence. You no longer enjoy spectating occasionally, you're itching, eager to join the rest of the dot-to-dot yourself. I don't think you could any longer watch me struggle with a jigsaw puzzle, you'd have to show me you could do it. If you can guess it now, can you even imagine that we couldn't guess it then? We just thought he'd get away with it. Just stared, she laughed in my ear, enjoying madcap Collins, a little bit wild, a little bit dangerous and cracked. Kent just peeped around the corner, we were watching Collins because
just at the
moment Kent saw us
Collins put a foot through some tiles
and just as Kent smiled and began to turn for Home to shout "Tinpanalley I see...."
Collins twists round in pain and out of control on the roof - wild arms waiving - tightly twisting - legs wrenching - tile slipping
and Kent hears a noise above him and
Collins rolls slowly - alarmed facial expression
Jane and I shocked staring
black fear in his eyes white teeth horror grimace
Kent can't see what we can see
topples off the roof, flying briefly in the air flapping arms in ineffectual wing movement and
landing inches from amazed Kent with bruises scrapes blood broken leg and arm and concussed head. She and I running over.
Cricketers disturbed during sacred cow tea ritual rush out puzzled and angry - see Collins lying there broken, you know. I can still see those faces. Middle-aged hateful businessmen, the same sort you and I are supposed to hate now.
While the fuss, she and I ran round and said "Tinpanalley in," all the others were there already, thinking this was Christmas and Kent was sadly lacking as an It and would have to be It again. We told them, come round, see this sight.
Best if we'd have run away, played innocently on the swings because the park keeper was mad like the rest of us and, after all, it was his park we were playing in and he personally had to pay for the repairs in the Pavilion roof (which was obviously overdue for fresh tiles anyway). Banned us all for the summer as if it was all of us had climbed on the roof and fell off.
We still went down there, ban not enforced, but Collins lying plastered up funny and tragic. Adults never remember kids unless they're their own, you know. It gave us a great laugh and a fright, and the wonderful feeling that went with meeting up again in the evening to talk about it as the sky turned red, it got dark, and dogs ran around while we sat on those green benches near the swings eating something someone had from holiday, just me and Bill and Ben, with insects buzzing round the trees and the fence of the bowling green, the metal water cooling in the pipes and the ground, the grass damp and tired, the orange streetlights of the main road winking on and knowing it was only over till the next day, but the best thing about it was that it changed nobody. There was no incredible seeing of the light, no lessons learned. Collins remained as psychopathic as ever, probably worse, having not died once he knew he wouldn't die again. The rest of us forgot about it was the weeks rushed by and school lumbered nearer. The cricket pitch, which had been scuffed up by spikes, was rolled and watered and within a couple of weeks looked as if nothing had ever occurred.
Although it seemed that summers like those would go on forever, and we turned up without fail having said see you tomorrow and kissed by the crossing opposite her house; although we always had that appointment to keep, really it was only one or two years we were friends, two very hot summers. One day we said see you, see you tomorrow, and never turned up, never knowing if the others were there because we never turned up again and at the new school we all felt a need to act like people with no past, to wrap around a tough cloak and pretend that nothing had ever meant anything to us, just to cope with all these new people from other parts of town. Summers like that over forever, just as summers like ours are maybe over forever. Next year will be, might be, different, better, or just indifferent. It's that special kind of change, the progress they call growing up, and perhaps we've grown up so much together we can't talk about it now, maybe not ever. Perhaps there'll come a day when I'll be telling someone about you and the things we did. I'll only do that if I can be sure of never seeing you again, mainly because I don't want to hurt you like I've hurt you tonight.
So although I loved her all that time ago and I love you now with all your weird ways and different selves to different people, your letting me do all the talking, and all the hurting, I can't really say I'll come with you to see her tomorrow. She and I would be shy I'm sure to see each other and have to make conversation with the past we shared. Both so changed, so much older, and not wanting to admit it was ever worth anything. I stopped turning up to see her a long time ago.