The Surprise

Mahler is no longer making any sense to me so I know that something is seriously wrong.

Although the sweat through my shirt is growing cold against the desk I am leaning on, the pain across my chest is the only thing I can really focus on. I put my left hand down to the floor for a moment to steady myself and feel a cold fluid seeping around the pile of the carpet and through my grasping fingers. The compression comes in short crushing waves. The ticking of the clock is now the loudest thing in the room, blending with an harmonious logic into the mess of information I am receiving from my once-important senses. Right now all that matters is the nervous unbearability of what is happening to me, and the knowledge that what will follow must be inevitable; that calm, filtering, wispy coolness that I once had described to me by someone who was both lucky and unlucky.

I am still breathing hard, though steadily. That reassuring thumping is back again although it's not the same sort of thumping that carried me this far.

There is a flat, mechanical voice behind me.

- The wine is what you dropped. Don't worry about it.

Actually, I wasn't even thinking about it.

- This is good. Are you concentrating on something?

What I am concentrating on right now is the face of the little girl I thought I once loved many years ago when I was much smaller and far less important. From a comforting hidden distance I only observe her measured movements, because I am too shy to walk up to her and too unsure of myself to be certain that what would come out of my mouth would make any sense. I admire the iridescence of the purple coat she always wears, the coat that is always clean and the three-quarter socks that are always white. Her skin is always brown and her limbs are always strong, her face radiating health and friendship.

Her friends are not my friends and her life and mine will never really cross in any but in the most superficial of ways. I remain in awe of the electrical charge that she lights within me, the first of her kind to effortlessly manage to do so. Not much later I will lose her altogether but I don't know this at the time.

I remember. I remember once there were a lot of children in the park by the river. Was it summer or spring? Or was it colder? I don't remember. Was it a school outing? Probably not - the park was too close to make it an event, but I don't really remember. I can definitely picture faces from my class there, and she was there too. There were adults there as well, although they weren't there from the beginning. My mum and dad were there towards the end. There were a lot of us sitting on the Long Swings, the heavy handled planks that pivoted on fixed rods like some kind of industrial mechanism. The braver big boys would stand at the end of the Long Swings and hold onto the rods while they kicked the swing higher. She was sitting at one end just as they were trying to get it going and I took my chance and jumped onto the end behind her, like a big boy.

She looked up at me and smiled as my dad started to pull and push the swing for the ten of us sitting on it. All ten children, some of whom were strangers to me, urged my father on. My father laughed and smiled. She leaned and put her back against my shins. But I was standing. Above her. And she was leaning on me and looking up at me. My dad was pushing the swing, making it work and causing his power to travel into me and through me and allow her to see the health and friendship I could radiate to her. And my dad made the whole thing feel safe because I was not having to hide to look at her. She knew my name and I knew hers. For the first time ever I knew the separation between friends and family and the distance that draws us all together. Seeing those cherished faces together at the same time in the same place gave me a sudden rush of clarity, powered by my father, conducted by our young bodies touching and expressed and pronounced in her upward smile, a smile forever crystallised in a frozen and important moment of realisation and history.

Then the swinging stopped and we all got off. My dad and mum took me home and I never looked back because I wasn't a big boy any more and I was afraid again.

- Can you hear me?

Yes, yes...I can hear you.

- I want you to count up to ten for me. Slow enough so I can follow you.

One. Two. Three.

- Too fast. Start again.




The strings buzz like hornets. Dissipation. Through the darkness I see a friendly face coming towards me. A friendly face with black hair, and smiling blue eyes. The face is leading me by the hand through the streets. No, by the hand through the shops. No, pushing me through the streets. I don't have to walk. All I know is that as long as that face is near me then I have no need to be afraid of the darkness.

Hello Da, this is Trina. I'm doing this tape to you from inside my apartment in Los Angeles.

You'd love it here! The weather is really pretty hot considering that it's really October here. The people I've met are really nice and friendly. Everyone here seems to love a Scottish accent, especially people in restaurants. A couple of the girls from the office went out with me yesterday afternoon to a Japanese place near the work - nothing fancy, mind, this was just our lunch break! - and we went to a this place where they sold something called Soo-Shay, which is a sort of raw fish. It sounds mingin' until you try it but it's really great. I'd never even heard of this stuff before but I am told they have it all the time here. And in Japan. The girls I went with were called Courtney -  she works in another office in the same building - and Sophie who is this black lassie I work in the same office as.

The job is great fun so far, much better than being in Dennistons, I can tell you. I spoke with Clark, who's my boss, yesterday and he told me about my terms of employment and things like that. Now, get this - I'll be earning about four times as much as I was back home, plus I get to use a car and I also have a share in the company's profits as well as a health scheme which means that I won't be paying any big medical bills. Not that I'm planning on getting ill or anything, you hear! But that's one small worry less.

I'm going to call Jamie tomorrow and get things sorted up about my apartment, like the lease and that. It's not a bad size of place at all; it's got two bedrooms, a living room, a big bathroom and a closet about the size of Gran's boxroom. The windows in the front room are really big and you can see right across to the apartments opposite. Remember when we watched that film about the boy who followed women about their apartments with the telescope? Same sort of place, except there's no guy wi' a telescope! The bathroom's huge, with a big shower cubicle and a dark red carpet. Very swish.

I heard about Tommy from Avril who called me at work yesterday. It's kind of sad but I suppose it was for the best in the long run. I just hope she's taking it better than I think she might. Tell her I'm askin' for her if you see her. Tommy was always his own man so I think she might have known that it was going to work out like this but she's no fool.

Anyway, I've got to get going now. I'm off to a club in town tonight so I'll drop this off on the way out. Miss you both a lot. Love you.




I have no need to be afraid of the darkness. The darkness that starts and ends everything seems now to be like a kind old friend whose face you know from a great distance.

I'm back in the schoolyard again. This time it is feeling a bit different, like there is something else there besides the comfort of the big building with its tubular seats, lift up bench desks, sickly-smelling varnished floors, pencils and jotters. No, this time it feels Big And Different and a bit dangerous. Then I remember properly.

The two slightly older boys were fighting the others. They looked quite similar so I took it they were brothers, maybe even twins. I hung about the fringes because I didn't want to get into a fight where I could get hurt and didn't want to side with my counterparts because we weren't really friends. I shouted words at the two boys as they were taking on the rest of my class and, it would seem, winning. Even when they got split up they looked formidable. One got a punch in the face and started to cry but he kept on battling and really started to hurt the strongest boy in our class who had delivered the tearful blow to him. The other brother had vanished, we presumed to either get help or else to run away. Even though he was fighting well this looked to some of us like he was finished and we started to jeer him. I jumped up and down and squawked about him being a baby, when I was alarmed to find an immense pressure in my back, thrusting me forwards so quickly and so unexpectedly that I lost my footing and landed ten feet away on my face which landed unshielded on the newly laid tar surface. I was too shocked to cry and turned to get back up, when I saw the stricken brother standing over me, ready to strike me hard.

That was the first time I ever laid eyes on the greatest friend I ever had, my life's one love that outlasted all others.

- Try not to think about this right now. We can return to it later.

I cannot help myself.

We exchanged names and football cards. We visited each others houses and played together until the long shadows fell across the grass and our worried mothers came calling for us. With his brother we explored the old Red Van that rotted away beside the disused railway line. We talked about school, families, sport and the usual myriad things that dwell in the wonderful, uncomplicated and absorbing minds of two seven-year-old boys hunting fun.

Later that first year we took one of his friends up the Falldam Byng beside the old mine works where his father used to work. The Wee Boy was much younger than us - maybe only five. We had our bikes with us and pushed them laboriously under the heat of the summer sun up to the top of the plateau. I was surprised to find that it wasn't completely flat on top, but seemed instead to have gullies and some drops in it. The others had clearly been there before because neither of them registered any surprise. We rode our bikes about the dusty surface and built up some ramps with wood so we could run jumps and try and clear a better distance than each other in a sort of long jump. Whenever the wind blew it made it hard to breathe, with all the loose dust and dirt that was stirred up. We planned out a track and raced against each other, ten laps apiece. I had brought water with me in my blue saddle bag, although the sun had warmed it a bit. We still drank it down.

We did some skids as well, pedaling hard and fast and then hitting the brakes and maybe putting a foot down to pivot the bike, just like they do in the speedway when they take a bend. The Wee Boy couldn't do it, since his bike was too small and his wheels were tiny, meaning he'd have to cycle at ten times the pace of the rest of us just to get half the speed. I was pretty good at it, but the Wee Boy persisted.

- Watch me try this one, he said. - I'll do it guid this time.

He took one great rush and tried to slam his foot down hard, but he seemed to get into trouble and the bike wobbled and it looked like he was about to fall. Then he disappeared completely.

We ran forward to where he was last seen. I thought that he might have gone over the edge and gone down the steep slope on the seat of his pants. Maybe we both thought the same. But we couldn't see him, although I felt a sudden tug in my sleeve as I was held back from going any further.

- He's fallen in, came the illogical voice.

There was a dusty depression ten feet ahead of us, maybe twenty feet across, with the back end of a bike wheel coming our of the dirt in the centre of the dip. There seemed to be a low rumbling feeling coming up my legs.

- Run for it!

I didn't need to hear the voice twice. I was so scared I wet myself vigorously as I ran blindly over to the other end of the slope and down it as fast as I could, eventually falling over and over and landing in the long weeds at the bottom, next to the small wall and the railings, which . I jumped over just to get away from the frightening hill behind me. Then I thought about the one left behind and I looked up to see him standing at the edge of the byng's summit.

- We have to get help, he said.

I was too afraid to think and much too afraid to go back up the hill. I stood on the pavement and walked onto the roadway. Behind me a screeching of tyres and an angry voice came at me. I turned to see a policeman in a car.

The police were nice to us - kind, even. But they let us know that we had been very foolish to play on the byng because it was dangerous. Really dangerous. There were signs up saying that we had to keep away from them. They made us promise in front of our mums and dads that we'd never go up there again and we both readily agreed.

I never saw the Wee Boy again.

- Can you remember the face of the Laughing Boy?

Who's the laughing boy?

- The boy you chased behind the fencing? The Laughing Boy?

There are a few precious moments without any recognition, then the thought grasps me with a pressure that forbids any thought or movement.

Please don't make me remember this. Please don't make me remember this. Please don't make me remember this. Please don't make me remember this. Please don't make me remember this. Please.

- You must.

I will resist.

- You cannot. Remember it.

Laughing Boy was the fair-haired boy that I knew from the other side of town. He was maybe five years younger than I was. He went to a different school. He was shabbily dressed and

I must not remember this. I must not.

- This is what you are. Why are you afraid?

It is not fear. It is shame. Absolute, saturating, 180 proof shame. I am scared to remember anything about this because the horror of it is too much to bear. Too much to bear. And heaven knows I'm in a weak enough state as it is.

- Sir, this is Detective Grace from the Los Angeles Police Department, Third Precinct. I'm sorry to disturb you at this time of night, but have you a daughter named Catrina?

I had a note passed to me by the girlfriend of a classmate of mine. She was a nice girl, blonde, small, pretty and with a friendly air. We used to meet before school each morning and afternoon and pass the time of day, sometimes with other mutual friends around us. We were never close in the normal sense of the word, but we were closer than most platonic relationships would allow us to be at that age.

She told me the girl's name when she passed the note to me one bright day as we stood in front of the quadrangle. I recognised the name as belonging to a girl a couple of years younger than me, a girl that until then I had not noticed beyond the merely casual. I knew she hung about with a couple of her friends every break in the foyer on the ground floor, where I usually gravitated. Should I presume that this is where I caught her attention? I wasn't to know, but my next visit there was to be a charged one.

I did all that I could to avoid noticing her because I couldn't bear for her to discuss the fact our eyes had met with either of her friends. One of her friends was pretty, but the vacant, expressionless face she was fixed with didn't register a lack of intelligence as much a lack of any discernible interest. Her other friend was smaller and the prettiest of the three, although I noticed she rarely smiled. My girl - as my unconscious immediately came to call her - stood in the middle of them and smiled a lot. I noticed that she was attractive but I had not the least idea what do to about it. I toyed with the idea of passing a note back to her but that was quickly crossed out in my mind; I didn't want a written record anywhere that showed that I had any kind of interest in her. I just couldn't do it.

I knew she was looking at me from under her broad sweep of brown hair. Carefully I looked back and our eyes briefly met. I smiled at her and she seemed to smile out of embarrassment and looked down. I figured this must be an act since girls that were really that shy didn't write lovesick notes to strangers via third parties.

I ended up calling her about three days later when I had the house to myself. I could hardly get the words out of my mouth, yet she seemed quite relaxed about the whole thing. We talked as best two inexperienced strangers delicately negotiating future intimacy can over a telephone, and agreed to go for a walk the following day.

What happened the following day was musical.

- Well, I'm sorry about this as well, sir, but she asked that we contact you on her behalf since...uh...she felt she couldn't really talk to you herself. She told us that she has been living here for about three months. Is that correct?

Pity me.

- This has nothing to do with pity. This is a lesson in realisation.

I wish I could understand what all this was about, really.

The friendly face with black hair and smiling blue eyes looks closely at me and laughs. For the first time I realise that this face belongs to another entity that doesn't happen to be me; that this otherness is the separation that becomes the distance that draws us together. I open my mouth and articulate my primary and new-found feelings, to her absolute delight.

The other faces close to me become known through time, but this face remains with me throughout my waking hours; at all times and all places, it is with me. And now I know that this 'it' is another.

Happy with this comfortable germination I sleep again.

But it wasn't always this way. The darkness of my sleep takes on a more sinister edge. A dampness of odour and a clamminess of the air make themselves known to me. Daring ourselves to go further than before, we're walking through the Long Tunnel under the railway platform on the other side of the old iron bridge. The smell that started off distant and faintly horrible now becomes much more pronounced. The way back is further than the way forward, so we navigate onwards through the impenetrable blackness around us, skirting objects we cannot see or imagine.

- Have ye got the toarch wi' ye?

- Yes. I accept that we aren't being as brave as we'd have liked and give in to our fears. I reach around into my coat pocket and bring out my father's pocket torch, clicking it into depleted action. The dim yellow light is hardly an improvement and our eyes cannot adjust to the gloomy light as fast as we'd like.

- I can see something.

I hide behind the other three whilst our brave leader carefully walks on ahead across the rubble and broken pieces of wood around us. In many ways the filthy light is far worse and far more frightening than the darkness. Darkness is a shield against whatever is out there.

We all watch him bend down and move a large, dark object with his foot. There is no sound from the object, but our brave leader is reduced to a screaming mess when he recognises what he has found. We can't tell what it was either but we all join in; too scared to move or think. Panic is an easier and infectious option.


We never heard from the Wee Boy's family after the accident. I don't even know if I knew then who his family were or where they lived. It wasn't until much later that I found out his real name and that he lived in a home for boys on the other side of the river. We never spoke of that day very much, partly because we had both done wrong but mostly because our joint sense of rotting guilt prevented each from confessing to the other that the day the Wee Boy died was a day that haunted us by day and by night. Our bold joint effort to show a mutual lack of weakness resulted in us knowing exactly what the other was thinking.

A Wee Boy out to play. With us. On his wee bike. Deserted by his family in life, he was deserted by us in death. How long did the Wee Boy live before he was suffocated? Or was he crushed? Did he know what was happening to him? Poor Wee Boy. Poor Wee Boy. I didn't mean it. I didn't mean it.

Wee Boy out to play. With us. And he gets killed. Just a Wee Boy.

Ach. What's this?



We spoke about it about three or four years later when we both thought we had got it out of our systems, but we were impressively wrong. Having found out the Wee Boy's name we went up to the churchyard to find his grave but it wasn't there. Determined, we asked the minister but he couldn't help us although he suggested we try the home where the Wee Boy lived. We walked along the river and crossed just up behind the back of the main street to where the home was. We knew where it was; we'd played some of the boys at football from time to time.

We checked the street twice to make sure we weren't making a mistake. We weren't. The home had gone, replaced instead with the featureless harled front of a newly-constructed public toilet, behind which sat a barely empty car park. The pair of us sat on the low stone wall for a few minutes and said nothing. Then he started weeping. I failed to help myself and started crying too. The stoical indifference that boys of our age put on couldn't protect us from our naked feelings, feelings which had been simmering nicely on the back burner, ready to boil over at the first opportunity.

Too young to be convincing as young men, our shared and open helpless grief became the first adult act of our lives.

- Can you hear me?

Yes, yes...I can hear you. Still.

Two weeks before I enjoyed my first legal beer I was coming home on the bus. As my stop approached I went downstairs and waited for it to come to a halt. As I stood there and vacantly considered the day ahead, I glanced up to the rear of the vehicle and saw her sitting there, facing me. She was a woman now and she looked straight at me and I at her. The vehicle stopped and I got off. Looking up as the bus started up I saw she was still looking at me through the dirty window. What was she thinking? Was she wondering who the strange-looking youth was that was paying her all that close attention? Was she trying to place my name? Was she maybe not even looking at me at all but merely gazing into space?

Or was she thinking about that important day on the Long Swings?

Whatever it was that passed between us, it was never repeated for I never saw her again. Even though the distance of decades separates our coming together, there cannot be a week goes by that I don't find her walking casually and unbidden into my thoughts, a precious memory of a special moment of an intense and strange clarity from a day forgotten by all but me.

- Precious?


Distance and loss have followed me everywhere.

Someone who was both lucky and unlucky once described a calm, filtering, wispy coolness to me. He told me that first it was light, then it was dark, then it was light again. Most people see the opposite, but not him. The people that didn't know him very well referred to my father's brother as being 'lucky' but the rest of us knew the price he had to pay for that luck. We didn't think it was fortunate at all.

The torch didn't get any better after I had dropped it out of fright. If I tilted it at the wrong angle it went out completely, and that became more frightening than the vision before us. One of the younger boys behind me started sobbing. He was told to shut up by one of the others, but he couldn't control himself. Then again, none of us really could.

- How long do you think he's been here for?

- Dunno. Here, shine the light on his face again.

More frightened than at any time in my life until that point, I slowly played the light upwards and onto the face of the object that lay before us. It was the most horrible thing any of us had seen. Later, I wondered if the rest of them shared my over-active imagination. Maybe this was more horrible than they had ever imagined before. Or could imagine.

- Whae is he?, asked one of the boys at the back. - I ken that face.

- Ah've no idea, said another. - We should tell the polis about this. Is everyone else scared?

Affirming silence.

We discussed the matter of alerting the authorities but the consensus was to let the matter rest for now. As one of the smarter among us pointed out, it looked like he had been lying down here for a couple of weeks now. Another day or two wouldn't make any difference to the situation. Certainly not to this poor bugger, anyway.

Three of us went up to the police station the next day and told the desk sergeant about the body we'd found. He didn't seem to believe a word of what we said at first, since we could easily be three ten year old boys with highly accelerated imaginations, but he eventually seemed to understand that we were telling something closing in on the truth. He disappeared through the door beside the counter and ushered us out the back, where there was a dirty blue van parked. We all got in and were driven to the tunnel by two other policemen, no one saying a word to anyone. We all knew that we hadn't been back to the tunnel since the day we found it and didn't relish the prospect of having to go back again. We had to show them exactly where it was. They told us to stay where we were, after which they got out the van and entered the tunnel's heavily weeded entrance.

After about five minutes one of the policemen came out of the tunnel and picked up his van's radio. His words meant nothing much to me, but he mentioned that they'd found a 'burster'. It was at that point the wind carried the odour from his dampened tunic into the vehicle and I was more horribly sick than I can ever remember being. The other two laughed at me.

- We can come back to this.

As I sat in the van and choked I saw two figures up ahead of me, crossing the iron bridge and walking down towards the river.

What happened that day was musical.

I tried to talk to her on her own pitch but I knew I was going to flounder badly. We had absolutely no knowledge of what the other was really like, other than a mutual interest in each other. Beyond that flimsy premise, our interests seemed to have almost no overlap whatsoever.

- I know Sir, this must be a dreadful shock to you. However, we'll try and get this matter processed as quickly as we can manage. She'll be okay in our custody meantime.

We were hopelessly lost - or at least I was. I neither knew what to say, nor when to say it. All the lines I had practised the previous evening had come to nothing, since I had no idea what direction our meeting would take. She spoke about her friends, her family and what she was doing in her spare time, whereas I assented here and there but kept things to a minimum. I was starting to become anything but a big boy.

We walked over the iron bridge and up past the river, beside the falls, the oaks and the rope swings. The mental anguish I was going through was far too much for me to bear a lot more of; I had to think hard and fast of something interesting to say, to remain attractive to her, yet aloof enough to make her think she will never know me, and at the same time available enough. And all this time I was thinking five sentences ahead of our conversation, trying to steer it in ways that would allow me to impress her quietly. Voices in my head seemed to strain for attention. Do this. Do that. Don't do this. Never do that. Avoid this. Try to get her to say that.

And then some self-defence mechanism kicked in and told my right hand to hold her left hand.

At that moment, everything changed. She held my hand tightly and said nothing. The babbling in my head ceased, since its operation had been deemed redundant. I realised four things at once.


- No sir, we don't know how she turned up there. She was found wandering the streets by some local cops who brought her in.

After a while I got used to such things. But for that moment it seemed to be the most important business in the world, something that could not easily be ignored.

So what is the story of Laughing Boy that you've been putting off? What makes you want to forget about it?

Shame. Please stop doing this to me.

I will only stop when I hear the story. I want to hear it

You know it.

Yes, but I want to hear it from you. So tell it to me.

I can't. It hurts. Oh how it hurts.

The Laughing Boy's name is unknown to me. Martin. Christopher. David. I don't know which. Maybe none of them. He was about six years younger than me, with ill-cut fair-hair and shabby, indistinct clothes. He always looked slightly sickly, under-nourished and underweight; his home was in a dingy part of the town on the east side, where our worried parents warned us against going after dark.

But he was a nice boy. He always seemed happy about something, as if he has a secret world of his own where he could retreat into, away from the mundane ordinariness in which the rest of us sorry types dwelt. No one had much bad to say about him. He was a classic case of being everybody's friend.

But not yours?


I still remember it was a Tuesday, because I had seen the fishmonger's van that afternoon and had bought the haddock for my mother. I don't know why I remember that particular detail, but I do. The sun was low and bright in the late autumn afternoon sky as I walked along the road past the school, kicking at stones and wishing I didn't have to go home.


That is another story.

As I slowly walked along the empty farm road I looked through the heavy brown wooden sleepers that formed the adjoining fence, into the wasteground and the disused railway line. Through the gaps in the fencing I saw him walking on the other side. Not doing anything, just walking.

Please stop.

No. Go on.

I walked on, still watching him and he noticed me. He sort of smiled at me, maybe finding it funny that we only saw each other periodically through the wooden uprights, maybe because he was laughing at some private joke, maybe because he was simply glad to be alive. I really have no idea.

So I sped up.

He laughed again and followed me, matching my pace. I think I must have found this funny as well because I remember it becoming a sort of game, the two of us racing against each other. It was never much of a contest because he was younger than me and I could out-pace him easily, but I made it a game all the same. By the time we had gone a hundred yards we were both at full pace, him some twenty or thirty yards behind me as I approached the end of the fencing where the two paths met. I slowed up and he came running up the other path towards me, laughing with sheer delight in the game.

So I hit him. The first look on his face was one of absolute disappointment, maybe even bewilderment. When I sank the second blow he was already well on his way to becoming Crying Boy. Sad Little Crying Boy. He even started pleading with me not to hit him, although I cannot remember the words now. I didn't let up for a second. The frustration for all the times that I had been hit, kicked or bullied by other people came out in one undammable flood of violence against him. I simply couldn't stop kicking at him if I tried.

After a while, he did a most unusual thing - he stopped crying. His face was almost totally expressionless as he seemed to back up towards the garage door and slid down it, dispassionately accepting all the dreadful things that I was doing to him. I didn’t know it then, but now I know that he was used to it.

I really have to stop now. Really.

Mahler is still making no sense to me, but I am happy for the grinding intrusion into the shame. And with shame comes pity, remorse and the first entrance of fear.

A dying face with black hair, and empty blue eyes. She took ages to go, in the end. They tried to keep her happy and without worry, but she was clever enough to sense their anxieties and my own. Visits became more protracted, less willing and gradually made less and less sense as the dreadful days spanned their way between the now and the tomorrow. As the visits grew more frequent they paradoxically seemed to diminish in importance, as though their very familiarity caused them to become less of the ceremony that they once were.

Long cool shadows over the floor, blinds half opened, half shut, gentle music in the air, strange perfumes, white linen, metal frames with aged paint peeling from their bent fabric, the facsimile of cleanliness and the false masks of hope and promise. Without words, she took my hand one day and held onto it tightly as though I would be able to save her from herself. Through the fog of drugs she took my hand to her mouth and kissed all my fingers with her open lips, wiping my knuckles with her cold, dry tongue.

I can taste her on you’, she said. And then she said no more, for she became luckier.

Affirming silence.

The musicality continues unhindered in a blissful symphony of sight and smell. Long cool shadows over the floor, blinds half opened, half shut. I lay on the bed after calling on her early that day, the large house strangely empty of its usual residents. The housemaid didn’t call that morning. Were we supposed to be there? I cannot remember this detail, for it is eclipsed by another. She returns to the room after a while and opens the window to let in the gentle summer air. Yellow dissipated light. Distant traffic. Morning air birdsong.

‘This is the first time’. She sits beside me on the bed and looks into my eyes as she unbuttons the stark white cheesecloth blouse, allowing it to fall from her dark shoulders and drizzle to the floor. As she reaches both hands behind her back she calmly tells me what she wants me to do and the manner in which she expects it. Although equally nervous, she even goes on to describe her likely response. I can no longer swallow with ease. She extends an arm and I kiss my way up it, over her wrist, her forearm, her inner elbow, her upper arm, her shoulder and beyond, to pause there and savour the sense of the hard bristles and the odour that admits and describes her adult femininity.

‘Down’, she breathes, and I drag my lips downwards through her throat, across her collar bone and onto her chest. Without disturbing my progress she raises herself on one knee and leans into me, letting her mass and texture fall into and onto my face. And then the magical symphony happens again; she holds her left breast and guides it so that she falls into my mouth, then holds my cheek and encourages me to suck on her, helpless and yearning. We gasp at the prosaic wonder of it all. We both know that this simple moment is more important than either of us care to admit, and that it will nourish us through the rest of our lives, long after we have said our last goodbye to each other, and beyond other faces and other times. We will never forget each other because we can never forget what we are doing now.

Even in my current state I cannot help but wonder at that feeling. And how much would I give to live again for those few moments alone?

- She’ll be okay, eventually. Unfortunately she’s maybe gonna have to be charged with the possession but it may go no further – it’s just not my decision. She’s certainly lucky, though. I’ve seen girls worse than this. She got out soon, though. The fella responsible for it is locked up and he won’t be going anywhere. She’s safe. Will you be coming to see her? I realise that you live a long way away but she’s asking for you.

As the words sound into my empty head I step down from the Long Swings and a lifetime of adult pretence. I hear childish laughter and a small flat voice beside me says something.



A crowd of beckoning adult voices surround me. The air is happy and smoky, the conversations words I cannot fathom but merely recognise for their happy cadence and humility. The long hard table is weighed under the small plates of food, the uncapped bottles, glasses, ice and boxes, music is playing only faintly from the little record player in the corner of the room. Silvered greenery and flashing lights signaling from the far side of the room confuse me within the myriad voices around the walls. ‘Come to me! Over here!’ Faces and voices all around, some known and others unknown. Some in awkward context, some not.

In that delirious confusion I find myself going from one to the other and back again, laughing at feelings that my mind will take years to articulate into sense, by which time all sense will be wrung from them. It is not knowing the consequence of the moment, not knowing the responsibilities of the action and not caring about anything beyond that present glorious second. A happy face with black hair, and smiling blue eyes lifts me onto the long settee and props me up beside the golden, soft furry thing I had gleefully found that morning.

I cuddle into my new Christmas bear with his shining blue eyes. I am never to know this feeling any better than I do now; that of being surrounded with an unstoppable protection I need not understand or even acknowledge, and of occupying a particular point in space at a particular point in time. It is wordlessly knowing that LIFE is a joyous thing, that LIFE is something that cannot be equaled, and that this gift of LIFE is never to leave me for I have no sense of the ephemeral and every sense of the eternal. And I know that the smiling blue eyes looking down into mine have everything to do with this happiness, and that everything I appreciate in the world flows from this infinite source of love.

- Again, this is good. You are starting to understand.

Somewhat late in the day, perhaps.

- You are starting to understand.

We lay there for most of the morning, doing little apart from kiss and hold each other and lose any and all sense of the turning of the Earth. The cool air from the window caused only a little discomfort, but not nearly enough to cause the greater discomfort of having to move from that blissful simplicity. The only measure of the day’s progress was the sound of the distant traffic and the song of the birds from the garden. A joyous thing – together our lives had progressed from imagination to experience. We had gained ground and made ourselves time.

A year later, we split without rancour or willingness. We called it fate, but we both knew it was a part of our ongoing education. Eight years beyond that I accidentally met her, at which time I found that she was married and that she had only recently found herself happily pregnant. Together, we talked in almost conspiratorial tones, as though we were two bank robbers who had met up again to discuss how we were spending our money.

When we split this time we promised to keep in contact, but circumstances and memory prevented this from ever happening. Like Mr. Bernstein’s girl on the ferry in 1896, I’ll bet a month hasn’t gone by when I haven’t thought of her. I wonder if she feels the same way that

all the nostalgic wondering ceases as I am brought back to the present reality with a suddenness that is frightening in its severity

Someone who was both lucky and unlucky once described something to me. He told me that first it was light, then it was dark, then it was light again. The wee boy stands in front of me and smiles. He looks okay and doesn’t look all frightened and hurt like he did in all those horrible dreams I had about him. He’s trying to speak but the large dark figure behind him doesn’t let him, choosing instead to let its imposing and featureless shadow do all the talking that was necessary. The Wee Boy looks different. Confident. Older. He’s a big boy now and he has smiling blue eyes. I am happy for him.

‘It doesnae matter to me’, says the Wee Boy in a voice that doesn’t belong to him, and paying attention to the other. ‘Nothing matters any more. Not now. Come on, it won’t help you’.

What won’t help me? And why is all this happening to me as I sit here on the floor counting the last measured thumpings of my heart’s mechanism?

‘It’s just the way things happen’, he says to me. The dark figure moves slightly. ‘I don’t know who or why or even if there is anything behind all of this, I just know that it happens to us all like it happened to me.’ He stops a minute as if thinking to himself. ‘And you know? All the important stuff you sit here and think about as it’s all going in the other direction from you? Well, none of it really matters at all anyway, does it?’

Long swings.
Big love.
Musical Moments.
Smiling Blue Eyes.
Laughing Boy.
Christmas Bear.
My life’s love.

My life’s love.

The sweat through my shirt is growing cold against the hardness of the desk against which I am leaning. The cold fluid stain of the carpet has only spread a little and I know now that I can’t have long to go, for all the remembering has stopped. All those long lost familiar faces, now remembered, now forgotten. Once I was a laughing child’s face in a crowd of others, looking forward to an uncertain future for which I had to prepare. Now, all that was uncertain has become drearily certain and I did the things I thought I would do. And all for what? Does he know?

The sounds behind me senselessly grind on where they left off. Looking at the disappearing Wee Boy without seeing him I try to speak but the words can’t make it out of my poor strangled throat.

‘Dinnae sweat it’, he says. He looks hard at me. ‘Your lucky friend was dead wrong about most of us, and he will be dead wrong about you. You know why he’s dead wrong about you? Daft as this might sound, it’s because you are luckier than he is. Because first it’s dark, then it’s light, then it’s dark again. He was lucky and unlucky, and he was right and also wrong.’

The smiling blue eyes shining from the Wee Boy’s face redeem me. The words half form in my mouth and are pronounced by my dying thoughts.

‘And afterwards?’, I ask. ‘What happens afterwards?’

‘Surprise’, say the smiling blue eyes. ‘Nothing’.

Mahler and I stop.