Okay everyone, here is the next part of True Tales...
True Tales from University: Patrick Finnegan Lloyd
As told by Mary Beauchamp
Sometimes the smallest and most trivial of meetings turn out to have the most unbelievable consequences...
Okay, so I’ve had a brush with death in my life. Big deal. Get over it already.
Coming to this University was a far bigger challenge, at least in my eyes. It was far easier, nicer even, to be in bed all day long with my books. All right, maybe that was tiresome now and again. And maybe I’m a terrible person for wishing I could go back to those days. Back then everyone told me to make the most of my precious life, time and time again until it was ingrained on every part of my mind. Now that I’ve recovered, it won’t go away. The need to make every day count remains. And that is why I feel so low now.
Because I’m really beginning to hate my life.
I put as much enthusiasm as I could into my return to education. As much enthusiasm as my chemo-nuked body could handle. My first semester started off as a dream. From what I could remember of high school, it was just a kindergarten. University lectures surely wouldn’t be as rowdy as a high school class. All that lunchtime gossip would evaporate under the glorious sun of higher education. Everyone would stop acting like their genitals controlled them.
Boy was I wrong.
It happened insidiously, chipping away at the great wall of my usually undefeatable enthusiasm. In my first week I walked into public drunkenness and nudity in the main quad. The Drinking Horn. Great. Seriously? Were these people really paying huge university fees just to get drunk and be ogled? Not just guys, but girls too. Shameless. I hated it. But I bit it back, took the hard core of burning hate and visualised myself throwing it in the nearest rubbish bin. Not everyone was like them. These were only the dregs in this bastion of intelligence…
Please, don’t get me wrong. I’m a very positive person. The doctors and specialists said that time and time again, so it must be true. You have to be positive to make it through what I did. And I do value my life, immensely. But I came here to be enlightened. Unfortunately, it seems I am wasting my time.
When I take my walks in the nearby park – begrudgingly, I’ll admit, for my daily dose of that vital sunlight – I get many stares. Have these people never seen a sick person before? I know I look anaemic to the point of vampirism, but that’s no excuse for them to stare. And to gossip. They look at me, I meet their eyes, they quickly look away. They look back, see I’m still staring. Shocked, they look away and start whispering to their friends. What is there to say about me? Do I look like a freak? Do I look like I’m insane?
Except for the anaemic pale and extreme slenderness it is hard to tell what I have been through. My hair has grown back into the same soft blonde ringlets I had as a baby, as my first head of hair. I don’t know if it’s beautiful. When it first began growing back, I saw it and smiled. I expected Mum to smile too and say something nostalgic about my early years. But when I showed her, her eyes watered up and her mouth, a straight line, crumpled. A second more, for diagnosis: these don’t look like tears of joy. I walked away.
So is it the hair that people stare at? The fact that if I dare to put on a hint of coloured lip gloss I look like Shirley Temple, I look far, far too young for university?
I don’t feel young, but I do feel small, very small. Not in height, but I feel so fragile. I eat as much as my stomach can take these days, trying to put back on the youthful weight that I lost. But I haven’t been able yet to coat these delicate bones of mine. When I walk through a crowd, I try so hard to avoid bumping into people, for fear they will break me. But no one ever watches where they are going these days. Like so many lemmings they surge through the corridors and pathways. And after the first semester of fearing all this, my feelings changed.
I began to feel angry.
Why were people so inconsiderate? Even if I wasn’t so weak I was sure I’d feel this way. People walking one way while looking the other. People walking four abreast in a narrow corridor not giving a damn about anyone else. People standing in doorways talking to people. God, I hated it. If this was university, supposedly the highest level of education mortals could attain, then why oh why didn’t anyone walk with intelligence?
And speaking of intelligence, why were people so damn proud and boastful when they got low marks? How could they tell their friends and have a good laugh about it? All these dumb peroxide blondes in their short-shorts filling up my campus... GO AWAY!
I hate the fact that it is so necessary these days to have a degree to get a decent job. It’s ridiculous. Our parents’ generation didn’t have this problem, and half of them never even finished high school.
Okay. Sorry about the rant. I’m really not convincing you that I’m the positive kind of person, am I? It’s just that I’m kind of stressed. I hate university so much. It isn’t what everyone made it out to be. But then, I suppose, maybe none of this is the real problem.
Maybe the real problem is that my major is English and my only foreseeable future is to become a teacher.
I would rather die.
Well, maybe that’s inaccurate. To put it more truthfully: the stress of that occupation would finish the job that cancer couldn’t.
So it’s not a matter of ‘I’d rather’, or ‘I wish to’. It’s more a matter of ‘I would’. And that’s the truth.
‘Ghosts,’ he began.
‘A staple of the supernatural, ghosts. Almost everyone has a ghost story to tell. Ghosts can be harbingers of good, or very bad indeed. In some cultures they were, like so many other undead creatures, hungering after the life source, and would attack live humans to gain it. But what do ghosts represent in the mind? If you’ll turn to page 45...’
And so began my least favourite class this semester. The summary of the course before the year began had been promising. It was a class on the nature of monsters in literature. But it was very much psychology-based, and while I was kind of into psychology in an amateur way, I was in no way ready for the depth of this course. And so rather than struggling to swim, I instead relaxed and just allowed my hate to grow. Though I loved the texts in the course. That was a small concession.
I wasn’t really listening. Like the pouty-lipped, hair-perfectly straightened girls I so hated, I just doodled on my paper and played with my cell phone. When that finally got too boring to handle, I got out a book and began reading. The lecturer’s voice drifted in and out of my hearing, but it had no hold on me, it couldn’t distract me.
I was so tired. It was my second-to-last semester, and I was determined to finish my degree, but even now I felt so drained of life I wasn’t sure if I had the ability to go on. Maybe I could just scrape through this course, and do a little better on the ones I enjoyed. But the thought gave me no joy, and the impending deadline for the end of my time here was weighing on my shoulders heavily. It was strange. I hated this place, and couldn’t wait to get out of it. But I was frightened of leaving, because what could I do once I left? I was not going to teachers’ training college, that much was dead certain. I couldn’t bear to work in an office either.
I had taken English because I loved books, I loved reading, I loved everything about the written word. And yet it had done me no good. It seemed to me there was nothing I could do with my degree, nothing that wouldn’t drain me of the life I had just a few years ago fought so hard to hold onto.
I dwelt on it on the bus home. There were many people in this world who could just bum around without a job, but I was not one of those people. I had a too keenly refined sense of guilt. Even now I felt guilty, and I was still studying. I felt as if I was utterly wasting the life I was very lucky to still have. I knew deep down that everyone would grant me some reprieve if, at the end of this year, I still had no direction. But my guilt would never grant me any reprieve.
I hated the bus so much. I hated when people sat next to me, especially on rainy days when they were hot with sweat under their jackets and wet on the outside with the rain. The smell was always too much for my sensitive nose and the sight of the floor of the bus, with trails of muddy water leading from umbrella end to umbrella end... it always made me want to vomit. I know, that’s a weird thing to vomit over, but for some reason, after all the blood and guts of my sickness... the strangest things disturbed me now. Anytime I had to catch the bus from university to my parents’ home I would stick my MP3 player on, but I always felt guilty every time I put my earphones on, because my doctor once said I’d ruin my hearing that way.
But he had to understand: if I didn’t have my music on the bus, I’d want to cry, or vomit, or hurt somebody. I got so damn angry, not that this tiny body could ever act out any major violence. But I worried about my mental state sometimes.
I was overall happy to get home every night, but it wasn’t all perfect. My parents had noticed my glumness over the last few weeks. I brushed them off by telling them I was tired. This they usually accepted, and the only thing which sometimes modified their response was to advise me to see the doctor again. And I did. The doctor didn’t catch on either. Maybe I was a really good actress, or maybe everyone just thought that slow, tired and weak was my natural state after my suffering. Only I knew the difference, I guessed. Still, to appease the doctor I tried everything advised: walks in sunlight, for my exercise and vitamin D and blah, blah, blah. Another reason I didn’t tell anyone I was down was because I didn’t want any more pills. If people thought I was depressed... well, it just felt to me like I’d be disappointing everyone. Beside, I wasn’t depressed. I was very, very angry, and university was to blame.
I turned to my books that night, hiding my shame and sadness from my parents, and ignoring the staggering pile of study I had to do. No ghosts please, no monsters of any kind tonight. Just a good old crime thriller will do. I got into the swing of reading and eventually my pain was eased as I sunk fully into the story, forgetting my own life. Perhaps I was meant to do something book-related. After all, books were the best part of life for me, at any given time – especially during my time in hospital.
With this nugget of an idea in my mind, I went to sleep a little easier that night.
I really, really hate it when somebody sits in the seat I have been occupying all semester.
And today, someone did just that.
I walked into the lecture theatre and looked in the direction of my favourite position, which was far enough from the lecturer, and as far as possible from the bulk of the class. Damn it, there was a guy sitting in my seat. Unbelievably, I felt my eyes well up. Seriously? I was crying over a seat? No... it was everything crap about my day accumulating, coming to a head over this next bloody inconvenience. I considered leaving the class and going straight home for the day. But I looked again at the guy. He seemed all right. Slender, shoulders hunched in, a light scarf around his neck which screamed, if not gay, then sensitive or pretentious. If he was sitting there, so far away from everyone else, then he was probably like me. A loner – or someone who just wants to be left alone.
Too bad. He must be punished for sitting in my seat.
I went up into the same row and defiantly (really, defying only my inner anguish at the thought he might try to speak to me) sat down with only a seat in between me and the man who had so offended me. He didn’t even look up. That pissed me off just a little. To make it worse, he had no pen or paper out, waiting to take notes. How dangerous of him. Not. Probably 75% of people here didn’t take notes. They had really dumbed university down, I thought as I looked around the room. Noticing the absence of pen and paper drew my eyes to another terrible thing. He had his legs up on the desk. One ankle hooked over the over, his skinny legs, in some odd, old-fashioned pants, were diagonally placed, away from me, across the desk, as he slouched in his seat.
Well. I was certainly not going to say anything. I would wait for the lecturer to notice.
The lecturer came in and though his eyes, usually keen for any misbehaviour, scanned the room as they always did, he completely missed the guy next to me. He had seen me, but he hadn’t seen this fellow. I scowled, and put my head down over my perfectly set out paper and pen.
I spent the rest of the class unable to concentrate, even though this was my favourite class and my favourite lecturer. Why couldn’t I concentrate? It was simple. That guy was in my favourite seat. And while yes, it might seem a little stupid of me, me having come back from the brink of death, to get angry over this one little thing, I find it really excruciating to not have my universe in perfect order. So sue me.
But it gets worse. He was there, every time for the next couple of weeks. It was beginning to attack me from the inside. Always he sat in my seat. Always. He too had the perfect obsessive-compulsive memory for which seat he sat in, only he failed to account for the fact that he had usurped it. Not that he appeared to realise, because I had never seen him in that class before. He must have joined the class late or something. I began to consider not turning up to this class. Or... dare I say it... sitting in another part of the room.
My anger took a while to dissipate, but eventually the lecturer won me around. Though Shakespeare might seem dry to some, this lecturer, Professor Sanders, had such wit about him that he always had a class giggling about five minutes in. He really was very clever. He always managed to hold my attention. And so it was, with his quips and jokes, he had me soon a little relaxed and more open to his teaching. I had even managed to forget, after a few lectures, my annoyance at the guy next to me, who laughed quietly away too, and whose eyes were always trained on the lecturer – so maybe he had a good memory for lectures, and didn’t need notes? It was rare for me, this forgiving mood, but this lecturer always had this power over his classes.
‘And so we come to the real topic of the day,’ the lecturer finally said with an anxious look at his watch. He’d spent more time than he’d wanted to talking about the mechanics of Elizabethan Theatre, and he obviously wanted to get onto the text for today. I couldn’t for the life of me remember which text it was supposed to be, and I had left the semester schedule at home. ‘Tell me, class,’ he said with a hint of mischievous glee, ‘Did Shakespeare stare at the Queen?’ The class was abuzz with murmurs, people looking at each other, trying to get one step ahead of the crazy professor and see where he was going. I didn’t look around, but twirled my pen in my hands, clicking my tongue and trying to work out what response he wanted. A glance at the boy beside me – he was smirking. Had he heard this one before?
With a bright smile the professor opened his arms wide and loud and clear pronounced, ‘No! It was more of a Lear.’
The class gave a collective sigh of exasperation, and I giggled, shaking my ringletted head. ‘Oh God, that was so lame!’ I sighed, and glanced over at the guy beside me. He was looking at me, and he was smiling at my reaction to the joke. I smiled back at him, slightly surprised that I could do so after being so mad at him. At my response, something seemed to pop in his eyes. He was still smiling, but he looked at me with amazement. I felt a little shy. It was not a comfortable look.
He opened his mouth to speak, and couldn’t think of anything just then it seemed, making a small noise instead. He sat up, taking his legs off the desk. He cleared his throat, and though the lecturer had continued onto the topic of King Lear, the guy beside me smiled unsurely and replied quietly, ‘Yeah, that really was terrible, wasn’t it?’
Oh. My. God. It was lucky I was sitting down, because just then I went weak at the knees. The odd kid I had been sitting next to had an Irish accent. Now I love accents, but the Irish accent was my absolute favourite. I began for the first time to take proper notice of him. He had clear, pale skin, with eyes of... hazel, or blue? I couldn’t tell, they were such an odd colour and the light was too dim in the lecture theatre. His hair was a bit of a mop, wavy and brown, messy. Besides those odd pants and scarf he wore a white collared shirt and an old looking blazer. He really was odd. But it was his smile, so sweet and uncertain, that drew my eyes back.
I wanted to hear him speak again, desperately, despite the equally desperate desire to hide the blush that was growing on my ivory cheeks.
‘Did I just hear an Irish accent?’ I asked him quietly, with a cautious glance at the lecturer, too busy going off on his Shakespeare train to hear me.
‘Yeah, you did,’ the guy answered, his sentence far too short for my enjoyment.
I couldn’t lose this. Against all better judgement and my usual behaviour I had to talk to him. No one seemed to notice. But no one ever did notice me. I glanced around to confirm it, and then met his eyes again. There was something so delicate to the way he looked at me. It was almost as if he couldn’t believe I existed. Well, that felt kind of nice. No one had ever looked so happy to meet me before.
Lucky for me he spoke again. ‘What’s your name?’ he asked, glancing away shyly for just a moment.
‘Mary. Mary Beauchamp.’ I held out my hand for him to shake but he glanced away quickly, pretending not to notice. I was a little offended by this, but rather than react to him, I slid my hand down to my bag and tried to pretend I hadn’t done it. Only then did he look back at me.
‘I’m Patrick Finnegan Lloyd. It’s nice to meet you Mary.’
Though he didn’t seem to care, I stole yet another glance at the lecturer. Nope, still nobody noticed the two of us talking. It wasn’t as big a thing to anyone else. Lots of people talked in class. This was just the first time I’d ever done it. Well, I suppose not the first. People had held brief conversations with me before, but my reticence usually put them off me after a few short sentences. Intentionally. But with this guy – Patrick Finnegan Lloyd, what a name! – I didn’t want to stop talking to him. No, I didn’t want to talk, I wanted to listen. His voice thrilled me. Not only did he have an Irish accent, but his actual voice was lovely too. Though he spoke softly he lost none of the quality of his voice, as most people do when they whisper. I could listen to him talk all day long.
But how? I’m not a very forward person. I have, in fact, not one friend here at this university. So how was I, Mary Beauchamp, recluse supreme, going to somehow insinuate myself into this guy’s company?
My fears were quite unfounded, for it soon seemed that Patrick Finnegan Lloyd – the whole name, long and bumpy as it was, so lovely to my ears – was as desperate for my company as I was for his. Perhaps we were very, very alike, two lonely souls trapped in unwanted and unforeseen circumstance, who found something profound in just a small exchange. But in real life, time was going far too fast for me to process such weighty things as this. What really happened in those few but delicious moments was as follows:
He spoke again. ‘Do you have a class after this, Mary?’
He put it as casually as he could, but I could just see that the words struggled out of him, paining him. There was something closing off in his eyes, just for a second, as if he actually was preparing for rejection. Rejection? I could never reject that accent, no sir!
‘No,’ I lied. ‘I was going to take a walk in the park.’
A nervous smile, and his eyes, open and trusting again, still had that look, as if he couldn’t believe I existed. ‘Would you mind if I joined you?’
‘Not at all,’ I replied, a little too quickly.
At least for me, at that moment it wasn’t attraction, in any romantic way. For him, I cannot say, but his way was so innocent, and his manner was slightly old-fashioned. He was quite unlike any guy I had ever met. Not that I ever met any.
There was one romantic interaction in my life so far. I put it so bluntly because looking back it was nothing but the desperation of two very sick teenagers who feared dying, but most of all, dying without ever having loved. So it wasn’t love, not really, though I had said I loved him, in the hospital. But when he tried to take things too far for me, I realised the untruth of it, and in my guilt and shame I stopped him. I never saw him again. He died having never been loved, though to him that meant something very different from my definition of love. Despite the cancer he still had the libido of a teenage boy. I, however, not only harboured no feelings for him in that manner, but was chemically affected by my treatment, leaving me with no libido to speak of.
Would things have been different if I was a normal, hormonal teenager?
Patrick seemed to notice my mouth crumple into a frown at the memory, so I quickly smiled at him and buried my head in my paper. My notes had run to a complete stop since our introductions. The lecturer had continued on and I doubted I had any chance of catching up. King Lear would need all my study effort then, if I was to pass the exam. But for now, I couldn’t resist. I tore of a corner of my sheet of paper and scribbled on it:
Are you hungry? Maybe we can stop by a cafe before the park.
I passed the note to Patrick, sliding it across the desk and leaving it before those smiling Irish eyes. He looked at it, his smiling only growing brighter. I noticed after a pause that he had no pen or paper out before him, as usual, and so he couldn’t write back. I offered my pen to him, but he leaned over and just whispered, unafraid of the lecturer overhearing.
‘I’m all right, I’m not hungry. But if you are, we can.’
I smiled at his consideration and shook my head. No, I wasn’t hungry very often. A body like mine needed hardly any sustenance, though I often forced myself to eat to put the weight back on. I very nearly spoke all this, but the weight of the silence in the auditorium was the only thing to stop me.
I hadn’t had a friend in a long time, and it was hard to resist that urge to spill my guts, as anyone would do, to a good friend. And for some crazy reason, I had it in my head that Patrick Finnegan Lloyd was going to be my best friend. And to think, just five minutes ago I had hated this guy for stealing my favourite seat in the auditorium.
Crazy, but still. Out of the corner I could still see his smile, and I could even feel it radiating on me as I tried to continue writing shorthand notes of the lecture, as if I’d learn anything today.
The clock ticked with immense slowness up to the twelve. As subtly, and as often as I could, I would check the time on my watch or on the theatre clock. Patrick didn’t seem to notice, or at least he was trying to be nice and was watching the lecturer now, not constantly looking at me like some strange stalker... and yet if he had looked at me I wouldn’t have begrudged it, because there was nothing at all creepy about those eyes.
The lecture dragged on and on. Having hopped off the train of the lecture long ago I was struggling to connect all the points that the lecturer, as clever as he was, was trying to make. I was lost, but I didn’t feel so bad. No, I felt warm, and for the first time in a long time, not very angry at all. Even the straight-haired, mascara-slathered bimbos sitting not too far below me didn’t anger me now. There was something radiantly peaceful about Patrick Finnegan Lloyd.
A couple of minutes before the minute hand hit twelve the lecturer wrapped up his lecture and people began filing out of the room. Filing is too polite a way to put it. University students are animals. They crammed through, the world’s so-called intelligentsia acting like it was survival of the fittest. But Patrick and I were in no rush. He leaned back, those feet of his up again on the desk. He looked so at ease, with a faint smirk which, had I not spoken to him and been charmed by him, would have pissed me off to see. But now I shared that smirk. We could both feel a little superior over the little scurrying animals squeezing through the door, with no thought of opening up the second, bolted door. No, that would require too much thinking on their part. Okay, maybe it was just me feeling superior. Patrick was just serene on the outside.
Eventually he stood, but still he seemed in no rush. Nevertheless I jumped to my feet to join him, stuffing my pen and paper haphazardly (on any other day I would have cursed myself for bending the paper so) into my bag. I slipped in between the seats and the long bench desk, rushing to get out onto the auditorium stairs. We were pretty much the only people left in the room, except for one very eager, hunched-over, nerdy student talking to the lecturer. As Patrick shimmied out the thin gap between fold-out seats and desk, our eyes met, travelled to the awkward student and the exasperated lecturer, and met again. A small smile.
I walked slowly down the right side of the stairs with Patrick at my side. He paid a lot of attention to the stairs, which were wide and shallow. It surprised me, to see such caution in a guy who looked as young as me. I was cautious, yes, but I had reason to be. I was delicate, and I was on the outside of the bulk of our age group. He was young and vital. I could almost feel his life energy... it was such a weird thing to think, but I felt such energy and peace radiating from him.
Only then did I notice how silent I was being, and I felt that really awful social imperative to fill the silence. ‘I haven’t seen you in this class before,’ I said to him as we reached the floor and headed to the door.
Blatantly, though we were walking quite close past the lecturer, Patrick said, ‘Oh, I’m not in this class at all.’ The lecturer seemed not to hear, and I should know: with a hint of panic in my eyes I checked his face, but he was too taken up with the exasperating nerd talking to him. Patrick’s steps were fast, and we were soon through the door, out of the lecturer’s earshot.
‘Yeah. I just came in to the lecture because Shakespeare interests me. And Professor Sanders is so funny.’
For the briefest of moments I felt a small flare of anger. Had he really stolen my favourite seat in a class he wasn’t even taking?! But my anger couldn’t last. Almost as if he knew what I was feeling he turned his face to smile at me, his eyes in an apologetic cast. Whoa. That was uncanny.
‘So,’ I very nearly stuttered, trying to gain back the conversation, ‘what do you take then?’
‘I study music.’
‘Music?’ I echoed, smiling. ‘I love music. Well... I mean everyone loves music, but I used to play the oboe.’
‘Oboe?’ he echoed too, and turned his head sideways, looking me over, amused. ‘You don’t look like an oboe.’
‘What?’ I spluttered amidst a laugh.
He shrugged and smiled so brightly, as if he were on the verge of laughter. ‘I kind of have this theory, that you can match people with instruments. I used to have quite a knack for it actually. It was a good conversation starter at least. Hello, you look like a trumpet. Why, you remind me of a saxophone.’
We stepped out of the building and into the sunlight. I laughed at Patrick’s conversation with invisible people. Over his shoulder I saw a goth chick, smoking and leaning against the building, look at me oddly as I laughed. I shrugged it off.
‘So what did you think I was then, if anything?’
He gave me a hard, scrutinising look. ‘I think... perhaps... a piccolo.’
He laughed slightly, but it turned into a small sigh as I frowned childishly at him. ‘Well that’s obviously just based on the way I look, and I don’t find that very clever at all.’
‘I’m so sorry,’ he said easily but earnestly. ‘I didn’t think it would offend you. But you’re so tiny, and you step so lightly on the ground, like a dancer. That’s why I think you’re a piccolo.’
Some of my frown dissipated as he spoke of my steps. The tiny part had pissed me off, but the dancer part was all right. ‘So what instrument do you play then?’ I asked him, glancing away for the moment.
‘You’re not going to try and guess?’
‘No,’ I said stubbornly, and caught the eye of yet another girl staring at me as if – strangely enough – I was crazy. I scowled at her. ‘I couldn’t possibly guess.’
‘I played a few things, but guitar was my best and favourite.’
‘Guitar?’ I repeated, screwing up my nose. ‘I would never have guessed that.’
‘Oh.’ Well, that was a little better. But something was putting me off. ‘Played, you said. Don’t you play them anymore?’
‘Hmm?’ he looked a little confused, and then looked away for a split second. Then his winning smile was back. ‘I must have made a mistake.’
It was an odd mistake to make in a sentence, but I let it slide. Yet another person gave me a strange look. I turned to Patrick. ‘Is there something on my face?’
‘People keep looking at me funny.’
An odd look crossed his face – something like guilt. Was he hiding something from me? Did I indeed have something gross on my face? ‘You know how people can be,’ he said softly. Oh yes. I know how people can be. ‘Let’s go somewhere quiet in the park, and hopefully people won’t bug you there.’
There was something about his last sentence that bugged me, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. Instead, I followed him as we got closer and closer to the park. As we walked he kept talking, giving me no time to try and figure out the edge of that revelation that was trying to occur to me. We had to push through a bunch of people, but Patrick was one for going out of the way rather than fighting his way through the rude and inconsiderate crowd hogging the path. I had no time to talk back at him as he talked. But I didn’t mind. His accent was too much of a delight to my ears.
‘I’m studying composition. I really love to compose. But if I wasn’t musical I’d say I’d probably do what you’re doing. I’m just assuming English is your major?’ I nodded with a curt smile. ‘I thought so. It was my second choice, but a close second. The only thing I love more than books is music. I especially love the really old stuff: Shakespeare, Chaucer, medieval poets. I love Oscar Wilde too. But I would, wouldn’t I?’ I laughed quietly, and his eyes twinkled with mocking self-deprecation.
We’d made our way away from the large and inconsiderate crowd of people waiting for the bus, and now the park was near. Through the black metal fence beside me popped out large open flower heads, bright yellow with straight tongue petals, and bright pink with rounded petals that folded in on themselves. Those were the largest ones there, but below them rambled little flowers of blue and white. The park was fairly busy today, I could see though the thin bars of the fences. Especially around the fountain, it was busy. But there were some areas where Patrick and I could escape to. We headed around the break in the fence, avoiding, as always, the stream of people walking through. ‘Where to?’ I asked him quietly.
He took the lead now, walking down a paved path through the gently rolling slopes of the park. We were thankfully moving away from the fountain, with its seats and crowds. There was a quieter part of the park before us, where from far off buildings in the afternoon cast their long shadows and trees cut out even more light, letting it dance like stars on the grass through the gaps between leaves. This section of park I liked better than the heat of the direct sun in the centre, and its reflection off the babbling fountain.
He led me to the shade of one stout tree, the braches and leaves of which formed an almost perfect sphere, like a halo around the trunk. The grass was dry, soft and springy, and I sat down, crossing my legs, with my bag encircled by them. I dug within for my sandwiches. The only people were far off now, walking on the paths around the fountain while we sat here in the calm.
‘Do you mind if I eat?’
‘Not at all.’
I unwrapped the plastic wrap and took one white triangle from the rest. I tried to chew as little as I could, to appear ladylike. I stole and glance, and noticed he wasn’t going to eat. In fact he didn’t have a bag with him at all, not for food, paper, books, phone... nothing. I finished my mouthful.
‘Why don’t you have a bag with you?’
He shrugged. ‘I don’t really have anything to carry.’
‘You leave everything at the school of music?’
He didn’t exactly respond to the question, as if I were to take it for granted. ‘My guitar’s there.’
‘Is it an expensive guitar?’ I asked, before taking another small bite of bread and cucumber.
He grinned at the question. ‘Its worth is more than money. My guitar is my soul. Music is my soul.’ Our eyes met. We smiled. I broke the awkward moment by mocking him.
‘What about them?’
‘They’re odd. Is that what they call fashion in Ireland?’
He looked down at his old fashioned get-up. ‘I wouldn’t know, I haven’t been back in a while.’
‘Oh.’ I pouted. ‘I’m sorry. Do you miss it?’
He shrugged lightly and leaned back against the trunk of the tree. His smile was genuine as he replied, ‘Not really. I’ve found a home here. I think I’d miss here more if I were to go anywhere.’
‘That’s good,’ I nodded.
‘Mary,’ he said slowly. My name, so plain, sounded wonderful coming from his lips.
‘Can I ask you a personal question?’
I felt a little weird, apprehensive about what he might want to know. ‘What is it?’
‘Why do you always sit alone? The times I’ve come to your class, you’re always way up in the corner.’
‘Well you’re always there too. Why do you sit there?’
He smiled awkwardly, as if caught out. ‘I... I don’t belong in that class. And I like to put my feet on the desk. I just feel it’s better for me to sit away from everyone else.’ He glanced over at me, and there was a bit of sympathy or something in his eyes. ‘If my question has upset you, you don’t have to answer.’
‘No, it’s just... well, that’s where I sit. Away from everyone. I don’t really have any friends here.’
‘What?’ He looked at me with wide eyes, mouth slightly open. ‘None at all? I don’t believe that. You don’t look like an unfriendly person.’
‘I’m not, I guess I just don’t really want any friends here. Or I haven’t been trying. No one’s really been interesting me.’ “Except you”, I had to stop myself from adding.
‘But you do have friends, right? Everyone needs friends.’
‘I have some old friends, yeah. From like... high school.’
‘Who you hardly see?’
I shifted back a little, able no longer to hide on my face the discomfort this conversation was giving me. ‘I don’t know how you can tell.’
He put his arms around his knees and looked down at the ground. ‘You just look so lonely sometimes, Mary.’
I was growing just a little bit angry, but it was defensive angry. I felt like I was being interrogated. And this is why I didn’t go out of my way to make friends. Even Patrick, who I’d taken some irrational liking to based on – of all things – his accent, was pushing a little too far into my introverted shell. But it wasn’t truly anger. Even I could tell, from a kind of objective perspective, that it was just me reacting, covering the fear with anger. Why fear? Because I couldn’t understand how on earth Patrick knew so much about me. Was he good at reading people? Had he actually been looking at me in all those classes where I had been fuming in anger – at him?
‘I’m,’ I started slowly, with a deep breath, ‘I’m just an introvert.’
Not entirely true. I had been right into the social scene back in high school. Of course, I needn’t tell you I didn’t make it into my senior years, I never got to go to a school dance or anything, but the hormone melee began even before those years. Gossip, boyfriends and girlfriends, bitching and fights... and I wasn’t the victim. No. I was the instigator. I was a bully.
I never saw it that way before the cancer. I was the most popular girl in school, or so I thought. I was a spoilt brat at home. I kissed my best friend’s boyfriend just to make her break-up with him. I was jealous of all the time they spent together. But of course, she hated me afterwards. But I had heaps of friends. It was her loss, in my eyes. I was the best at manipulating people. I had teachers wrapped around my little finger. If ever I had thought about who would be around me in my time of need, I would have thought... everyone. Everyone wants to be my friend. Because everyone wishes they were me.
So when the time came, and I was waiting in my hospital bed for the visitors, the gifts, the get-well cards, I was sorely disappointed. Nobody came. A few of my relatives came to support my mother and father, but even they were scared of me. People were so guarded about what they said to me. I even managed to upset one of my nurses. She wouldn’t even come back to my ward after I made her life hell.
It was in hospital, while waiting for friends who never showed up, that I found the friends I have today. Books. Something changed me in the hospital. I’m not sure if I can put it all down to the cancer. I was broken.
Patrick saw that he had reduced me to tears. His eyes filled with horror and he stood up. I thought he might come over and hug me, but he just stood there. ‘Mary, I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to make you cry. I’ll... I’ll go.’
He began to walk away and I lashed out, grabbing for his hand. He spun around, face painted with alarm as I wrapped my long skinny fingers around his soft hand. With a little bit of spite in my voice I said to him, ‘I thought you would be more of a gentleman than that. It’s not nice to just leave someone crying on their own.’ Not nice at all. I’d been left alone so many times.
As my tears subsided I noticed Patrick was staring at our joined hands with... I can’t tell what it was. Amazement, shock, awe, wonder. None of the words are quite right. He looked the same way he did the moment I first spoke to him and looked at him. ‘Mary,’ he whispered nervously, and came back, sitting down and putting an arm around me, with unbelievable slowness and softness, as if he thought his arm might... what? Hurt me? It was so confusing.
‘Patrick,’ I said, as I tried to hold back the tears which still threatened to overflow, ‘Why do you seem so nervous around me sometimes? Just now... and when I spoke to you in class... you looked... you looked like...’
‘I’m not nervous, Mary,’ he said quickly, avoiding my eyes. ‘I just... you... everything about you is so surprising.’
I had no idea what he meant, but the nervousness was still there, and unlike him, I had a little tact. I didn’t press. But his words were so strange, and I wasn’t sure whether to feel complemented or insulted. Inside, I was naturally siding with the complemented feeling. Surprising? Me? But why? Surprising that I just grabbed his hand out of nowhere – was that too forward for him, perhaps? Why would he be surprised that I talked to him in class? Was he surprised I even existed?
I looked over at him, and he looked very preoccupied with something. Finally he asked me, ‘Can I ask you another question? This one might sound even weirder...’
I quirked an eyebrow. ‘Okay... shoot.’
‘Do I smell?’
I cracked a smile and started giggling. He smiled too, but it was nervous. Poor guy. He was so uneasy around me, though before he had been so easy to talk to. I leant my head down towards his shoulder and sniffed. ‘I guess you smell kinda nice. I don’t know what it is. A scent. But you smell nice.’
He looked surprised again. ‘I have a scent?’
I laughed out loud here, and he looked frightened as I did. ‘You don’t remember putting cologne or deodorant on today? Then it must be the smell of your washing powder. But it doesn’t smell bad, if that’s what you’re scared of. Why the heck did you ask?’
Now he looked very frightened. ‘I ah... I just wouldn’t want to smell unpleasant, as I have my arm around you.’
We held each others eyes for an awkward moment. I wasn’t crying or near crying anymore. Technically there was no reason for him to have his arm around me anymore, which was across my shoulders, clutching on a little too tightly to my opposite shoulder. But that being said, I didn’t exactly want him to move his arm. I was trying to convey it to him in a psychic manner, even though that was a crazy thought. But there was something I had felt the whole time I had been in his company. I felt as if we were somehow deeply connected, and maybe he would understand my silent wish.
‘Another question, Mary.’
‘Another weird one?’
‘Quite possibly the weirdest.’
‘Go ahead then. I’m looking forward to being surprised.’
‘Has anything magic ever happened to you?’
He looked so earnest as he asked me that. I looked at him with wide eyes, and a mocking smile crept onto my lips. Then I laughed a little. His mouth hardened a little, as if he was upset at my reaction. ‘Uh... what?’
‘Magic, you know. Have you ever seen anything magic in your life?’
‘What, like leprechauns?’ He smiled a little, and rolled his eyes. ‘Is this going to turn into some gross pick-up line?’ I asked sceptically. He blushed a little, and sternly shook his head. ‘Okay, seriously, why are you asking that?’
‘Well let me put it this way, do you believe in magic?’
I shook my head. ‘No,’ I said simply.
He looked vaguely upset. ‘Why not?’
I couldn’t stop myself. ‘If there’s magic in this world, then why does bad stuff happen? Why aren’t there wizards and stuff who heal the sick, and get rid of cancer and stuff?’ I brought myself to a stop as the c-word escaped my lips. I hated to speak it. Patrick could see that I was shaken.
‘Are you all right?’
I stared at the ground. He looked at me, and I didn’t look up to catch the expression on his face, though part of me did want to, very much. ‘You had it, didn’t you?’
‘But you’re alive. You survived.’
I nodded slowly. ‘Yeah. And medicine saved me. Not faith or magic or anything like that. Medicine nearly bloody killed me, but in the end, medicine won.’
Patrick sighed. ‘You don’t think your spirit helped you to win the fight? You don’t think your positive energy helped you?’
I shook my head. ‘No. So sorry, I don’t believe in magic. But you do?’
‘Most definitely,’ he said, looking into my eyes. Oh yes. It was certain now. I definitely had an attraction to this strange guy. Even though we disagreed on this ridiculous point, the feeling of synchronicity I had felt with him peaked as our eyes met. Maybe this was the most ‘magic’ the world could hold.
‘We met for a reason today, Mary,’ he said very seriously.
‘Yes,’ was all I could manage to say, as if hypnotised by his eyes.
Looking down, I reached for his opposite hand with mine, and he took it. My hand looked so small in his, and his was much warmer. His fingers closed around mine, and the warmth sunk into them. My head sunk to his shoulder.
His other hand left my shoulder and he touched my hair. His head moved, and he took a deep breath in, breathing in my hair while he ran his fingers through the shoulder-length ringlets I had struggled, since the cancer, to grow.
I closed my eyes. It all felt right, to be here with him. Since the moment we first spoke, this had been the result that had to happen. All the words that went before, though treasured, had been but a prelude to the silence of this. We hardly moved, and when we did, it was geologically slow. We were like statues in our chastely intimate pose.
Words occasionally passed between us. They were not of much significance. Trivial things. We didn’t speak of love. Perhaps there was still a shyness in him too – there was in me, that was certain. I was shy because I hadn’t felt like this before, and I didn’t know what was expected of me. I had once had a ‘boyfriend’ when I was 14, but that was a long, long time ago, and it was just a silly popularity game, rather than a true thing. And then there was my fellow sufferer in the hospital. But that had nothing of the feeling this had.
I didn’t notice the light beginning to fade. ‘Mary,’ he whispered in my ear.
‘You should go home now. Sunset is only an hour away.’
My eyes flashed open. He was right. The shadows were so long on the park now, and I had missed the cold of the air when I was so close to the warmth of his body. I did not want to go. There was an ache in me just thinking about it. But he was right.
‘Where do you live?’ I asked.
‘Quite close to the campus,’ he said. ‘You?’
‘I live about half an hour away, by bus.’ I looked up at him from his shoulder. ‘Can I get your number?’ I asked him, clutching tightly to his hand.
He smiled apologetically. ‘I don’t have a phone.’
I blinked at him, hardly believing in this mythical creature. He smiled back and shrugged. ‘Show me your timetable. I’ll meet you in between or after your classes.’
‘I’ll make you a copy,’ I said quickly, grabbing for the paper in my bag.
‘No, really, don’t,’ he refused, and I didn’t think at the time to ask why. ‘Just show me your timetable please.’
So I pulled out my diary from my bag and found the page with my timetable. He studied it for a very short time and then looked up and smiled at me. ‘I’ll remember it. I’ll meet you here tomorrow, after your last class?’
‘Yes,’ I said a little too eagerly, amazed at his display of photographic memory.
‘Now, be safe Mary. Good night.’ And perhaps a little too shy to kiss my lips, he kissed my hand instead, then stood up, and walked slowly backwards for a few steps, smiling at me. He stopped, and I stood, gathering up my bag.
I waved to him, but couldn’t manage to say anything but, ‘Tomorrow.’ He nodded, and we both turned to walk our separate ways.
Surprisingly, the further I got from him, I did not get lovesick or anything. Instead, my heart, which had been beating so calmly and slowly all afternoon, began to race. I wanted to run and jump for joy. I felt so energetic and excited. I laughed aloud, and people around me stared. But I didn’t care.
I was very much, and for the first time, in love.
Even the bus ride home was fine. I didn’t need my MP3 player, because there was music in my head already. Classical guitar. I could hear music I’d never even heard before, composing itself in my head. And it was Patrick playing.
My parents weren’t paying attention when I came in. They were watching the TV, as the news was on.
‘Hi!’ I chimed, spreading the single syllable out.
‘Welcome home Mary,’ my father replied, his eyes still on the TV.
I felt a little disappointed. I had wanted to share my joy. But now I began to want to keep it as my little secret, and so I tried to get out of the room as fast as I could.
‘Oh, Mary?’ my mother called for me. ‘Your doctor called today. You have to have an appointment soon. Is Tuesday afternoon in two weeks time okay?’
I ran through a quick mental timetable. But the only thing that the appointment would clash with was, unfortunately, an afternoon date with Patrick. But that would have to do, he would understand. ‘Yeah, it’s fine Mum!’
I went to my room and flopped down on my bed. I stared up at the ceiling, as the orange light of the sunset cast streaks all around my room. I was breathless. Would I sleep tonight? I wasn’t sure. I was far too exhilarated. Life had finally taken a sweet turn.