I always think of you. We haven’t spoken for two years.
Still I think of you, and I find myself sitting at the back of a classroom, suffocating by the gas heater as it clicks and blasts out stale, oily air.
For a moment I wonder if the fumes are toxic. Then the thought fades.
It’s winter, and school is icy as hell. Our egg-headed teacher Mr Can is writing some facts about the Vikings onto the blackboard. No, they did not have pointy hats. He’s wearing that ugly suede jacket he wears every single day. I want to burn it. Erin whispers to me that Sophie heard he’s “a pervert”.
Your Internet privileges were revoked for writing ‘fuck’ in a school email, so you’re using my laptop to shop for the kind of bikinis my mum says only skanks wear. Erin and I are sharing earphones, miming to Cher Lloyd off her iPhone 4 while Mr Can makes a mental note to express contempt in our reports. What do we care? We are thirteen.
Mr Can notices you aren’t copying down notes like the rest of us are studiously pretending to. He’s so appalled that he tries to grab my laptop off of you. Very unprofessional. After an intense and uncomfortably long battle you storm out of the classroom, and everyone whispers with glee at the sudden tension. Who can blame us, with Mr Can filling our bored young brains with tales of hatless Vikings? This fight is the most interesting thing we’ll see all week. By the time you get back, Erin and I have lodged a wad of hair beneath the laptop screen. You stride into the classroom, flick your dark ponytail, give Mr Can the evil eye, open up my laptop and scream because it looks like a spider. We laugh, and forget.
Oh, but I didn’t forget. It lies there untouched, the chapters of my adulthood so laughably thin. A little dusty, but you can see how the translucent volumes cover the end of my infant mind.
We couldn’t have had less in common. Me, still an unsung child, and you, just yesterday a mother at twenty.
Why do I still think of you?
In high school life was easy for me. I lived from one day to the next, blind to the outside world, to the future and to pain. Blind to your pain.
Once you were away for a week, and then you were back. Same old you. Quiet, morose, cool. Except that your dad had died. I tried to spout some weak words of consolation, but you said you were fine. So I forgot. It was winter; I didn’t see the cuts on your arms. I wouldn’t have known what to say if I’d seen them. I was 13. So off I went to gossip on the chilly corridor tiles with my best friends – the kinds which didn’t let off bouts of silence, nor cries for help.
My friends had seen something in you that they didn’t like, so you were the one that they all agreed to hate.
‘Put your hand up if you hate Amber.’
In Geography I would sometimes sit next to you while you showed me pictures of your future tattoos. I listened patiently, though surely none of it would ever happen. Your mum was too strict. Mum? No – aunt. Your mum was in jail. And though I forgot, you didn’t.
When the social came around you asked “a boy who worked at Macca’s” to go with you. I asked why you wanted him to come – you barely knew him.
“But Amber, what is he like?”
“His name is Jack.”
I, being so innocent, was confused.
A few weeks after the social your 18-year-old sister gave birth to a baby girl. The baby was underweight, you told me with awe, smaller than size zero. I remember your shining face, full of pride and excitement. How amazing it must be to become a mother! I gritted my teeth and smiled.
Next thing the boyfriend left her, and so did the baby. That is, until she stole it back from a foster home and went on the run. You disappeared from school for a few days. Interrogated by police, perhaps, while I had sat in French class watching the spring rain stream down foggy windows, listening to an old song about French frogs in love. La ee tou la la, La ee tou la la, it went.
But I didn’t forget her story, abstract and wild. Had you learnt from her? It wasn’t long ago.
I hope you know him better than Jack.
Today I threw out my old stuffed animals. I found them at the back of my cupboard and their names came back to me. Daisy Mouse, Humphrey Bear, Archie. My childhood lies barely beneath the surface, and all the while you are a child no longer.
Your number is still in my phone, and I thought maybe I’d ask if you want the toy animals for your own baby girl. Something stopped me. I’m too cowardly to follow you into the real world.
But I’ll pass you in the shopping centre one day, your four kids screaming around the trolley and begging for dinosaur-shaped pasta. Tattoos, painted nails, shining eyes, long faded scars. Maybe you’ll even remember me. Most likely you won’t. And I’ll wander away into my safe elsewhere, forever the innocent, humming French nursery rhymes. We’ll never meet again. But I’ll always think of you.