I wanted to clear up the fact that I wasn’t in love with her but I decided to let the issue fall into insignificance when she gave no indication that she thought I was. Insignificance, of course, has never been easy to feign and is even harder when someone peppers love hearts over whatever you're trying to forget. I tackled the issue by deciding that love never featured in it and found that this made it marginally easier to nullify. .
“You been here long?” she asked as we walked. I liked the way she walked; not too slow or too fast but somehow leisurely like it was effortless. Then I remembered the scuff on the bottom of her shoes and wondered whether she only walked on tiptoes when people weren’t around.
“What, in The Middle of Nowhere? Yeah. Forever.”
“Literally or figuratively?”
She flashed her sharp teeth at me; mouth fleetingly tweaked up at the corners so that she looked less frozen. It started to rain and, for a moment, I wondered if she’d melt into rivers as the water streaked down her cheeks.
“I meant actually ‘forever’ or just for your whole life?” she clarified.
“Oh, actually forever” I said with a grin. “I’m, like, secretly an infinitely old man who looks like a fifteen-year-old boy.”
"Oh God, no, stop with the Twighlight references!" We laughed in a way that was both awkward and comfortable.
“I like the rain,” she said inconsequently and tipped back her head to catch it on her tongue. “Pluviophile.” She somehow sounded very old even though she was still licking the sky like a toddler. “What about you?”
“Oh, well, yeah – I like the rain too,” I stumbled the words with no certainty that I was giving an acceptable response. Clearly it was the wrong answer because she looked at me with abhorrent scorn.
“That’s pathetic.” Her smile was gone instantly and recapturing the memory of it was like trying to rake clouds away from the sun. “You could at least have your own opinion.”
“Yeah, well, normally people don’t ask me what my favourite kind of weather is.”
“That’s because people are boring and they only ask questions that they can think of answers to.”
We reached the bus stop which was a little bit relieving to be honest because I couldn’t think of anything I could say in return. The bus stop was, like any others around here, a mere post with a Stagecoach flag and a timetable half buried in the shrubbery that outlined the lanes.
There were three school buses that had been set up to accommodate most students but none of them went as far as Llandrindod Wells. They just wriggled their way down roads that were too small for them, parked at each collection of houses and toured the cross-hatched fields that we called home. If you were lucky the bus took fifteen minutes but, for the further flung hamlets, it could be as much as an hour. I lived about twenty minutes’ walk from the school and so rarely went much further. My world was contained in a closet of green and, once a week, it fingered out to Rhayader where we shopped at the Tescos Superstore.
“It’s pretty boring here; you should come to Llandrindod sometime.”
“I do have the capacity to catch busses too – I’ve been to Llandrindod loads,” I said but it wasn’t really true. I could count on the fingers of one hand the number of annual trips I made to the town which felt like a city by virtue of the emptiness that surrounded it. “How long do you have to wait here anyway?”
“Eighteen minutes,” she replied, checking her phone.
“What the hell? Seriously? You are joking aren’t you? Oh my God,” I moaned.
“You’re the one who started stalking me. You didn’t have to come with me today.”
“I mean seriously, you wait this long every day?”
“Longer – you’re slower at walking,” she said which didn’t make sense because I’d matched her pace. “I suppose stalkers have to walk slower than their-”
“How many times-?” I rolled my eyes in exasperation “I. Am. Not. A. Stalker.” I pushed her fairly hard into the clump of early wild garlic on the roadside and she gaged at its pungency.
“God, the countryside stinks!” She said, writhing in the froth of wild flowers and I laughed because it was true in too many ways.
“So do towns; human life stinks.”
“Is that a simple fact of biology or a suddenly philosophical side coming out in you?” She asked dryly, picking herself back up and then unbalancing me so I stumbled, both frustrated and amused, and became equally submerged in the hedgerow. A small part of me couldn’t help liking the way that the plants enveloped me, hugging me the way people generally avoided doing. It was private – just the pair of us cloaked in the roadside and the smell of late January.
“I like snow, by the way,” I said as I regained my breath. “It’s better than rain. You don’t have to go to school and the hills round here are good for sledging – it’s always pretty thick – I’m the best at sledging out of my family.” I couldn’t help adding that childish boast to my explanation. I was pretty pathetic that I still craved praise and victory – some sort of greatness – over my older siblings but, try as I might, I still yearned for something that might set me apart as exceptional.
“Aww, aren’t you special,” she patronised. “Any good at snowball fights? Building snowmen?”
“Go on, I’m interested,” She curled her tongue around the words so that they spun off in crazy directions and left me wondering whether they were genuine at all. Was she just playing around – listing kids’ games – or was she waiting for an answer? Would it be stupider to answer or to pretend that she hadn’t spoken? Was it coincidental that her two suggestions were opposites – that one was a creation; the other was an act of destruction?
“I used to but my brothers always beat me at snowball fights or pushed over my snowmen so I gave up – when you go sledging you go so fast that the whole world seems to fall behind you and, just for a moment, you’re untouchable.”
I thought she might ask about my family or offer some sort of unwanted pity but she didn’t.
“What a poet,” she snorted and then we were kicking up the sludge that the rain had drawn from the fringes of the road at each other, unable to quite explain the point of it all. Why exactly was her hair speckled with mud and falling from the mess she had plaited it into? And why was I spraying dirt up from the roadside? And why was I laughing? And why was the car streaming past us now, peppered brown and blaring its horn at us? And why was she sticking up her middle finger at the driver? And why was I laughing?
The question really was: Why Iris? Something about Iris had broken through the everyday routine of walking to school, lessons, then walking home again. Something about her had ruptured everything I’d thought was set in stone.And why me? I was nothing special, as my dad’s every glance informed me. I was five feet and ten inches of brown-haired mediocrity; I was a swaying baby giraffe, dwarfed by the gangling reaches of my height.
It was only when she had got on the bus and I could see the blonde tangle that was her hair through the back window that I realised that I’d told her everything worth knowing about me and learned nothing about her.
She liked rain; that was all I knew.
When my dad demanded to know where I’d been and why I was so late I told him I’d been playing football. I don’t know where the idea came from but, perhaps because of the matted wetness of my hair and the mud crusted on my palms, he didn’t even question it.
“Are you on the year eleven team then? Good on you.” He said without waiting to be answered and I went upstairs feeling proud and disappointed at the same time. I’d never be as close to him as Dan and Matt were but he'd looked at me like I had ceased to be a complete failure. Dan and Matt had started at university that September but they were always there in the cottage with us. Their successes weighed heavily on every conversation. They were always there in the things my dad said and the comparisons he made; eternally present in the family they’d left behind them.
I think I liked being with Iris because she was distinctly uninterested in any member of my family. She didn’t seem to want to talk about the twins, or how funny or how clever they were.
My dad did.
Perhaps that was why he’d accepted my story so readily, because he’d wanted it to be true. He wanted me to be like them because I was never good enough as myself.