When I thought of Iris afterwards I could not help but see Rhona Madoc staring out at me with that same head of whitened hair and the police mug-shots that the internet bore. Rhona glared out at me from all the stains she’d left on her pretty little girl. Iris was an amber light; a half-hearted warning. Like mother like daughter, a protesting corner of me insisted.
Like father like son, I reminded that corner.
That stupid saying about birds of a feather boomeranged back to the front of my mind whenever I shooed it away because I realised that Iris and I were similar species. She was an escalated version of me. She was what happened when a parent who hits you occasionally became a parent who hit you until your heart refused to beat back. We’d flocked together – fallen to waltzing within each other’s gravity – and so we’d proceeded to create as much carnage as two sinking feathers could create.
When I’d professed that I was guilty – at some point between screaming and saving – a team of spark-crushers had been blundering into a fire engine. When we’d sat in the ruptured office, at the centre of a different collection of buildings, there had been men who’d ricocheted over from Rhayader to put out the mess we’d started. After Iris had left, there was a flurry of dialled numbers and curt conversations which had left me officially disgraced. There was no weight or evidence behind my disgrace; only my confession and the unshakeable fact that I felt contaminated. I was indefinably linked to what was unavoidably arson and that was all anybody could discern.
While the governing force of the school rushed around trying to save their credibility and to salvage the calm they had always taken for granted my parents were gravely informed that there had been an “incident.”
“Incidents such as these are always difficult to lay the blame for and monumental to recover,” they had been told. “Gareth was caught up in the tragedy that occurred today. We honestly – Yes, of course, Mrs Argall – we honestly will endeavour to get to the bottom of today’s horrific occurrence.”
My dad did not look particularly angry but I knew that the rage would come. Mum looked devastated but I knew that indifference would follow. After a while, indifference overcame everything. I doubted that ninety-nine percent of the population felt anything other than indifference when Rhona Madoc was mentioned these days. They’d had eight years to cultivate it after all. We’d had eight years of re-opening scars that could never quite heal.
“We will attempt to re-open the school as per usual as soon as possible but, obviously, this issue is greater than most…”
“We understand,” Mum said and she looked at me like she wanted to rummage through all my untidiness and rediscover the little boy I’d once been. She wanted to find him and treasure him and never let him grow into this flawed fire-starter. I might not have been the match but I was the strike-pad. “Come on, Gareth, we’re leaving.”
No one dragged me away in chains; no one ever hunted me down for it and I found myself instead being overcome by the ultimate punishment. Getting away with it. That was how I paid for my crimes. Of course we discussed it; at home the matter was dissected and done hastily away with that very day. Sometimes Aaron would say things out of the blue like, “Do you think she – Iris, I mean – did she ever take her GCSEs?” We’d ponder it in silence, coming to the unanimous conclusion that the ‘General’ of ‘General Certificate of Secondary Education’ did not apply to someone so side-lined from normality.
Cerian reminded us of her at random, although none of us would forget, and she nudged us on more than one occasion; “You remember when Iris said 5sos wouldn’t last? I bet she takes it back now.” The three of us would exchange slivers of sceptical glances which replied: I doubt it.
Jac once asked how far I’d gone with Iris and I never answered him because the greatest physical token had been when she held my hand that day in the yellow light of her bedroom. Perhaps that embarrassed me a little. I knew at the same time, however, that I’d gone so far that I was unredeemable. He smirked when I didn’t answer and decided that my silence meant everything that it didn’t. I was OK with that. I got through many years by playing pretend games; I was like Iris in that respect as well.
The truth is that she was always Iris to me. She could be nothing other than the rippling name that had sunk six feet deep beneath my ribs and I did not care how many times she’d been retitled. Only one title meant anything to me. Each new name was a new mask for her to wear; a short burst of immunity that would inevitably grow thin with time.
That night my dad asked me “what the hell did you do?” but not before he’d asked a God he preyed on “What the hell did I do to deserve this son?”
I told him quite simply that “it was Iris,” and both he and Bronwyn stopped and stared. They had to rewind a little way; locate the point in time when irises had been significant to them.
“You’ve got bloody cheek,” my dad informed me; “You and your imagination. I thought you grew out of that.”
So I stood up and kicked over my chair; I spilled my self-control and let myself be fifteen and limitless. I tossed aside the years of practising patience and calm and glared at the man I was fifty percent made up of.
“You’ve got bloody cheek to insist on judging me for some stupid incident I’ve spent eight years trying to forget. Iris is a girl in my class. She was. She’s a real human being – someone I’ve been trying unsuccessfully to impress all term. She’s not really called Iris – that was just her pseudonym – she’s Rhona Madoc’s daughter. Remember her. Yeah; that one. The twin of the dead girl.” Savageness coursed from the plains of my tongue. “She started the fire. I’m guilty by association.”
“Gareth?” Mum asked inconsequentially. She did not have a question, only my name.
“Neither of you get it, do you? I’m trying to explain. We let things go for so long that you barely know who I am anymore,” it was true because they knew the ten percent of the iceberg that protruded above the ocean. I wanted to say that I’d outgrown my imagination but it wasn’t true because even as I spoke I was still telling fantasies. I wasn’t guilty by association; I was associated and guilty.
“I’m sorry,” Bronwyn said.
“I’d rather you didn’t bother with that; Iris tried to burn herself alive today – be sorry for her. And be sorry that you forgot to care about Rhona Madoc’s daughter. And be sorry that I don’t think I’ll ever see her again.”
I exited. I exited like it was a direction in a play script only, when I left the stage, I returned a little while later whereas Iris had “Exeunt” written all over her.
I received a friend request on Facebook yesterday.
Further investigation led me to a profile picture of the back of a blonde head. The name given was Rainbow although the picture was sepia hewed and, when I accepted the request, I persisted with my childishness just long enough to imagine that the photographed girl would turn and fix me with her swimming pool eyes.
I never said thank you.
I would offer you a cigarette but they made me stop. And you’d say no. Because you probably have a new excuse now that we’re not fifteen anymore. And I’m sorry. And I hope I didn’t screw up too much of your life and I hope that I’m doing the right thing here because I’m probably not. I never knew what the right thing was so I did whatever stopped me from feeling. I guess you probably understand that now.
I never kissed you. But maybe some promises are made to be broken and if I hadn’t been lying when I said I would, I probably would have made an even bigger mess of your life. So I’m sorry that you loved me and I’m sorry that I was incapable of loving anyone back.
I only wanted to show Mr Thomas that when he said maybe Gwenafwy wasn’t right for me, he should have realised that there was no maybe. The thing was that I’d lost all sense of proportion by then.
I’m learning Fijian these days. Because in Fijian there are six different words for we and that’s good because it means that everybody is allowed to be more than one thing each.
Somebody trying not to fuck up anymore.