I ran into Iris just as I’d expected in the road that led to school. It was peak rush-hour for the school run but the size of our institution made the idea of rush-hour pretty negligible. She stepped off the bus like the same girl I’d known since January but I saw someone different. Someone unmasked.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” I accosted her as soon as she caught sight of me and headed in my direction.
“Tell you what?” She did not permit herself to appear hassled by my questioning although it must have hit her off-guard with its abruptness.
“About where you live,” I did my best to sound angry, remembering the way I’d sat fuming and yet stunned all the way home. I did my best to force my voice to carry the weight of all her untruthfulness and to let my words hurt her. I did my best to tell her, with five syllables, how much certainty the revelation had scooped out of me and how much I hated feeling like I’d been left in the dark. The thing about darkness is that you only notice it when you’ve light to compare it to. My understanding Iris was like being cured of blindness and suddenly realising how much I’d missed. I’d also realised that Iris was not easy; Iris went out of her way to make herself unlovable. Like she was afraid that someone might accidently care too much.
She blinked several times and I continued.
“Abdul told me.”
“What the hell?”
“Why didn’t you tell me?” I repeated.
“Does it matter?
I was unable to answer.
“Have you got something against rejects like us?” She began to fire the pellets she’d wound around her tongue. They sunk deep and hard and scarring. “Am I someone different now, now that you know?”
“Of course you- I don’t, I-”
“You think kids from care homes are scum or something?”
“No.” I shook my head furiously although I remembered once being told by my dad that kids ‘from out of the system’ were like blocked drains or punctured footballs. I’d imagined that the ominous-sounding ‘system’ stole their polish and their clarity and left them like soiled diamonds. I didn’t intend to tell Iris that, of course.
“You thought you could hook up with some stable, Christian good-girl?”
I knew that it wasn’t meant to be funny but I couldn’t help laughing. Mostly because of the tension but also because the image was impossible. “No one could ever think you were a stable, Christian good-girl, Iris. I hate to break it to you.”
“Stop laughing,” Her anger had mounted terrifyingly. It tsunamied around us; rearing from nowhere and bearing down on the whole of the country lane.
“Because I say so,” she hissed.
“You’re the one who told me to fight for myself.”
“Good.” She breathed heavily like withstanding the wave she’d created was exhausting. “You’re learning.”
Even though I was still half-laughing, I wasn’t ready to stop fighting. I know it was stupid of me but I wanted to see how long I could hold my corner for.
“Do you think kids from care homes are scum?” I challenged her. “Is that why you didn’t tell me? Cos you’re ashamed of it, or something? Cos you’re in denial?”
She did not reply. Her lips were trembling and I wondered briefly whether I’d gone too far.
“You could just have told me straight up in the first place.” I said, letting my voice deflate a few notches. “I wouldn’t care if you hadn’t kept on with all those stupid lies about your parents.” I decided to ignore Abdul’s comment about her name. I could not cope with the idea that she was not even remotely the person that I thought she was. In herself she had not changed at all but the idea that she was not, in fact, Iris was too much for me to deal with. I needed her to continue being Iris so that I could continue to feel like I knew some part of her, like I’d been waiting for her for eight years.
“You don’t understand.”
“Of course I don’t. You never tell me. You’re a mess, Iris; you’re just a load of untold secrets-”
“What are you talking about?” We both jumped when Jac spoke and we turned around with our mouths pressed tightly closed as though that could stop him from hearing the secrets we’d already told. It was funny how I saw myself as a Secret Keeper now. I knew the secrets and they became mine. I knew that they needed hiding.
“Nothing,” Iris and I said simultaneously.
“Nothing – of course; nothing... I never had you down as a secretive kind of girl,” Jac said idiotically. It was idiotic both in the way it was spoken and the words it contained. We all had Iris down as secretive. You didn’t have to bear the brunt of her lies to know that Iris was just secret after secret – a wild goose chase of mysteries. “Are secrets a regular feature of your relationship?”
“Does it concern you?” Iris snapped.
“Not particularly but it certainly interests me,” he winked suggestively. He could be a complete prick sometimes. Most of the time, actually, but we always forgave him for it.
“Well then piss off.”
He didn’t leave and instead fell into step beside us; humming absent-mindedly. Aaron also jogged over to join us; Iris really was magnetic. She was wearing a Led Zeppelin t-shirt and those baggy jeans again and I could never tell whether she wore the same pair non-stop or whether she had several all in similar states of decrepitude.
“Don’t let me distract you,” Jac said after an awkward suspension in the dialogue. “I mean, I don’t want to put you off your domestic, or anything.”
Needless to say we remained silent. I think I was afraid that I’d start spouting the truth from the minute I let my tongue free from between my teeth. I had to keep my mind under lock and key now. Jac broke the silence again without warning:
“I’m not wrong about what I think Durex is, am I?”
I exchanged a bewildered glance with Aaron; “Um, well, what do you think it means?”
“Because in Santa Baby, I swear it says Fill my stocking with some Durex.”
“Duplex. It says a Duplex,” Aaron confirmed.
“Goddamn it – how have I been mishearing it for so long? I’ve always heard that and thought to myself, Santa you shady fuck!”
“Why are you even asking about Santa Baby? For one thing it’s crap,” Iris dismissed him brusquely, “for another Christmas was nearly three months ago.”
“For some reason it’s on my sister’s iPod under her Revision Playlist.”
“She has a Revision Playlist? Wow that’s just – wow.”
“Yeah, we have every reason to believe that Jac was adopted,” I explained to Iris. “For one thing his levels of stupidity remain eternally unrivalled by his eight-year-old brother.”
“And for another,” Aaron interrupted, “The rest of his family is, believe it or not, vaguely civil.”
“I’ve come to see Lily Madoc,” I said, clearing the rasp of fog from my throat.
“If you don’t mind me asking-”
“I’m a friend. From school,” I clarified so that she would not have to ask me the question. For some reason the possibility of a question-mark over my head felt like a rejection.
“OK,” she smiled uncertainly. Clearly ‘school friends’ were not expected for Iris. “Is Lily expecting you?” It took me a while to wrap myself around the idea of Iris being Lily and so I struggled to reply.
“Sorry – no. I doubt it.”
“It’s just that we do have to consider – well, you know, we can’t just let anybody in. Strictly speaking, visits have to be arranged via social workers and it’s – well, you know, policy.”
“Fuck policy,” a familiar voice to my left said. I turned to see Iris. She didn’t look particularly pleased to see me.
“Lily, please, language,” the woman tutted.
“I’m just saying,” Iris muttered. “Let him come in. Who says I didn’t invite him and just forget to tell you?”
“Well then you should know that you have to run all meetings by us prior-”
“Great. I’ll remember next time.”
“Lily, you know that these rules are in place for your own safety.”
“Yeah, that or the safety of your job. Take your pick.” She shrugged off the woman like she was a wet raincoat.
“We’re going upstairs. We won’t be long.”
“You don’t need to look so scandalised,” she said scathingly. I couldn’t work out who she was less impressed by, me or the other woman. “He’s hardly going to rape me.”
We left the hallway and climbed the stairs before the woman could intervene. I doubted that she’d chase the matter to its conclusion. She seemed too exhausted to try reasoning with a blonde girl who seemed to know the answers to almost every question.
“You shouldn’t have come,” she said as we reached the second floor landing. “And I’m not just saying that because of Paula, I’m saying it because I didn’t invite you and I don’t want you here.”
“Friendly,” I commented.
“I don’t know why you bothered. It’s a waste of bus money – coming here – if you ask me.”
“I had the address and nothing better to do.”
“Good to hear I’m a last resort,” she retorted with a hint of a smile.
“You’re supposed to be grateful that you’re on the list at all,” I berated her. Iris was complicated; talking to her was like an extended game of spin the bottle. One minute things were pretty, the next they were ugly. Confidence and carelessness came and went like the undulations of an oscilloscope or the floundering of a heart monitor. She always threw in some cruelty; there was never a time when she could not find something to use as a blade.
She opened a door on her left and gestured inside.
“My crappy room,” she announced.
I was not prepared for the innards behind the door. I never realised that pastel yellows and flat-packed furniture could be so hard hitting but they were, somehow. They were because they clashed with everything I’d thought Iris was. They did not fit the jigsaw of glares and frosted relationships. Squeezing them into my idea of Iris was like trying to press a two-pound coin into a slot machine built for smaller change.
“Wow,” I said unintentionally and she turned to look at me. “I just mean that it’s not very you.”
“When did I become an adjective?”
“You know what I mean; it wasn’t what I was expecting from-”
I trailed off as she watched my face.
“Thought I was someone entirely different did you? Thought you’d got to know a girl without a sensitive side? You thought I was more like this?” She opened the wardrobe and it was like falling into another world. There were so many band slogans and names and lyrics pasted where she should have had clothes that it was like being shouted at. There was no sign of the Ikea finish; it was buried beneath iconic snapshots of legendary corpses and the screams of black and white and red.
Yes, that was what I was expecting.
I kind of wondered where she kept her clothes if not in this weird musical shrine and she just jerked her head to the set of drawers like the question had spilled out of my mouth.
“I’ve got no dresses to hang up.”
She booted the doors shut and we were back to the gentle touches of a girl’s bedroom and the photos of a little blonde girl on the wall.
“Obligatory kid’s home furnishings,” she said, gesturing around her to the general room. “I wouldn’t change it if I was allowed though.”
“You wouldn’t?” I’d imagined that the wardrobe was her entire world.
“No. When there’s nothing else left but you still have a bedroom it has to be a… No – I don’t know; I’m making stuff up,” she massaged her wrist and left her words hanging on the edge of her lips without licking them clear.
“Sooo,” I stretched the words like tarpaulin over a leaking roof. “These books are also obligatory kid’s home furnishings?” I asked, my eyes settling on a selection of paperbacks lined in regiment on a shelf.
“Oh no, I bought them,” she said vaguely, turning her face away to look out of the window. I wondered how many times it was possible to be surprised be the same person – how many times you could think you knew someone only to find that you were wrong.
“French Verbs, Concise French Dictionary, GCSE French?” I reeled off the list of titles which progressed from these text-book type publications to collected short stories by Émile Zola then a children’s-type book called Le Petit Prince. I couldn’t work her out. My eyes drifted on to the next shelf and a series of cookery books.
“What the hell? French and cookery?”
“What’s wrong with that? Do you want me to laugh at you too? Flowers and Boat Driving?”
“Shut up.” The irritation of her using my confession against me and rubbing it in my face was like a bruise, no – a headache – that I wasn’t able to place. It hurt that she’d said it so I laughed in the hope that nobody would search for bitterness in a smile.
“You live a new life for each language you learn,” she said and I snorted so that she could be as annoyed as I was.
“You should put that up as an advert for GCSE Spanish. Señor Edwards would be so proud. Or is that where it came from?”
“It came from a brain more intelligent than yours and, when your life is like mine, you need as many of them things called lives as you can get.”
“If you say so, Mademoiselle.”
“Mademoiselle doesn’t exist anymore. Apparently. The rules of the French language have changed. Apparently. Everyone is a happy, feminist ‘Madame’ these days. Honestly, Gareth,” She quipped, “Have you been living under a rock?”
“Obviously,” I said with half-raised eyebrows and, out of the blue, she knotted her fingers through mine. I turned my face to the daisy-chained wall so that she couldn’t see how hard I was smiling.