Never Forget Me

Never Forget Me 

Every school day my feet made echoes on stones where a hundred years before were put the same timid steps, and I looked up at ancient portals, and framed in them faces blurred in traditions, their moods turning blue with the melancholy of their days. Still I envied them, these ghosts, their traces behind them; in their time, bright innovations had yet to be plucked out of the air and given formulae, given form, and among them had walked the ones to do it. “All these things we take for granted,” I said to a less impassioned friend, “they didn’t have them then, had to invent them. What have we invented in our time?” Somebody nearby suggested the jock strap, to which I retorted, “You don’t build empires on jock straps.” 

            I was young then. You could say I’m young still, but somehow now I know you don’t need empires, and that in fact you need jock straps more urgently, but that was me, then.

            Another friend did what friends were for: he understood. I saw it in his face, and maybe that’s why empires were staffed by the friends of friends. I looked at him, and in my mind remade him as my only friend. I saw into his frank black eyes, fixed on his dark lips, a line of bright light on them. I wondered how they would taste, and I swear that it was at that moment that I felt my whole being invert, that I knew something frightening and exciting about myself, something new. Now the world is older and, like me, knows too much for its own good; it is exhausted, yet still unsated, wondering uneasily about the next thrill.

            There I am, looking down from that mass of windows. That used to be strange, but now it isn’t. I’m in the courtyard flanked by ghosts – they’re my only friends now. We look up, leaning on one another as friends do, and we see me, my face wretched and woeful. I am in disgrace up there, deeply, irrevocably; I’m surprised, hurt, confused, and I’m sixteen. My arrogance is all but withered away. I prized it, but up there I weep over its memory, and curse its one-time hold over me. I will wake up later, and wail at its passing, will vow to return it to its rightful place.

            I was all things innocent, though not exactly virgin, a wonderer, not yet a thinker, at a time of life that collapsed at the crucial point in choruses of outrage. I listened for them, heard nothing till they deafened me. I was disturbed by my disgrace, then embraced it. I spent a moon-tinted night with it. The day following was dark, one that made me think of a night wrapped up in coarse sheets. I opened the window a crack and took a breath of cold air. My fringe was wet from a careless facewash, and I shivered, sick at heart. Ghosts were down below, laughing, waving, calling, and in that way you have with friends, they were mocking. I closed them out and tried the door, found I was still locked in.

            One of the nuns brought me a plate of mush and a toothglass of milk. She said nothing, turned a hatchet face away. I knew her as well as you can know those bountiful sisters of pedagogy. I’d made her lose her rag many a time, just to see it get lost. She’d made me stand up, had bent down, and raised her hand. There was a moment between contact and pain, one of hair-raising possibility, and then my legs would be aching with slap. That was why they kept us short-trousered, dressed like children, even at sixteen.

            Tricks of the conscience make the sisters mumble about the mercy of the Lord, as they tell you one thing, but put you through another. “True,” that only friend assured me. He had begun a speech about paradox, then abandoned it, seeing that we had other things to go on to: he saw them in my face. What price the quest for knowledge next to the all-consuming fervours of your sixteenth year? 

            “Kiss me,” I said to him, in a digression from that same conversation, “but not like a friend; kiss me on the mouth, like a girl.” He frowned, but did so, and I tasted our communal supper on his lips for a moment. 

            “Oh God,” he said. “That was good.” 

            We were a little thrown at the utterance of God’s name, at having called Him down to that little room in which we were setting our seals on each other. We were on our haunches. I forgot God, and looked into his eyes with interest; no mystery there, and yet, because I’d changed, there was. 

            “There are rules we don’t know about,” I tried with Father Gloster, our resident father, a whiskey-fixed Irishman from Burma, “but have to obey.” I saw him stiffen in his dark throne of a chair, as he reminded me that I was sixteen, that I should leave such things to the experts and concentrate on the matters in hand. In his there was a telephone. “That’s it, exactly,” I pushed it. “I’m sixteen, and life is changed.” 

            He said, “The wilderness is a terrible place,” and rang for a sister to come and get me in case he set about me with those big hands. “But paradise to some,” he called after me as I was led out. I only thought later that I should have called back, “Too right!”

            Diverted from my face up there, a ghost friend turns to me, and says, “You shouldn’t have kissed him like that, you know.” 

            I know, but say, “Why not?” 

            Another puts in, “Because it was the wrong friend. It was a friend in whose brain guilt was a living thing, a friend who had to confess to make the sin complete, and thereby to enjoy it to the full.” 

            Another adds, “And wasn’t he surrounded by those willing to hear his confession?” 

            I say, “It was only a kiss.”

            “Lips, though,” they chorus in the tones of the schoolmam sisters they knew in their times. “Tongues. A romantic kiss. A hybrid kiss.” I relive the moment; it was the sweetest one in my life, when I touched his face with my fingers, touched his knee with my hand. “A forbidden kiss.”

            “Perhaps you’re right,” I seem to agree, but none of us are fooled by that, and we all laugh cautiously, pleased with ourselves, but not knowing why.

            All around me they were sat in hush, my peers, heads down to exams. I should have been with them. Stray equations, for finding the value of x, unrolled themselves through my head, and suspect fragments of history. I remembered Aeneas from my Latin, burning his boats to stop his soldiers going back, to make them fight or die, or was it fight and die? Beautiful French came, only to turn ugly; il faut expliquer à tes parents. My stepmother would be burning rubber like a maniac down the country lanes that led us out only reluctantly to the real world, I supposed, torn from her life of lunches and charities. She would be as mad as a cat in a sack, would hiss at me, her anger white hot. She would forgive me, and yet reproach me all her days and mine in that unhappy house in which I lived when not at school, until we died, me of weariness, she of the shame of the whole thing.

            At lunchtime I heard footsteps in the corridor. I knew it was Sister Hatchet, who said, “You’re to see Father Gloster now,” through lips that went briefly from dull grey to pink. At the window I put on the face I set out there for all time. The courtyard had begun to fill up, familiar faces full of cautious joy. There was my younger brother at a habitual corner in habitual conversation with his odious, habit-formed friends. There was my only friend, relief on his face to have got his sins off his chest, and off mine for me. He would go on in that way, relieved, would find other friends, and dub them best and only with some prudence, until they found him out. In time, he would forget me. 

            Sister Hatchet walked too fast – they always did, always in a blinding hurry, always just about to lose their rag – and I didn’t try to keep up with her. She turned once and stopped, jangled keys impatiently. We took the side stairs down, met only a maintenance man, who had an angular, beautiful face like that on an ikon. He swept amused, Byzantine eyes over us. On the ground floor that only friend as was passed a dirty window, and I caught him briefly in frowning profile, thought, ‘I kissed that face.’ I stopped in my tracks, found that sweet moment again, in wonder watched it pass across my eyes. Then it seemed not to have happened. He would forget me, I reminded myself, and suddenly that was a thing I couldn’t bear.

            We halted in a fug of pipe tobacco and wood polish, in the corridor that led to the staff studies. There was a vague face outlined in a polished panel. It had dark eyes and a dark line for a mouth. It puzzled me, but I knew it was mine. I left it there, imprinted onto that panel, turned on my heel and took up Sister Hatchet’s pace. I heard her call my name, in another register by then. I left my name there too, and there it remains, accompanies my face forever.

            Sister Hatchet’s pace was emancipating. I pushed my way along those corridors, and up those stairs, shoving through the little ones’ dinner queue, and past the lunchtime clubbers, volleyball players, chess genii, musical prodigies, holding defensively, like saints, onto the objects that defined them. I passed along the top floor, found my study door unlocked, saw that leaded window awaiting me, an ocean of space lit by a path of sunlight. My steps were more careful now. I threw the window open and illuminated myself. I stepped onto the tiny ledge. I wasn’t thinking of freedom, or anything like that. Burning boats never mean freedom, but compulsion. All the same, they’re a glorious sight to behold, to carry with you, to relate to others. If they mean anything, it’s a chance to take into your lungs the deepest breath of your life. I looked for my only friend, couldn’t see him, and didn’t care, knew in my bones that he would never forget me, not now. I had a glimpse instead of the ghosts, and was taken all in a flash by the certainty of their love, and the adventure that awaited me; my limbs flying, I offered myself to them.

Nick Sweeney

Nick Sweeney’s stories have seen the light in venerable venues such as Ambit, The Sentinel and Lakeview International, as well as some worthy later arrivals such as Literally Stories and Red Fez. Laikonik Express, his novel about friendship, Poland, and getting the train for the hell of it, is out with UK independent publisher Unthank Books. His 20K-word ‘novelette’ The Exploding Elephant was published by Bards and Sages in 2018. His story Traffic was runner-up in the V S Pritchett Award in 2015. He is a freelance writer and musician, and lives on the English coast.

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