It was a Sunday and the church was full of villagers. Emma and Dad had not been to church since the funeral service and it was even longer since they’d been to confession. They had exorcised their Catholicism when their secrets grew too big for penitence. They had no particular desire to sit in pews in attempt to infiltrate the village community that neither of them could ever slip into.
In fact, the church’s only purpose as far as Emma was concerned was the bell that skipped and tolled on Sundays and reminded them of the days and weeks that they had long stopped counting. They knew that they seemed to be living an endless summer and that was all. The church bell kept the pliability of time from losing it its shape altogether.
At one stage Emma had wondered if, on their arrival in England, Dad might start work again. He’d been leading some tourist resort’s telephone network out in France because he spoke both French and English and ‘understood the English’ which Emma had always felt was a very generalised statement to make. Instead, they had both now lost their grasp of time and space and floated around life. They were caught in the lethargy of emotional exhaustion that some chose to label as mourning.
She had considered prompting Dad to look at something beyond the lines in his poetry book but the thought of criticising Dad for this so-called mourning felt hypocritical. Their self-nursed injuries perhaps appeared self-indulgent but realistically there was no indulgence in not having the energy to move on.
Nobody had ever explained how much fatigue came with learning about mortality. People described it as sad; Emma saw it as inoculation against feeling anything for anything or anyone again ever. Unfortunately, all inoculations had side effects.
She stuffed her hands deep into her jean pockets.
If she was to push Dad into leaving the house and scouring the shrivelled village for work then she ought to push herself into re-establishing herself as a human, she thought. She ought to remember to start caring about how she looked and what the hell she was going to do about school once these infinite holidays were over. She knew that she could not continue with Dad’s self-titled home schooling and she also knew that it was illegal for her to not be at school. She supposed she was meant to register at some sort of place locally, well, Dad was meant to register her anyway.
She ought to brush her hair properly, wear something other than heart-break clothes, and find a pair of shoes that weren’t worn out through the soles. She wasn’t old enough to find herself work but she wished she was, just to give her some sort of purpose.
All the tasks that would set her on-route to becoming normal – whatever that really meant – seemed monumental. Even the idea of being able to look in the mirror and not say to herself ‘you’re an awful person – you let them burn’ but rather ‘you could tie your hair up today, it would look better with the shirt you’re wearing,’ was threatening and probably impossible.
She was so busy thinking that she forgot to think about where she was going and stopped suddenly when her cast-down eyes collided with a pair of canvas shoes.
She found it so odd to see him free from his uniform and cut and pasted from his usual setting that she responded to his greeting with brusque confusion;
“What are you doing here?” she asked.
“Oh, OK then,” he said, faking disappointment. “You know, most people would say hello or – I don’t know – good morning or even bonjour.”
“I guess I’m not ‘most people’ then,” she said and then winced internally at the arrogance of it.
“True… doesn’t mean you can fail to greet a friend.”
A friend? She raised an eyebrow. It was the second time that week that someone had suggested that they were friends with her and the presumed familiarity surprised her. It also alarmed her. She felt tense inside, pent-up and hungry, but the suggestions of relationships sent her curling into herself like a threatened hedgehog.
“Well, what do you want me to say to you?” she asked after an uncomfortable suspension in the conversation. “You dictate and I’ll repeat after you.”
“You want me to say bonjour?” She almost laughed at the childishness of it but didn’t, mainly out of nerves. Her throat seemed to be pressing together as she stood there so that she couldn’t quite manage to both breathe and talk properly. It was odd to be prompted to speak French when she’d spent so long trying to forget about it; trying to dissect herself and cut away the ruined part that belonged back in that empty Rouen apartment.
“Well you are French, aren’t you? And see – it sounds so much cooler when you say it than when anyone else does.”
“I’m not French anymore,” Emma decided. She didn’t want to be. She didn’t want to be able to trace her life back to a fire in a shopping centre.
“If you say so.” There was a long pause as he assessed the situation. Emma chewed her lip and tried to find things to look at beside his face. “Where are you going?” He asked eventually.
“I was going to the shop but…”
“But, as your favourite sales assistant will not be there, you are having second thoughts?” he suggested with a playful shrug.
“Self-centred or what?”
“Let’s go to the windmill.”
Everything about his conversation was random, spontaneous and unpredictable but it was this unforeseen suggestion that unsettled her the most. She stepped back and shook her head. The more she spoke, the more she realised that she didn’t have the skill to.
“N-o… No. I’m going to the shop.”
“OK, if you want, what are you going to buy?” His voice was a challenge that she could not meet.
Emma shrugged but said nothing. He had guessed correctly; she had no real definite purpose for going anywhere.
“Seems like you don’t have plans after all,” he was smiling but Emma still felt that, for some reason, he was smiling in the way that a cat does when it catches a mouse. “I’ll set you a deal. If you can tell me what my name is then you can go to the shop and buy whatever nothing you need.”
You’re not bloody Rumpelstiltskin, she thought savagely.
“Come on. It’s not even that hard – I spend almost every single freaking day wearing a name badge. If you don’t know then I win and we go to the windmill,” he said it like it was easy.
“You can’t stop me from turning around right now and just walking off.”
“Go on then,” he urged her but she didn’t move. She could not discern whether or not he was mocking her.
“You’re not actually going to turn around, are you? You just suggested it because you don’t know the answer and you wanted to play hard to get. So basically, I win!” He reached out to her in order to steer her shoulders in the right direction but she felt her body retract violently from his touch. She couldn’t. She wouldn’t.
“You’re wrong,” she said, her hands clutching clammily onto each other, “I’m not playing hard to get. I don’t want to go to the windmill with you because who the hell goes to visit windmills? And because I don’t want to be friends – I don’t want to be attached to anyone anymore.” She could feel herself trembling and falling apart at the edges. She turned her back on him as he blew out a long breath and started to walk away.
“Wow,” he said softly and she heard the unvoiced words rattling behind his exclamation: You really are a screwed-up kind of girl.
“Oh, you know what? How about I torch your family and then I’ll see if I can decipher how screwed-up you are?”
“I didn’t mean it, well-”
“You did – it’s a natural reaction, it’s just that most people are able to keep reactions like that inside their heads.” She clutched her arms across her ironing-board body like she was too brittle to stand alone.
“Sorry. God. I’m sorry. That was stupid of me. I didn’t think.”
“People don’t tend to.”
“No. Well, I suppose not. I – I just. Sorry. You should have-”
“I don’t want to talk about it,” she snapped, already regretting saying anything. I could be walking away and never coming back, she thought, but here I am still. She’d missed her chance and now she was locked in place – forever to be dogged by him and her secrets and his sympathy.
“OK, yeah. I get that.” He said it pointlessly because he obviously didn’t get it but he looked so mortified that she couldn’t bring herself to be so cutting as to tell him this. “Can we do something, go somewhere? Instead of standing in the middle of the street?”
“Yeah, I guess,” she shrugged, without knowing what had made her change her mind. She decided that she had been persuaded by his genuine guilty embarrassment and by the fact that she had absolutely nothing else to do.
He grinned broadly and then checked himself against her own sombre expression.
She had no alternative now. They both started walking without consultation and pretended that they had somewhere to go.
“Not the windmill then?”
“Why would we go to the windmill? It looks nice from my window – that’s all I need to know.”
“You live near the windmill?”
“We used to go all the time when I was a kid. I thought it was the most exciting thing since Finding Nemo – watching them pulleys and cogs... you can buy flour there as well.”
“What are you – tourist information?” She smiled briefly. “I haven’t honestly got much interest in buying flour.”
“Then you could make – what do you French call it? – ‘pain’ couldn’t you?” He looked so pleased with himself that it was almost comical.
She nodded vaguely and they both understood it as a dismissal.
“I understand,” he said, “you would make your own but the standard of bread at the Co-operative is just too sublime that nothing homemade could ever compare.”
“You owe way too much of your arrogance to that shop.”
They both laughed a little; damp laughter like cardboard boxes that had been stored in garden sheds or bruising apples that were laid out on the grass. Neither of them found the other funny but they found each other fascinating. They laughed out of convention, nervousness, misery perhaps.
“How come your English is so good, then? I mean, one minute you speak like a text-book and the next you sound like the sort of douche I’d go to school with.” He paused. “By ‘douche’ I mean idiot – of course – not shower. That’s what it means in French isn’t it?”
She shrugged, ignoring his attempt to impress her with his basic knowledge of French.
“I lived in England until I was three or four, my dad’s English, I’ve always been bilingual. All my school friends speak French but I have a half-English family who I used to talk to a fair bit. I don’t honestly know. It’s just, like, a part of me. I don’t really know how I learnt both so well – it’s how it’s always been; I might as well ask you how you speak English so well.”
“But do you think in English or French, which comes first?”
“What is so fascinating about me and the languages I talk?”
“I don’t know. It’s just,” he tried to think of a good enough word but settled for simplicity; “interesting.”
She knotted her fingers together, hoping she’d one day stop being ‘interesting’. She’d hoped that in England she could avoid all that and here she was over-spilling herself like a foolish miser; she’d been talking for only a few minutes but had already established herself as unstable, unhinged and interesting; all of those words she’d loathed. She’d loathed being something different; being the victim, the sympathy case – people were always grossly fascinated by destruction.
“What?” she asked viciously. “You mean I’m interesting because-” words failed to serve her. She knew what she wanted to ask him but could not express it in the tidal surge of her frustration. Interesting in the fact that I am a crashed car that you can’t help wanting to see more of? A freak show that you know you shouldn’t find as enticing as you do?
“I mean that I’ve never met anyone from France before and I think it’s cool and I wish that I could speak two languages and I also wish you didn’t keep jumping down my throat.”
“No.” She shook her head in aggravation. “This is what I mean – as soon as you’ve criticised me you take it back because I’m some ‘screwed-up kind of girl’ and you’re scared so you make allowances.”
“Get over yourself. You call me arrogant and hear you are labelling yourself as a special case.” He shook his head and Emma dropped hers. She knew she was arrogant but she also knew that he too had boxed her into the classification of ‘tragedy’ as firmly as she had herself.
“I make allowances,” he continued, “because I’m a generous person, a second chance kind of person-”
“You sound like a teacher about to tell me off.”
He ignored her highly fired and utterly childish interjection and continued calmly. “And, as such, I offer you an invitation for a second chance at this encounter. I realise that you are trying your utmost to shake me off but I, unfortunately, seem to still want to be friends with you so we are going to meet up next week.”
Emma was unsure whether it was him or her that was an anomaly. There seemed to be something painfully unnatural about his invitation but perhaps that was because of her inexperience in such matters as opposed to anything more suspicious.
“We are?” she asked with all the scepticism she could muster although she was secretly quite pleased. It was the childishness in her, the middle-class brattishness, that still clamoured for attention and felt flattered when it was granted. She craved attention as much as she feared it and to have the devotion of a self-proclaimed friend was secretly pleasing. She did not particularly want to be pleased so she pushed the feeling away, bitterly unable to deny that it had existed.
“Yes. I actually passed my driving test last week and have been annoyed by the fact that it hasn’t really enabled me to do anything more than what I could a year ago. Now I have something to do, somewhere to go, someone to take with me.”
Again she felt the words jar against her. They were foreign but not by language.
He tugged car keys casually from his pocket and she realised then, with disproportionate horror, that she had no idea how old this boy was. He was definitely still a boy in her eyes but with a personality that tried valiantly to be bigger than he was. He could not, she decided, be a man with his floppy hair and extortionate limbs. He had the look of a child that had been so busy growing that they hadn’t had time to fill out yet.
The fact that he wore a uniform and told her where to find cheese did not make him any older but the fact that he had a car and a licence somehow did. It alarmed her.
“I’m not sure if my dad would let me,” she excused herself hastily.
She was four months off sixteen and felt a million years too young to drive herself fast on a dark motorway.
“Then break the rules.” It was all simple for him; this whole game of being cool and effortless and worldly. He had learned the knack at some stage, the laid-back spontaneity that teenagers were meant to acquire but that she had not. He’d learned how to socialise and how to be human; Emma always remembered an advert for some kind of car that had been on TV several years previously. A sleek, gleaming car set at the centre of an enormous ice-block. She’d decided that that was how it was with her; a very small girl in an ocean of ice.
“What if the rules of being my friend state that you have to come with me next Saturday? Then what?”
“Oh, those rules are easier to break – they haven’t been around as long.”
He frowned at her but playfully.
“You are incorrigible. I’m going to turn up outside your house anyway.”
“You don’t know where I live.”
“I know your bedroom has a view of the windmill – I’ll make an educated guess.”
“Number five, Tippens Close.”
“I’m Ryan, by the way, that’s my name, in case you were wondering.”
“Oh. I’m Emma. I mean, I’m not actually called Emma but that’s what you can call me.”
“I’m fifteen,” she cringed as she said it. She couldn’t quite work out if that was too young or too old; she felt like she was both.