Charles had bunked off. There was some story about his mum, but they were only told that he had terrible hayfever. While he was away friends started telling tales, bad things. And though not many would have known Charles’s influence, in his absence the playground became raucous. There were fights. The girls goaded the boys. The boys got rowdy. The teachers stepped in and were mocked. Lessons became chaotic. One lunchtime, a game of British Bulldog was turning violent. A punch was thrown. Against the brick wall of the school Andrew flicked back his hair. This time would be his.
– What are the white flowers in the grass?
– Cow parsley, said John.
– No, no, Alex starkly corrected him: it’s Queen Anne’s Lace. She held his stare. He turned around and started down the lonning.
– Maybe May flower, something, he said.
– What was that?
– Nothing. Nothing.
Jack ran up to his heels:
– Does the cow eat the parstley?
– I don’t think so.
– Why did mummy say it was Queen’s Laces.
– She… well, it’s called that too. It has different names.
– It depends.
Alex had caught up and took Jack’s hand:
– You’ll tell him it’s about class.
– Don’t dislike me.
Please please just stop it with this talk of tunnels and fences and walls and rubble and rockets and us and them and who is stronger and who said what first and what might happen only if and all about the media and bias and how you keep interrupting and making accusations and that everyone is wrong and that the terrorists are elsewhere and use civilians and not you and that there is right or wrong because it is not words not words and the real blood is there not words it is children the blood of children nothing else nothing.
It’s when, these mornings, that someone passes in the road and says hello and I don’t know what to do, and I clam up, or I hang my head slightly and whisper Hi, or Alright?, like the sullen teenager I was. And I wonder why I can’t reply confidently, head up, even now, after these years. And somehow then I notice the fat blackberries and rosehip in the hedgerow and the first fallen leaves already sludge on the muddy path, and I wonder about all the railway platforms I’ve stood on and the people… and there is one word: autumn.
Sometimes when it feels to her as if everyone is waiting for some small event to breathe life into a suffocating world, she is found attending to memories.
She tries to catch absences as they arrive; the past as it claims the present; the futures that crumble at a touch; the goings as they’re coming.
She notes how glister turns to gloom. (Her words.) And how gloom soon unfastens.
Over lunch, in the park, a man sits on a bench and chews a sandwich. She gathers up her phone, keys and pass, and heads back to the office. Time up.