Simon Jones is a Swiss/Australian writer living in Chamonix, France. He is currently completing a Master of Studies in Creative Writing at Cambridge University in the UK. You can read more of his writing on his website and find him on Instagram (@89simonjones).
I was walking near the water when I saw her. I had just passed the Boston Harbour Hotel where the great flag drapes, placidly, behind the tourists taking photographs. I had stepped aside to avoid colliding with a grey-haired man staring at his phone and she had appeared, there, in the approaching crowd. It didn’t matter that I hadn’t seen her since we were both children and that I only got a glimpse of her before she walked by; I was sure that it was her. It was the hair that did it, it was that same dirty-blond cascade falling down her neck. She seemed hurried and by the time I thought of opening my mouth, of saying something, she had passed me by. I should have caught up with her then, should have run a little and tapped her on the shoulder, but then what would I have said? What would we have done?
I’ll be leaving this city in a couple of days anyway and my life feels complete the way it is.
I tried to put her out of my mind after that. I was meeting my wife for cocktails and dinner, after she was done seeing the museums with her mother. She had told me that she had something to tell me and when we sat down I asked her why she had not ordered a drink. She smiled at me and so I knew. We finished my drink and we ate and talked about our plans and our future together; for the family that we now had.
It was only that night back at the hotel on the wharf, after my wife had gone to bed tired and I was having a nightcap at the bar that I thought of her again, about how my heart had stopped when I knew it was her, how my mouth had gone dry, my body immobilised. After a while I got up, leaving my whisky on the bar. I let myself into our room quietly and folded myself in the big plush bed next to my wife, but no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t get to sleep.
It was a long drive to Norwich in Windsor County, Vermont. I wasn’t sure why we had to move. It had something to do with the fights Mom and Dad were having when they thought Greg and I were asleep. One day Dad just said: ‘Right. Time to go,’ and off we went. Dad was an Artist, so he could work anywhere.
There I was, in this new place that was all forests and small stores, without any buildings taller than three storeys, and I was completely miserable. How was I supposed to have any fun? Greg was fine of course. Greg’s my brother, he was twelve and found a new group of friends almost straight away. I asked if I could join them but he just told me to get lost and ran off with them, laughing. I could have shouted out after him, not like he’s that cool, but I decided not to. Not like I wanted to be friends with them anyway. It just would have been nice to know where everything was. The only thing that cheered me up was that it was summer and so it’d still be ages till I was forced to go to some new school.
After a few days that seemed to go on for ever, Dad said: ‘what are you doing here? Get out from under my feet,’ and forced me to go out exploring. I reckon he was just angry ‘cause the new paint he picked out for the living room looked like barf. Well that’s what Mom said, anyway.
Five minutes later I was out walking along the dirt road into town, hoping I wouldn’t run into Greg and his friends, when a girl ran into me on her bike. Well, she didn’t run into me exactly, but I did have to jump into the ditch so that she wouldn’t hit me. I was pretty upset ‘cause I knew Mom would yell at me for getting mud all up my new pants, and I called out after her. She skidded a bit and stopped. She seemed angry. Putting my head down and my hands in my pockets I decided to keep on walking.
In town I just wandered around. I wished I had some money to buy one of Dan’s famous cookies at Dan and Whit’s but Dad never gave me any money and was always upset if I ate anything ‘Fattening’. It wasn’t fair neither, ‘cause Greg got three quarters in pocket money every week. Dad told me I’d get the same when I was older, but I’d been getting older for a while and still didn’t have any money.
I was just walking past the town library, a squat red brick building, when I saw the bike girl from earlier walking out. She seemed happy but scowled as soon as she saw me.
‘What you looking at, kid?’
I thought this was pretty unfair. She can’t have been more than eleven years old and had no business calling me kid.
‘Here, you shouldn’ta run me off the road like that up there,’ I said, pointing over my shoulder with my thumb.
She looked at me for a while before throwing her leg over her bike. It was pretty old and rusty, I wondered how long she’d had it.
‘Yeah, sorry buddy. But you just watch out okay?’
I knew when enough was enough. I was about to walk off when I saw the bag in her hand. She must have gotten a book from the library and, man did I like books. Especially adventure books. Anything with swordfights and sea battles was fine by me.
‘What did you get?’
The look again. I thought I’d pushed my luck this time, she didn’t seem happy at all. Then her eyes went all wild and she started talking like crazy. She’d gotten some girly book, I reckon, and I couldn’t quite follow what made it so great but she seemed pretty excited.
‘You ever read Redwall?’ I asked, ‘It’s about these mice and otters and badgers and things, but they’re not like real mice or otters, they talk and go on adventures and it’s really cool.’
She laughed at me, saying that that was stupid boy stuff. I was just happy to have made a friend.
She told me that her name was Sara, I admitted mine.
‘You’ve got to be kidding me, right? Percival. No helping a shitty name though, I guess.’
My mouth opened a little. It was the first time I’d heard a girl use what my Mom called the S-word. Dad used it all the time when he was fixing things or watching the news on TV and thought that we weren’t listening. Mom would give him a slap on the back of the head when she heard him, but in a good way.
We walked together for a little while, up to the edge of town. Then she got a worried look on her face, said: ‘Bye P,’ and rode off.
I started back home and wondered when I’d see her again.
When I told my folks I’d met a girl Dad just laughed. Mom scowled a little but didn’t say anything. I think they were happy in the way that grown-ups are, without showing it. I went off to play Pirates with Greg, who was more willing to acknowledge my existence when it was just the two of us. I didn’t tell him about my new friend, not wanting him to take her away from me the way he did my best toys.
I didn’t see Sara the next day, or even the next week, so I kept myself busy. I went exploring in the woods; found myself my own river, climbed thousands of trees, and even caught a grass snake. In fact I was so busy that I didn’t even recognise who it was when Sara called out to me as she rode up our drive.
‘Who else, dummy?’
It’s not fun to be called dummy, but it was good to see her again. I told her to hang on and ran to grab my bike. Dad got it for me thinking that it would get me out of the house. I wasn’t very good but I thought I needed it to keep up. We messed around for a while, out on the dirt roads, until Sara said that she was hot and wanted to go for a swim. So we rode out to a quarry filled with water that was dark red from the iron. Sara laughed at me when I told her I hadn’t brought any trunks, but after seeing her take off her top and jump off the highest rock into the dark water below, I stripped down to my briefs and leapt in after her. I couldn’t show her how scared I was. The water was pretty cold, and Sara kept on saying: ‘dammit, dammit, dammit,’ but we were both smiling when we pulled ourselves onto a low rock ledge and waited for the sun to dry us out.
‘So P, whacha doing in Norwich anyway? You don’t seem like much of a hick, to be stuck in this hell-hole?’
‘My dad, he told me we were coming here for a change of scene. I like it, but I do miss the city.’
‘You’re from the city? Whoa there, Mr. Big-Shot.’
Sara smiled as she said it so I knew she was joking, but she looked away as if she was thinking about something. After that we sat in the sun, our feet dangling in the water. I threw a few pebbles and watched the ripples they made.
‘So what else is there to do ‘round here?’ I asked, when I couldn’t stand the silence any longer.
Sara smiled and told me to get up. The two of us scrambled up the rock ledge and, our underwear still wet, rode back into town.
After that we hung out every day. It was funny, Sara seemed so shut up, but once I got her talking, well, there was no stopping her. We’d ride, her in front, me trailing behind, all around town and the neighbouring farms and she would tell me about the people that lived there and what made them different.
‘That’s where old man Spencer lives, they say he went mad after his wife left him for some guy from the city and now he just sits on the porch drinking. He’ll wait there ‘till you get nice and close and then holler himself hoarse, calling you anything and everything under the sun.’
‘Is that how you learnt all those words then?’
‘Nah…That’s my old man. He’s toughening me up.’
I thought about the punch she’d hit me with the previous day for making fun of her old navy-green jacket and nodded.
‘Seems like he’s doing a pretty good job.’
I didn’t know much about her family. She never really talked about her parents. She told me she had an older brother, but it wasn’t like it was for Greg and me. Sara’s brother was older and had left a few years ago. She talked about his promise to come back some day and take her with him. I missed the city too, so I could understand why it made her so happy.
When we did go out to her farm we stayed out of the main house. Maybe she didn’t want me to see it, it was definitely smaller than ours. I didn’t mention anything, though, since Dad had told me not to mind how others lived.
The time we spent there we were mostly in the woods out back or, my favourite, hiding out in their barn, behind the chicken coop. We’d re-arrange the dry bales of hay for hours and hours, until we’d built a maze, the secrets of which only we knew. At the centre we had our hidey-hole; our own world, decked out with sheets, candy-stashes, and, our crowning glory, an old lightbulb on an extension cord. Sitting there in the musky warmth, the smell of dry hay invading our lungs, we’d read for hours. She’d live out a glamourous life far away, I’d be fighting dragons and rescuing maidens.
It was there that Sara kissed me for the first and last time. It was two weeks before school started and I was nervous of all the other children. I was scared they might make it their mission to pick on me, like Pete did back in the city. I was huddled up, feeling sorry for myself, when I noticed how the hay that Sara was leaning against had raised her sleeve and that, underneath, there was a liquorice rope of purple swelling. I said something about it, wondering whether she’d fallen off her bike—something that happened to me pretty regularly. She told me not to worry about it. I pressed her again—I couldn’t help but worry about my friend—and she told me to forget about it. I didn’t though, and she said that if I didn’t stop pestering her like a needy puppy dog well, well, she’d have to kiss me. With the biggest, roundest eyes I could muster, I asked her about it again. She pushed me back until I fell against the spiky hay and pressed her warm lips against mine. I closed my eyes. It went on forever and was over in a heart-beat.
A week later she told me what really happened in her house. I asked why no-one did anything about it and she said it was ‘cause no one knew and that it wasn’t anyone’s business.
I told her then and there that I’d do something about it. Sara started to shout, telling me it wasn’t my problem and that I wasn’t to do anything, that I didn’t know her dad and that he had it unfair in life; it was as if a dam had broken inside of her.
‘Then what do you want?’
‘I want you to just be you. Okay? When we’re hanging out and everything, spending time together. Well it’s just us—just us and no-one else. That’s what I want. Okay P?’
She was quiet after that. We sat for a little while and then she sort of sighed and crawled out of our hide-out, not through the maze, but directly out the side, which meant shifting a bale of hay from the wall.
I know there must have been more than that, but I don’t remember much. The next week we started school. Sara was in the grade above me and wouldn’t acknowledge me on the playground. We’d ride home from school together from time to time, but more often than not she would have something on and I’d end up pushing my bike home, alone. I was sad that I didn’t get to see Sara a huge deal, but after a little while I made some new friends and stopped thinking about her as much.
Six months later we moved back to the city. My father was able to get a successful gallery owner interested in his work, which meant that he would be able to sell far more paintings. Well that’s what he said. He and Mom seemed happier, anyway. As for me, well I was finally back with my old friends, and I was able to tell them all about my time out in the great wilderness of Vermont.
The sun slowly breaking the grey dawn found me staring up at the empty ceiling. Beside me my wife snored contentedly, the child growing in her womb having given her an inward purpose. I stared at her for a while, feeling the warmth of emotion that was ready to rend my chest in two, then rolled myself off the bed and quietly pulled on clothes on. I walked out of the hotel, nodding at the concierge as I passed. It was going to be a bright day, once the sun had burned the mist from the water’s surface. My footsteps led me back to the square where I had seen her before my mind could register where I was going. I sat down on a high stone step and watched the people going past; the walkway was busy even in these early hours.
I’m not sure what I was looking for, what I would say if by some miracle I came upon her again. It would probably be that I was sorry, that I was just a kid. That I wish I could have been there longer. I guess there really wasn’t anything to say.
After a while I while I got up and began to wander back to the hotel. I picked up some tea for my wife, as well as a few assorted bagels. I could see the smile on her face as she woke and feel her arms reach out to me.
‘Morning, my love,’ she’d say and I would envelop myself in the wonder of it. There would be morning breath and grogginess and I would hold her to me, her and my child, and know that, at least then, nothing could break my joy.