After Eden

When mysterious new boy Ryan Westland shows up at her school Eden Anfield is intrigued. On the face of it, he's a typical American teenager. So how come he doesn't recognise pizza and hasn't heard of Hitler? What puzzles Eden most, however, is the interest he's taking in her.

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2. Chapter 1

Perran – March 2012

 

Megan was late. The five-minute bell had rung and everyone else had made their way to assembly. I was standing at the front gate waiting for her.

It was a frosty March morning with a clear blue sky. High above the school campus, two buzzards were circ­ling anticlockwise, like the hands of a backwards turning clock. As I squinted into the distance, searching for a glimpse of Megan’s purple coat, I saw him for the first time. He emerged from the dazzling whiteness, a tall boy with light brown hair that glinted silver in the pale winter sun. Striding towards the school gate, he unzipped his leather jacket to reveal his school jumper and white shirt, then draped a school tie around his neck and loosely knotted it, as though avoiding the discomfort for as long as possible.

He glanced in my direction before heading into the main building. It took about thirty seconds for him to pass through the school gate and into the main entrance. It took considerably less time for me to figure him out: gorgeous, confident, unattainable.

 

By the lunch break, it seemed that the entire female population of Year Eleven was talking about the new boy. I heard snippets of conversation all the way from my appointment with the careers adviser to the canteen.

‘He’s Canadian.’

‘He’s South African.’

‘Apparently he’s so good at football that Mr Tucker wants him on the team.’

‘He has a tattoo.’

‘He has a really hot blonde girlfriend who lives with him.’

‘He drives a silver sports car.’

‘Chloe Mason is going to ask him out.’

 

My careers session had run over and the canteen was nearly empty by the time I arrived, but there was still a small queue at the till. I waited impatiently, running back over the meeting in my head.

Mrs Mingle’s office was hidden away upstairs in the admin block, away from the rest of the rooms. She was a middle-aged woman with flamboyant glasses and a frizzy head of red Afro curls. ‘So, Eden,’ she had said enthusiast­ically, once we were both settled in our armchairs with a plate of chocolate biscuits and two mugs of tea balanced on a footstool between us. ‘Tell me where you see yourself in the future.’

I hadn’t given much thought to the future. Not the long-term future anyway. I’d thought as far as taking my exams in the summer and then going to the local college in the autumn. I would study hard during the week and on Saturday nights I’d go to parties. Not the sort of parties that Amy liked – the sort where everyone drank cider out of cheap plastic cups and fumbled in dark corners with boys from school – but the sort where people drank wine from real glasses and talked about books and politics and tried to change the world.

‘Imagine yourself as a ninety-year-old woman,’ said Mrs Mingle, dunking her chocolate biscuit into her mug of tea; she held it there so long I expected to see the biscuit break away, ‘and you’re looking back over your life. What sort of story will you have to tell?’

I tried to imagine myself as an old lady, grey and wrinkled, with my life behind me. And suddenly I knew what I wanted. Not in the details, but the broad sweep of things. I wanted my life to be like one of my favourite books: a big, fat novel, each page filled with small typewritten words as though the only way to cram so much life in was to make the writing really small. I wanted to be brave, take risks, make a difference, fall in love. The characters would be colourful, the landscapes exotic. I wanted my life to be a page-turner.

The problem was, I knew no colourful characters, had never been anywhere exotic and courage was something I lacked. As I sat there in the armchair in Mrs Mingle’s office, I had a dawning realisation that if I didn’t start to think about my future, my life story would end up like a half-empty notebook, blank page after blank page, interrupted only by an occasional shopping list or note for the window cleaner.

 

‘What’s that?’ said a low, male voice beside me.

I looked up, startled from my daydream. It was the new boy. He was frowning at the special of the day.

I shrugged. ‘Your guess is as good as mine. I’m guessing it’s supposed to be curry.’

‘What about that?’ he asked, pointing to the pizza. ‘The round thing with the red stuff.’ His accent was difficult to place. Something between American and Australian.

‘Do you mean the pizza?’

He nodded. ‘What’s on top?’

The canteen food was often a terrifying mixture of un­­identifiable ingredients, but pizza was a recognisable and generally safe option. I turned to him, looking for a sign that this was a joke of some sort – perhaps a wink or a smile – but he was staring at the pizza slices, a crease between his eyebrows.

‘It’s just normal pizza. Tomato sauce and cheese.’ Did he really not know what pizza was?

‘Yeah,’ he said, grinning suddenly. ‘I knew that.’

I took a jacket potato and some sweetcorn and an apple. He took exactly the same.

‘That looks nicer,’ he said, shrugging one shoulder.

I paid for my food and strode across to the table where Megan and Connor were sitting. We were an odd bunch. We weren’t part of any of the main tribes at Perran, like the surfer and skater crowd, or the pony-club girls, or the musicians, although we hung around on the periphery of the main groups from time to time. Megan had a beautiful singing voice and mixed well with the other musicians. Connor was learning to surf – although he wasn’t part of the surfing crowd – and he went to astronomy club on Fridays after school without being a fully paid-up member of the science geeks. As for me, I was part of the cross-country team but avoided all other sports and everything to do with them. Connor and Megan were sitting with Connor’s neighbour, Matt, and Matt’s girlfriend, Amy.

Matt was OK. He played guitar and was pretty laid back. Amy was a drama queen, always performing, always reinventing herself, always the centre of attention. Her latest look was, in her words, vampire chic. She had dyed her naturally fair hair jet black, which made her pale skin look almost green. It was an improvement on her last persona, when she had bleached her blonde hair platinum, and affected a southern Californian ­vocabulary.

‘I’m thinking, like, a beach party would be totally awesome?’ Amy was saying, as I pulled out a chair.

Megan looked at me and surreptitiously rolled her eyes. Amy had been planning her sixteenth birthday party for weeks. Megan didn’t really like beach parties, but I could already picture the fire burning bright in the inky night, a skyful of stars and, with a little luck, the moon.

‘Amy, it’s the beginning of March. How can you have a beach party in March?’ Connor asked. ‘It’s practically the middle of winter.’

‘Actually, it’s spring,’ she said. ‘Anyway, it’s not going to be bikinis and trunks. Have you never partied on the beach outside of summer?’

‘No,’ said Connor, shrugging. ‘Why would anyone do that?’

‘Because there are no parents on the beach. I could have my party at home with Mum and Dad in the next room – I’m sure they’d just love to serve pizza and lemonade – or we can party at the beach with no parents and drink whatever we like.’

‘I get your point,’ Connor said. ‘But it’ll be freezing.’

‘We’ll build a bonfire,’ said Amy. ‘It’s going to be so great.’

I tuned out and sliced into my potato. Out of the corner of my eye I watched the new boy sit alone at a table in the corner. Three Year Ten girls at the table next to him giggled, flicked their hair and upped the volume of their conversation. Something told me he wasn’t going to have any trouble fitting in, even at this late stage in the school year.

‘What do you think, Eden?’ Amy was asking.

‘Huh?’ I hadn’t been listening. ‘Sounds great.’

Amy turned to where I’d been looking. She winked at me. ‘Checking out the new guy?’

Connor groaned. ‘Not you as well.’ He nudged me. ‘Is he dreamy? Does he make your heart flutter?’

‘Get lost, Connor,’ I said, nudging him back. ‘You’re just jealous.’ I bit into my apple, embarrassed to have been caught.

‘He’s clever,’ said Amy. ‘He was in my science class this morning.’

‘He’s not that smart,’ said Matt. ‘I had history with him and he’d never heard of Hitler. For God’s sake, who hasn’t heard of Hitler?’

‘Or pizza?’ I muttered under my breath, but nobody heard me.

‘It’s not his mind I’m interested in anyway,’ said Megan with a giggle.

‘I don’t get it,’ Connor said, shaking his head. ‘What does he have that I don’t?’

‘Muscles,’ Megan began. ‘And great cheekbones. And . . .’

Connor groaned again.

Megan ignored him. ‘And gorgeous hair.’

‘You have to be kidding,’ said Connor. ‘It sticks up in every direction. Doesn’t he know how to use a comb?’

‘Says the boy who doesn’t even own a comb,’ I said, tous­ling Connor’s shaggy blond mop.

‘Maybe that’s how they wear their hair in America or wherever it is he’s from,’ said Megan.

Amy frowned. ‘I don’t think he’s American. I think he sounds Australian.’

‘Definitely not Australian,’ Megan argued back. ‘There’s a hint of a twang there. Maybe he’s Canadian. Or Hawaiian.’

‘Or South African,’ said Amy. ‘Their accents sound sim­ilar to Australian.’

‘Why don’t you just ask him?’ said Connor, a hint of irritation in his voice. ‘He’s coming this way. I’m sure he’ll put you out of your misery.’

Sure enough, he had finished his meal and had to walk past our table. I studied my apple, hoping Connor wouldn’t do or say something embarrassing.

Connor stood up, just as the boy approached, blocking his exit. ‘Excuse me. I wonder if you would mind settling a discussion.’

The boy smiled warily. ‘If I can.’

‘The girls here were just trying to place your accent. We’ve got Australia, Canada, Hawaii and South Africa.’

The boy smiled a little more. ‘Close,’ he said. ‘America.’

‘America. Now that’s settled. Thank you so much for your assistance.’

The boy raised an eyebrow. ‘You’re welcome.’

The bell went for fifth period and I sighed. Double art with Mrs Link.

‘What class do you have next?’ Connor asked the boy. ‘I’ll point you in the right direction.’

In his hand the new boy was holding a map of the school, which he had clearly folded and refolded several times already that morning. ‘Art. Mrs Link.’

‘Eden has art with Mrs Link,’ Megan said, winking at me.

I cringed. Why did Megan have to be so blunt? I swallowed the piece of apple I was chewing and picked up my tray. ‘You can walk with me.’

 

‘Eden. That’s a beautiful name,’ he said as we walked towards the Godrevy Building. ‘Is it popular in England?’

‘No. I don’t know anyone else with my name.’

‘Is that so?’

I didn’t reply. I couldn’t think of a thing to say. I glanced at him from the corner of my eye. He was looking at me with an amused smile. The warmth on my face told me that I was blushing. I have reddish-brown hair and the palest skin that blushes fiercely, all the way from my chest to my forehead.

‘What brings you to Cornwall?’ I asked eventually, as I held open the door.

He hesitated. ‘Work. My dad’s work.’

‘It must be tough arriving halfway through the school year. With exams and stuff.’

‘It’s not so bad. Everyone is so friendly.’

Mrs Link was in the classroom, meeting and greeting and watching us swipe in. As usual she was wearing a kaftan that accentuated her enormous hips. And she reeked of the hazelnut coffee that she always drank.

‘You must be Ryan Westland,’ she said, shaking his hand vigorously and beaming. ‘Now, where are we going to put you? Eden here doesn’t have a partner. You can sit with her.’

I sat down in my usual seat and looked away while Ryan sat next to me. I heard the scrape of stools and whispers as several of the girls angled themselves for a better look.

‘So you’re from America?’ I said after a while.

‘Yeah.’

‘My aunt’s boyfriend is from America. His accent is way different to yours.’

‘It’s a big country.’

‘Which part are you from?’

‘You ask a lot of questions, don’t you?’

I got the hint so I took out my sketch pad and flicked through the last few pieces we had worked on. Hands, feet, eyes. All embarrassingly badly drawn. I closed the pad with a snap, afraid that Ryan would see.

‘I’m from New Hampshire,’ Ryan said softly. He was smiling. ‘A small town in the countryside.’

‘Take out your sketch pads,’ Mrs Link interrupted, handing a blank one to Ryan. ‘Today we will be sketching portraits. Face and upper torso.’

I felt my stomach clench. This was awful. I was going to have to sketch Ryan’s face. I was terrible at art in general, but I was particularly bad at drawing people. Mrs Link chose a boy from the front of the room as her partner and then modelled how to approach the task.

‘Thirty minutes each,’ she told us.

‘Do you want to model first or draw first?’ Ryan asked.

Both options sounded bad. I figured that if I sketched last, I might not have to show him my effort. ‘I’ll model.’

I didn’t know where to look. I looked out of the window. I looked at the art on the wall and then at the door.

‘Do you think you could keep still?’ Ryan asked.

‘I’m sorry. I find it hard not to fidget.’

‘Maybe you could find something to look at.’

I shrugged and looked around the room, trying to find something interesting. ‘What would you like me to look at?’

‘You could just look at me.’ He must have spotted the look of horror on my face. It would be impossible for me to maintain eye contact with him without blushing brightly. ‘Or you could look out of that window.’

I chose the window. There wasn’t a lot to focus on: just a palm tree swaying slightly and a breeze-block wall. Mrs Link put on some slow jazz that was clearly designed to be relaxing. Piano and trumpet. I tried to think myself somewhere else. I thought about the beach party that Amy was planning. I thought about my Aunt Miranda and her boyfriend, Travis, who she was crazy about. And then I thought about the good-looking boy opposite me who was intently sketching my image. I could feel the colour burning my cheeks still.

‘Why don’t you take off your sweater?’ Ryan said after a few minutes.

‘Excuse me?’

‘You look like you’re burning up. Are you feeling OK?’

‘I’m fine,’ I said. ‘Just a little hot.’

His attention was making it so much worse.

‘Then take off your sweater.’

‘Won’t that mess up your sketch?’

He shook his head. ‘I’m still working on your face.’

Slowly, I pulled my sweater over my head, ensuring my school shirt didn’t rise up with it. I unbuttoned the top of my shirt and loosened my tie, knowing full well that it wouldn’t make the slightest difference to the colour of my face.

‘I have high colouring,’ I said.

Ryan skimmed his eyes from my chest to my face, finally resting on my eyes. He smiled and continued drawing. I tried to focus on the music, but it was slow and achingly romantic and, ridiculously, I found myself imagining what it would be like to dance with Ryan, the two of us barefoot, the sun setting over the sea, while this piece of music played in the background. I picked up my sketch pad and waved it in front of my face, trying to cool myself down.

‘Does the school have a science club?’ Ryan asked.

‘There’s a revision club after school. It’s for people who need to improve their grades.’

Ryan frowned. ‘Isn’t there anything else? A club for people who love the subject?’

‘Not really. Unless you count astronomy. I guess that’s science. My friend Connor goes.’

Ryan put down his pencil and looked at me. ‘Connor?’

‘You met him at lunch. He’s the blond boy who stopped you and asked about your accent.’

Ryan nodded. ‘That sounds perfect. When does it meet?’

‘Fridays. Mr Chinn runs it. Connor will be able to tell you more.’

Ryan was looking at me intently. ‘That’s just what I’m looking for. What’s Connor’s surname? I need to catch up with him.’

‘Penrose. He’s one of my best friends. I’ll introduce you.’

‘Thanks.’ He picked up his sketchbook and began to scratch his pencil across the paper. I looked at the palm tree again.

A waft of hazelnut coffee alerted me to Mrs Link’s approach.

‘Very good, Ryan,’ she said. ‘You’ve captured her expression beautifully.’

After thirty minutes of unbearable self-consciousness, Mrs Link told us to switch roles. I wasn’t sure whether to be relieved or mortified.

‘How do you want me?’ Ryan asked, his eyes twinkling playfully.

‘I don’t mind.’

I didn’t know where to begin. I looked at his eyes: brown. Not muddy brown or coffee brown or dirty brown. His eyes were all the colours of autumn leaves brown. Closest to the pupil they were a rich chestnut, further out a deep copper. Near the whites of his eyes they were almost gold. They were the most beautiful eyes I’d ever looked at, and they were looking at me with amusement.

‘Actually, maybe it would be better if you looked out of the window,’ I said.

‘At that tree?’

‘That would be fine.’

‘What sort of tree is that?’

‘Just a palm tree,’ I said with a shrug.

I tried to capture the shape of Ryan’s eyes. But I couldn’t. They were just eye-shaped. I could explain in words that they were open, warm, smiling, but I couldn’t transcribe those thoughts on to paper.

I tried to sketch his hair. It was light brown, with a rich warmth. If I was talented, I would have chosen twelve different shades of brown and blended them together. It was pushed back from his forehead so that it fell in all directions. I used my pencil to try and show the various directions that his hair fell, but the result on my pad just looked chaotic.

I went for a generic oval face shape, confident that I wouldn’t be able to capture anything resembling his cheekbones and square jaw. The face on the page looked like the efforts of an eight-year-old child and I toyed with the idea of ripping my pad into shreds. Sighing inwardly, I moved on to his body. He was angled slightly away from me, gazing at the lone palm tree outside the art room window. He had taken off his jumper and rolled up his sleeves and I noticed the golden hair on his forearms. His arms were slightly clenched and his hands in fists. The muscles stood out, like taut rope. I followed his body upwards. The shape of his chest was clearly defined through his shirt. It looked hard and muscular.

‘Do you work out?’ I asked.

‘No,’ he said, sounding a little confused. I saw him notice me looking at his chest.

‘You seem pretty muscular.’ The words slipped out before my internal censor had a chance to stop them.

He raised an eyebrow. ‘Is that good?’

I blushed. ‘It doesn’t make a difference. I won’t be able to draw it. Art is my weakest subject.’

‘Can I see what you’ve done?’

‘Absolutely not.’

All too quickly the minutes passed and it was time for us to peer-assess our portraits. Mrs Link wanted us to identify what had gone well, and a target for development.

‘Here you go,’ Ryan said, pushing his sketch towards me.

It was good. The girl in the picture was biting her lower lip while gazing into the middle distance. Her long wavy hair was unruly and her eyes were intense. The shading on her cheeks suggested a slight blush of embarrassment. It was me all right. A much more attractive version of me.

‘So what went well?’ Ryan asked, smiling crookedly.

‘I like the movement in her hair,’ I said. ‘You’ve captured that really well.’

He smiled and thanked me. ‘So what’s my target?’

‘I don’t know. She looks too perfect. She doesn’t look real.’

‘I draw what I see.’

I bit my lip, unsure how to respond. ‘I wish I looked that good,’ I said eventually, shrugging my shoulders and smiling in what I hoped was a self-deprecating way.

‘Let’s see your sketch then.’

I pushed my sketch pad in front of him. ‘I’ll be happy with two targets for improvement. I’m well aware that nothing went well.’

Ryan smiled and met my eye. ‘Evidently human. But I must do something with my hair.’

‘Next week,’ Mrs Link told us at the end of class, ‘we’ll be taking a field trip to the Eden Project to sketch plant life. You will be excused from your morning classes and we’ll be back in time for the buses at three thirty.’

‘What’s the Eden Project?’ Ryan asked.

‘These large domes, like greenhouses, built in abandoned clay pits in St Austell. Each of them houses plants from a different biome. It’s cool.’

‘And it’s called Eden?’

I nodded. ‘As in the garden of Eden.’

‘I got the reference.’

The bell went and I put my sketch pad in my bag. Ryan slid off his stool quickly and began to walk out. He hesitated at the door and turned to look at me.

‘Thanks, partner,’ he said with a smile.

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