The envelope quivered in Lucy’s hand; dry, fragile and final as leaves that fall in early autumn. She was more nervous than she would allow herself to admit and so found that her lateness was relieving. The canteen was largely empty; it had been raided practically bare by ten thirty and the raiders had already departed, either cowed or jubilant. Now, in the comparative quiet of ten past eleven, Lucy would mercifully be free from spectators observing her disappointment.
She was not exactly nervous of the disappointment – she was well accustomed to falling-short and feeling both dissatisfied and dissatisfactory – she was concerned instead by the realisation that she actually had something to lose.
She knew that it was stupid when, in fact, everything had already been determined, but she half believed that, as long as the grades stayed hidden in their brown paper, they still retained potential. Like a ball about to be launched from a hilltop. Waiting did not realistically give her results any opportunity to alter themselves but she somehow felt that it could. Until she saw them, the possibilities remained.
“Are you waiting for somebody?” an English teacher Lucy’d taken care not to befriend asked her.
She shrugged in response and set herself to the task in hand; hooking a nonchalant finger beneath the seal of glue.
It tore and the teacher moved on – trotting to her BMW in high heels that flippered on and off her feet. Lucy watched her go with a combination of bitterness and grim pleasure; she had been right to believe that her school gave a shit only until the institution itself was safe.
She’d always hated the hypocrisy of the school’s slogan: Your Journey Matters. What mattered to the school was not where their students journeyed but ensuring that it itself did not budge an inch in its reputation.
Disillusionment powered her hands and they progressed along the seal. They worked faster now, gripped no longer by the desire to preserve potential but the desire to know the answers. So many supposedly attentive weeks had washed past her unnoticed and now she felt the anticipation of them hit her; utterly undiluted. Frenetic and savage as children on a tropical island, her fingers exposed the documents within, seized paper, and surfaced.
She took a while to process what they contained. She only registered the cramping and fluctuating of her stomach under the magnitude of her relief. She could not say if she was pleased but she was aware of feeling that she had been somehow resolved. If these letters had ever been unimportant, they had been deceiving her. They mattered now and she permitted them to matter because there was little else she could do. They counted because they managed to suffice. She had been convinced for so long that nothing would make them count but she found that she had been misled.
“Well?” Mum asked as soon as the pair of them were buckled side by side once more. The desperation to divine whether to assume an expression of joy or commiseration was almost comical. Lucy might have been tempted to joke about it if she wasn’t so acutely conscious of how invested in her future mum was.
“Six A*s, five As.”
The face lit from within like a Halloween pumpkin – tired creases and grudges smoothed in the glow of the tea-light sparked inside.
“Oh, Lucy, well done! I’m so proud,” Lucy couldn’t help feeling that such words were sourced from a well of stock phrases – soundbites which would have been wheeled out for use regardless of the circumstance.
Her irresponsiveness provoked another tirade of celebration and then, finally, a pause.
“Well, you must be pleased, at any rate?” Mum suggested.
Lucy hated herself for it – for stepping all over her mum’s dogged enthusiasm – but she let her shoulders jump and fall again.
“If you say so,” she said.
“And your teachers – they’ll be delighted?!”
Lucy shook her head; “It doesn’t matter now, I’m free; I’ve escaped.”
And she turned the volume knob on the radio with a viciousness that startled her mother into accelerating.
“Are you mental?” Lucy demanded, “It’s practically the point of a shared garden – that no one ever shares it!”
“Just because that’s convention doesn’t mean it should be the case. If so, it’s pretty stupid don’t you think? Pretty pathetic that we can’t bring ourselves to use it together, isn’t it?”
“Oh, come on, Mum! Do you really think anyone will be up for it?” Lucy inwardly cursed her mum’s simplistic and optimistic view that plates of couscous could bind loose pages into place and cement between the cracks. “I mean, this place isn’t exactly buzzing with social zeal. Particularly not now.”
“That’s why I’m doing it – because of now.” Their proximity to discussing the suicide ruffled them and set the conversation off kilter. Mum was knifing apples with the sort of dexterity normally attributed to MasterChef contestants. “And I think you’ll find, Lucy, that both families seemed more than happy to join in. We agreed on twelve thirty, OK?”
“Well obviously they agreed; they’re far too polite to tell you to piss off. Doesn’t mean they actually want it.”
“Give me a hand, will you?” Mum thrust the chopping board in her direction but Lucy did not budge from the bottom step of the staircase. She had resolved to take all necessary measures to dissuade Mum from achieving the shared lunch she was so set upon.
“I mean,” Lucy began, pointing to the wall that backed on to their neighbours’ house. “They hate me.”
“Well then, now’s your chance to change that. And I’m sure they don’t hate you.”
“And it’s not fair on the French people. I know the girl a bit. Trust me on this.”
“What’s not fair? And can you get shifted! I didn’t tell you my plans so that you could argue with me, I told you so that you could help me out. I’ve got to get the courgettes roasted.” Mum was in her element in the kitchen, Lucy noticed. She felt stupid and neglectful for not noticing it before. Being among the saucepans seemed to lend her a strength that she owned in no other situation. Like a footballer on home territory. Their divergence in lifestyle and preferences meant that the pair of them didn’t tend to spend time together in this room, particularly not for productive purposes. Mum found in vegetable racks and oven gloves what Lucy had found at the library.
“It’s not fair to ask them to come and be sociable because they’re not the right kind of people for that. I don’t think they want to talk to people. Expecting them to come and chat, that’s unfair, don’t you think.”
“I think,” Mum announced to the oven, “that you are imposing too much of yourself onto people you scarcely know.”
Lucy could not muster a response. She was still not used to talking to mum with anything close to the level of intensity that they had taken to speaking in the past couple of weeks. Therefore she was most definitely not accustomed to being beaten into submission by conversation.
Perhaps Lucy had been wrong to assume that she and her mother knew nothing of each other. It seemed that Mum was pretty good at estimating what Lucy’s head contained. It was, perhaps, only Lucy who had not bothered to familiarise herself with her family.
“What if they don’t like roasted courgettes?” Was her feeble attempt at a final protest.
“I’m sure they will.”
“Now who’s imposing too much of themselves on people they scarcely know?”
The garden felt unexpectedly small once the dishes had congregated there. Clustered on the table, they reminded Lucy of the birds soon to be lining up on telephone wires and departing en mass.
Mum smiled and welcomed and found spaces and seats for the food while leaving the people to drift on their uncertain feet. Each had the sense of trespassing on ground that was not theirs to stand on. They searched for consolation in the everyday strangers that surrounded them.
“You can sit down, you know?” Lucy said after an uncomfortably quiet ten minutes had passed them by. It took a while to seat themselves because nobody was confident that they could find themselves a place without instruction. Mum seemed too absorbed in organising salads to organise anything more important. Lucy decided that Mum was probably less confident in the merits of her idea than she had pretended to be when arguing its case earlier.
The plastic chairs groaned under the weight of all their apologies. Beneath them, the patio seemed to sag. They did not speak but their hands and heads were nothing if not apologetic. Desperately so. Because they did not know what else they could be.
Lucy was waiting for an adult to create an inroad into the glass partitions between the families. Despite existing under each other’s noses, they knew nothing beyond assumptions, rumours and brief encounters. They didn’t know where to begin. Would it be helpful or grossly tactless to pretend that the past month had not occurred?
Mum handed out melon slices and kitchen roll, trying to keep her belief in the restorative powers of food afloat.
“It’s nice doing this.” The boy from next door said, turning one hand over inside the other as though resisting an urge to grab hold of something. Lucy looked at him, the boy she had vindictively enjoyed upsetting not so many weeks ago and wondered how she had done it. Her gaze was not alone in falling to him; the focus swarmed to the one person commanding it like ants to a windfall apple.
“Doing it here, I mean,” he continued. “Replacing the bad memories with good ones.”
The silence broke while an autumn wind blew in above.