Stalking Iris to the bus stop soon became a regular thing. This was partially because I had to keep up the pretence with my dad that I was on the football team but mostly because it was a habit that had been far too easy to fall into.
“Not coming today?” She asked one gold-rimmed, thawing afternoon in February.
“My dad will get suspicious – I can’t have ‘Football Practice’ every day.”
“So?” she asked.
She didn’t take it any further but somehow I felt like I was being moulded into a lifestyle that I followed in the pressing desire to please Iris. Whenever my own opinion came up against hers, hers would be bigger somehow and its unyielding presence squashed mine until I could not help but let her stamped-out words press me flat. I knew there’d be questions when I got home but I ended up following her out of school anyway – like a little dog, I thought sourly.
“Do you have any idea how much it annoys me when you don’t stand your ground?” She asked as I caught up with her just past the school gates.
“I can go home if you want,” I retorted. “You’re the one who told me to come.”
“You’re so impressionable; you just do what you think other people will agree with – what you think I’ll agree with – rather than actually holding your own corner.”
“Don’t try to talk me into something and then get annoyed with me for it,” I scowled shoving my hands in my pockets. I think most of my frustration came from the fact that I knew it was pathetic to be so utterly dependant on what Iris would think of me.
“Don’t blame me for your pliability.”
“Pliability?” I snorted with laughter and the friction slipped away like the candyfloss clouds above our heads. “I’ll try harder next time,” I promised.
Each day the wait for the bus stop seemed to get shorter so that it got to the stage that eighteen minutes were not quite enough. We burned out the day’s light on a road side playing at an absurd sort of friendship that felt more like lies. Iris was not the sort of person that you were friends with. You loved or you nothinged – that was who she was.
To my surprise, she rooted in her school bag and produced a packet of Marlboro cigarettes.
“Want one?” she held out the packet to me. There was something disturbingly natural about the way her arm extended to me and the way the rolled up paper hung between her fingers. It didn’t look out of place in her hand, almost like her body wouldn’t be quite complete without it there.
“You’re offering me a cigarette?” I asked, drawing back a little but not wanting to let on just how disconcerted I was.
“Sure, I mean, I’d rather offer you one than have you beg or steal them off me;” I couldn’t get my head around the way she was talking about it – like it was normal. Didn’t she know that these things killed you?
She laughed and her tongue flickered with the bubble of smoke that drifted out. A total mind reader.
“Not a smoker?” She asked with a raised eyebrow. I just didn’t get this girl. I didn’t get why she was acting like I was supposed to be and that it was ordinary to feed your starving lungs with fuel that killed them.
“So am I,” She answered immediately but she lowered her upturned palm and removed the offer of early death and lung cancer and whatever else we’d been warned about in year eight. I didn’t like the smell of it on her, merging muskily with her vanilla shampoo. It was clingy and it fogged across her teeth when she smiled; thickening the air between us like unspoken words.
“My dad would kill me – he’d kill my brothers if they did and they’re 18 – they’re not illegal.”
She flinched as I said it and made an effort to hide her discomfort by pulling it from between her lips. “I guess I’m not exactly The Girl Next Door,” she said and crushed the cigarette under the heel of her boots.
“I’d noticed that.” I said and then we were both laughing and lain back on the verge with the grass flicking around our faces and the sky infinite above us and the stink of tar rotting her breath. I didn’t even care.
“Half term tomorrow,” Cerian squealed at lunch break as though we all needed the reminder.
Jac and Aaron whooped and Iris let a rare grin escape her. She had a pretty smile that was younger than the rest of her face – like it hadn’t been used enough times.
“Yay…” I mocked and they turned to look at me.
“You don’t like the holidays?” Cerian asked, her eyes wide and incredulous.
“There’s not much to do when you’re seven miles from nowhere,” I shrugged. I mean, there’d been things to do once upon a time before I stewed my imagination over its last campfire. “And if I complain then Mum ropes me into doing work for her.”
“Fair point,” Iris thought momentarily, “You’re so boring.”
“He is,” Jac agreed lightly, “Such a kill-joy. I mean, what kind of kid doesn’t like the holidays.”
“How am I bo-?”
“Like, there’s so much that you could do if you bothered to think of things.”
“Not really; it’s either getting bored to the point when you are actually physically sick of Facebook and YouTube or doing stuff for your parents.”
“You have a farm then, do you?” I got a fleeting glimpse of Iris’ canines but her eyes forgot to be amused and instead threatened to overspill. “I can picture you with one of them farmer caps and a stick of corn in your mouth.”
“It’s not called a stick,” I smiled to make up for her own leaking grin “and no, we have a Cottage Kitchen Café,” I didn’t expect her to be particularly interested in what I planned to say but threw caution into the wind an launched into a full explanation. “And we have a vegetable garden so that Mum can feel more justified in giving our shop thing that name. She and my sister cook all this stuff – you know, cakes, bread, soup, whatever – and sell it to local people and unsuspecting tourists. It’s all very storybook” I concluded scathingly. I had no idea how my parents had ended up glued into their marriage like insects trying to crawl from flypaper; I’d often wondered how a man who’d spent his childhood wanting to be a pilot and his adulthood wanting to be a footballer could have fallen hard enough in love with a woman who was more attracted to the smell of baking than his steaming aftershave.
“They sort of balance each other out,” Bron had once suggested to me, “I’m like Mum, the twins are like Dad and you… well, I suppose you’re kind of different.”
Different, the word was like those sour sweets that you have to keep sucking in the hope that they’ll get sweeter.
In my head, Mum and my dad were two separate worlds which co-existed solely because of some promise they’d made too many years ago. They were Venn-diagram people who merged only enough to fill convention.
Iris tilted her head to one side like she was listening and estimating me but I could never really tell with her.
“Erm, well I think we’ll just go,” Jac said with a purposeful and hinting awkwardness.
“Yeah, I’ve err just remembered to go speak to Mrs Apted,” Aaron mimicked and the three of them left, creeping away like they were playing out some sort of pre-scripted idea of teen romance. It frustrated me but at the same time I felt somewhat flattered. It was weirdly pleasing to have them acting like the conversation was anything more than mundane and that Iris and I were anything more than two separate kids who waited for buses.
Iris shook her head and continued as though the exchange had gone unbroken.
“You’re not a fan of Cottage Kitchen Cafés then?” She asked me, it unsettled me how she arranged her words to me like they were all devices. Like she was a barometer to my mood and somehow had second-guessed all my speeches before I spoke them.
“Am I supposed to be?”
“No, but somebody round here must be because otherwise everyone would have cottoned on to the fact that tourists prefer buying ice-creams.”
“These aren’t those kinds of tourists; these are misguided-Sat-Nav-tourists or hard-core-hiker-tourists. We don’t get the normal kind.” Sorry, our stock ran out long ago, they went running off to the nearest hotel when they realised how intimate the countryside was. “Having said that, if you went over to Rhayader in the school holidays you could probably bulk buy Tesco’s own brand ice cream on one side of the town and sell scoops of it in plastic glasses on the other side. You’d be rolling in it.”
“Awesome – let’s do it.”
“Why don’t we? And don’t just excuse yourself the way you always do. ‘I’m fifteen’” she mimicked.
“We’re fifteen,” I argued back resolutely, mostly because I didn’t think I could keep up with her and partly because there must surely have been some sort of law that stopped fifteen-year-olds from setting up impromptu ice-cream stalls.
“Oh my God! Being fifteen is the reason for why we should do it,” her voice was hiccupping between excitement and exasperation. “We have to do crazy things now before we’re too old, too scared and too sensible.”
“I doubt my dad would agree.”
“What’s the big deal with your dad and everything?” She shook my arm impatiently and I noticed, not for the first time, an odd childishness about her which was impossible to interpret and could not be captured. She was one of those people who you could only ever imagine existing – no infancy behind them – and yet she did things sometimes like she was trying to prove how young she still was.
“He doesn’t like me much. Something to do with his perception of how a boy is meant to be which I, apparently, don’t fulfil.” I said it and then realised how desperately detached I was trying to sound; brushing off the things that had hurt the child version of me so that she didn’t think I was as useless as my dad seemed to. I gave her a rough overview of my childhood with the same careless flippancy and realised I was no better than Jac dragging himself to the gym in Rhayader to impress Cerian. Pretending to be tough and unsentimental because I knew that she was veiled in frost. It was kind of ironic that the cause of most of the problems with my dad was the one thing that proved him wrong because there was, in actual fact, nothing “queer” about loving Irises.