I run out of the house holding a piece of toast. I have never done this before. I have only read about it in books or seen it on TV. I didn’t think people took toast with them on the bus, but here I am.
The bus is packed and I stand the entire way, dropping crumbs onto the plastic floor and claiming looks from around me. People do not like the smell of marmite on their bus journeys.
When I reach school, I jump off the bus and meet my friends.
“I’m tired, you?”
“Did you hear about Mrs Faulklin?” And so on. My friends don’t stop talking as we walk into the main building. Mrs Faulklin is taking time off, apparently. She’s getting a divorce. Or an abortion. Or something that’ll make her sour on Monday. My friends – the group of us – are few and sparse. We don’t see each other often and when we do we talk for little time.
There are four of us. Jack. Harry. Lily. Me.
We shouldn’t get along. We are very different. We have nothing in common. We argue often.
Jack picks fights. He’s hot-headed with no sugar.
Harry plays guitar. Harry is broken strings and rainy mornings.
Lily is academic. She is a broken heart with a firewall.
We speak until we reach the classroom and then file in silently. Mr Dunbar doesn’t like noise. He doesn’t like voices. He doesn’t like teenagers. Above all, he doesn’t like us. The four of us. The square in the corner, the wheels of a car. Jack. Harry. Lily. Me. He doesn’t like us.
The four of us take our seats in the back corner. A table of four. A window and a radiator. Lily clicks her pen on the table. Jack swings back in his chair. I place my book in front of me, making the edges parallel to the table. Harry stares out the window.
Maths is difficult when you are not made for it. Lily is made for Maths, and therefore helps us with all of the work. But helping turns to cheating, and Lily shrugs and gives us the answers. Maths is made of numbers on symbols, and when you’re paint on letters, like Harry, or fists on Red Bull, like Jack, you don’t understand easily. I am neither; I am oblivious, unaware. I am quiet and I copy everything down slowly but surely. I add working out that I don’t understand and pretend I do. I look away from Mr Dunbar when he searches for those in need and I click the buttons on my phone that rests on my leg and hope that the words I send there are more important than the formulas I write here.
Jack, Harry, Lily and I say goodbye after our lesson as we move to our next. Harry and I share English together. English is him. He is writing and poetry; song lyrics and stories. I do not need help in English. I refuse it when it is offered. Why ask for help in the language I speak?
Harry and I are silent, next to each other. I sit on the right, and he on the left. I am right handed, while he is left. We do not jog each other, or bump. We do not touch each other with our bodies but with the quick glances thrown into empty space that we hope to be caught.
There is a girl on the other side of Harry. She sings and plays piano. She writes and drinks coffee. She takes photos of rain and sun and clouds and the sky. She is Harry as a woman. Harry as a young girl. They share everything apart from themselves and yet they are in love. They may not speak. They may not touch. But everything they share is true and solid and real. Her name is Penelope. She likes being called Penny but I don’t do that. I call her Penelope each and every time.
She has never corrected me.
After English we have break. Harry sits with Penelope and Jack tackles a stranger in Take Down Bull Dog. Lily and I sit side by side. She has a book open on her lap. Science. Revision. Ready for the Summer exams that seem so far away yet I know are approaching steadily. Lily is the future. She always will be. She reminds me that it’s coming. She reminds me that I’m not ready for it. I glance down at her book.
Atoms. She is reading about atoms. We are made up of atoms. Everything is made up of atoms. And particles and cells. And I find it funny that the atoms that make up Lily are reading about atoms. It is like taking a photo of yourself and taking another of you looking at it. You are on the inside but at the same time on the outside.
It’s also funny how you can feel like that. Or how I feel like that. I am on the inside but also on the outside. The four of us are like that. We are inside but there is a free road. We are open. We are a system with multiple doors. They swing backwards and forwards and you can leave and return without buying anything.
A body appears beside me, kisses me, holds me. His name is Rich and he isn’t. He has very little money and very little time for anything other than studying. He and Lily would get along well. He wants to leave and that’s why I like him. Because wherever he goes, he can take me along with him.
Rich is beautiful and loud and everything that I am not. I tell him opposites attract and he tells me that we are not magnets. We do not work by poles or forces. He tells me that we are one and the same. We are not different or opposite. We are not attracted by our differences but by our similarities. He calls me beautiful. He calls me gorgeous. And lovely. And darling. And baby.
Today, he asks me if I’m doing anything at the weekend.
“When do I?” I reply. Rich laughs and smiles. I love his smile. His teeth are all perfectly straight and perfectly white. He says a thousand words with a single smile. While mine only tell that I brushed my teeth.
“We could go to the park?” He suggests. He always suggests the free options. I have noticed that. Never a cinema or play. Never the ice rink or the ballet. Or shopping. Or bungee jumping. Or anything along the sea front in the fair ground. He likes free. He likes walking, running, cycling. I do not think it is as much to do with the lack of money as it is with the lack of substance that you get by watching a film.
A film is public. It is watched and adored by many. You sit in the cinema surrounded by people like you. In groups. On dates. It is like you are not doing anything by yourself, but with fifty others. You are sharing your date. It is in the dark, also. Why take someone you love somewhere you cannot see him. The park, however, is bright. There is the sun and the trees; the birds chirping and children laughing. There is light and life and I can see Rich’s smile as we talk.
“Sure, sounds great.”
Afterwards, the classes pass by quickly. I have Science in our four. I sit next to Rich, though, who has the class also. The five of us make up a single bench. Lily takes charge of the experiment, and Jack is only interested if something blows up. There is no fire and so Jack sits on his stool and balances water bottles on top of each other. Harry does what he is told and I follow suit, while Rich stands with Lily and they figure out the logistics. Rich smiles when Lily makes a joke. Rich smiles when Jack knocks over the tower of bottles. Rich smiles when Harry tells him about a guy he met. Rich smiles when we meet eyes.
In Music we are put in trios. Three to a group. Three instruments. Harry plays guitar. Harry can strum a melody and you will be flying. His fingers are like wings, and they lift you up as he plays. Jack is a drummer and has been since he was young. He plays the drums like he tackles strangers; hard, fast and definite. He does not make a mistake and every beat is on point. I am set up with a microphone in the studio and I stare at it for a while.
“Try Fire Light,” Harry tells me. He wrote a song. He wrote many. He passes them on to us. Lily would smile and not comment and Lily doesn’t take this class. She doesn’t understand a metaphor or a simile. She will smile and pretend to understand meaning. She will not. She does not. She phones me to explain when we return home.
Jack starts off the song, each bang of the drum done perfectly; each cymbal clap at the right moment. Harry plays notes and then chords and I am left waiting for my moment. Harry wrote the song a year ago. We have been playing it ever since. I remember Jack and I reading it, editing it, writing the notes to go alongside it. Harry watched, trying out each change as we went.
When I start singing, the world goes red. I don’t see anything other than the words burned onto the back of my eyelids. The sound of my voice and the guitar and the drums is all I can hear and all I want to.
I burned away the song that you wrote for me,
The deathly sounding notes now traveling across the sea.
The fire burns down all my hopes and dreams,
Yet I’ll sit here, listening to my screams.
The light of the fire flickers against my skin,
And I’ll wait for you to scald me from within.
I am the flame that you set on my words,
After I sent yours away with the birds.
Now I’m home, safe against your wrath,
You’ll be kept out, and stopped from reaching my path.
I’ll burn on, hidden from your spite,
With no lights on, but lit by fire light.
Rich walks me home. He tells me that he wants to be a journalist. I tell him that I already know. He shrugs. He tells me again. He says the words over and over, changing them each time. He wants to be a journalist. He has to be a journalist. Journalism can take him anywhere. He can travel across the globe. He can live anywhere and everywhere.
My story doesn’t start until Tuesday. Because that’s when my sister will need me. That’s when my life changes. But today, on Friday, I realise that Rich will not want me around forever. He is telling me now. He is telling me that even though I want him to get me out of this place, he wants to go lots of places without me. He has not broken up with me. But he will.