I tried to avoid the rest of my family for most of the holiday. We had not been particularly close for years and so there was always something forced about the conversations I had with them. Especially with my dad; I was constantly trying to be everything that I wasn’t. Bronwyn asked me what was ‘up’ but dropped the matter after I insisted lamely that it was nothing. She swallowed my excuses like they tasted of ambrosia and informed our dad that I was allowed to be anti-social because that was what teenagers did. I don’t think my dad minded that much; he’d only missed Dan and Matt when they got dragged into social media because they’d always been so involved with him. I wasn’t and so my detachment was nothing noteworthy.
I spent most of the week at Aaron’s continuing the process of ‘revising Business Studies’ which impressed Mum. She was, of course, not to know that the time at his house had been spent watching the entire extended-edition Lord of the Rings trilogy washed down with a considerable portion of YouTube, procrastination and some rapid glossing-over of the details surrounding my trip to Rhayader. By the end of half-term I could have recited the lyrics to The Maine’s latest album or given a blow-by-blow account of almost every Middle Earth CGI battle scene but had not retained a single page of my school work.
“I’m so pleased you’re taking this year so seriously,” Mum said and I couldn’t help wallowing in the fact that, had she known any of her children personally, she’d have realised that my apparent behaviour was suspiciously out-of-character. She probably felt closer ties with her hand-reared chicken pie than she did with either Bronwyn or me.
Iris did not even appear on the first morning back at school. I had intended to interrogate her before the bell rang for assembly but it was nearly lunchtime by the time she arrived. By that stage it was clear that the teachers were an amusing mixture of concerned and irate and Miss Daigon spent half of her lesson taking furtive glances out the window. She insisted that nothing was wrong but repeated the spasmic action so frequently that Jac felt obliged to comment.
“You got a nervous twitch or something, Miss?” He inquired sweetly and, when she berated him, he continued to whisper to us. “I was only asking. I mean, she looks like she’s gonna get some sort of Repetitive Strain Injury if she’s not careful.”
“Wonder why they’re all so wound up about Iris,” Aaron mused. “It’s hardly a phenomenon that certain kids bunk off.”
“Iris isn’t like other kids,” I said and then regretted it.
“Oh yeah, I forgot, she’s special isn’t she, Gareth?” Jac mocked me.
“You know what I mean; they obviously all see her as some sort of exception to the rules. Like, uniform rules don’t apply etcetera, etcetera.”
“Whatever you say, Loverboy.”
“Speak of the devil,” Cerian muttered while Miss Diagon continued to drive choppily on through Shakespeare’s greatest hits. She jerked her head towards the window and, sure enough, a familiar figure was drowning herself in the raining tennis courts.
She was striding purposefully towards the school; face bizarrely upturned to the battering sky. She was not wearing a coat.
She emerged in the classroom several minutes later and, having confirmed that yes, she had signed in with an explanation, she took the seat next to me. The tempestuous weather pervaded the room with her. She had caught the storm in her hoody and her hair and the coldness of her was enhanced by the February droplets that threaded and tattooed across her skin.
Her hands were frozen; her face was bear and streaky. She looked a lot younger and somehow lost without her makeup. I couldn’t help thinking that this change took away some of her resolutely sharp edges and made her easier to like. Her lips were chewed and slightly bloody. If asked, I would have hazarded a guess that she’d been crying although I found it impossible to get close enough to confirm it.
“Where were you? They’ve been going out of their minds all morning.” It was a slight exaggeration but she appeared not to have heard anyway. Miss Diagon said nothing more about the issue so when I repeated the question Iris stared at me blankly.
“I must have just got distracted,” she expounded vaguely as she cracked her crisps into blades at lunchtime.
“And what about Rhayader? In the holidays? The ice-cream?” In all honesty I’d managed to forget to be angry. Time had taken the edge off the wound but I could not resist being a little reproachful.
“Oh, yeah, sorry about that. I had to go see my grandparents. Don’t look at me like that. I didn’t know until the morning.” She looked momentarily confident and the tension began to slide from her face as she spoke. “Their house is pretty cool actually. It’s kind of old and kind of modern, even though they’re old and it’s big as well,” she lost herself in the description but was broken-off by the hack of her own throat. The nicotine she’d buried there ground behind her teeth. She stopped abruptly and led me back inside the school.
We sat in an empty History classroom and she applied makeup using the glass of Mr Jones’ office as a mirror.
Watching her, I was overwhelmed by an alarming compulsion to wipe her cracked lips clear of blood. It unsettled me and I had to shake myself experimentally to see whether that could rid me of the absurd desire.
“You look prettier without makeup,” I told her like some dumb little kid, trying to pay compliments.
She snorted in response and I didn’t really blame her. It was a stupid thing to say.
“No, I look more real,” she blinked at her reflection and continued staining her lashes. I didn’t really know what I was supposed to look at because it felt kind of intrusive to be watching her disfigure her face, wondering whether it made your lids feel heavy and strained to wear so much eye pencil.
She turned away from the mirror. “Each layer you apply you burry yourself a little deeper so that, in the end, you know no one can actually see you.”
“You don’t wear foundation,” I observed, still awkwardly unsure of what words to say and what to fix my eyes on. I couldn’t help latching them onto the freckles that prickled the bridge of her nose.
“No. But it’s the eyes that distinguish a person. If you hide the eyes then you hide the person. Honestly,” she read the scepticism on my face, “Haven’t you ever tried to recognise someone wearing sunglasses?”
I laughed off the question and studied her eyes. They were kind of difficult to look directly at to be honest, so light in colour that they kind of blared at you. There was something chillingly cold about their colour and their gaze and they had with white-blue tints like the light from a TV screen. They grated on you like scalpels but were addictively beautiful. Endlessly enthralling.
“What did you do with the ice-cream?” Iris asked unexpectedly as the day drew to an early close behind a wall of rain.
“I left it there,” I replied after a shamed pause. I dreaded having to explain the infuriated rationale behind that decision.
“That’s a shame.”
“No that’s just what happens when you fail to show up with absolutely no warning.” I was weirdly proud of that little outburst until she shrugged.
“You got my message, didn’t you? What more do you want?”
“Oh, I don’t know, maybe you could apologise for wasting my time. Or you could invite me over to yours to make up for it.”
“What kind of bargain’s that? Who said I want you to come to my house?” It was like having a broom shoved in my face. She screwed up all my tokens of affection so that I could never quite tell where I stood with her. “My parents wouldn’t approve anyway, sorry.” She stalked off without seeming in the least bit sorry, only haughtily defensive.
“Better luck next time, mate,” Jac said bracingly, having apparently overheard the whole exchange although I’d tactically orchestrated it at what I thought was a safe distance from other ears.
“Why wish him luck?” Cerian asked snarkily, “That’s like saying ‘I hope you fall off the stage’ at a rock concert. I can’t understand why you like her, Gareth.”
“The course of true love never did run smooth,” Jac quoted, throwing his arms out to gesticulate theatrically to the road around them.
“Shut up.” I said and returned my attention to Cerian. “I don’t understand what you have against her.”
“Oh, well, she’s just a bit weird isn’t she, if you know what I mean.”
Cerian shrugged and hitched her phone out of her parka pocket. She’d not been directly cold towards Iris since the day of the Facebook interrogation but she had not taken the fact that other people were so drawn to the mystery of Iris at all well. Cerian wanted to be sensational; she wanted to be unique and so – by virtue of attempting to be so – she made herself into the most predictable and mundane girl in the class. Iris had been icy towards her but Iris was icy to everyone. She would let her insults do rounds of the lunch table whenever she sat with us.
“Five Seconds of Summer?” she asked Cerian distastefully when she saw the name emblazoned on her school bag. “Is that how long they’re famous for, or something?”
“Haha, you’re hilarious,” Jac had said and she’d retaliated swiftly.
“Says the Supreme Master of Wit himself,” she flipped him a condescending smile and turned away to discuss the European Reformation with Seren – a surprisingly intelligent girl for someone who was seriously threatening to become Cerian’s replacement.
“I swear, if I was a pope I be the most fucking corrupt Pope ever,” Jac stated inconsequentially.
“Yes,” I deadpanned, “the fact that you aren’t Catholic notwithstanding, you’d probably be a fairly shitty Pope.”
Iris laughed and for some stupid reason I committed the moment to memory like it was the most important milestone of my life.