We were twelve and drunk with power on the last day of school. The only homework our teacher had given us was to find out how Houdini had died. But none of us bothered. There was a light air outside, coming to the boil, and the promise of an endless summer around the corner.
None of us bothered, that is, but Nellie. The teacher made her stand at the top of the class, and she told us how someone had punched Houdini in the stomach. It wasn’t even part of an act. We were all a bit disappointed by that. The teacher said that was an example of an anti-climax.
Everyone gave her a bit of a slagging then. Teacher’s pet. But I was silent. Slipping down the sides of a memory.
That year had been a confirmation year. We would walk to the church every Wednesday to practice the intricate choreography of the mass. The path from the school was a narrow boreen, with stone walls just too tall for me to see over, but I could peek through the gaps in the rocks, where they sat atop each other at sharp angles. The other kids laughed at me. Like I was missing out on something. But from what I could see, there was nothing on the other side. Just a sea of yellow gorse bush.
There was a game we would play along the way. We pulled out the goosegrass weeds that grew along the base of the walls, and tried to stick them to someone else’s back without being noticed. Bonus points if you could get the teacher. The longer they didn’t notice, the bigger fool they were. I hated how the stalks made my fingers dry and rubbery, so to avoid the game, I would linger at the back of the group. Nellie often did the same. I trusted her, so I let her walk behind me.
Her dolly shoes brushed over the dirt. Like she didn’t really walk this earth. Just danced across it.
She tapped me on the back, and I rounded on her defensively. But she wasn’t playing the game. She was offering me a flower. A white daisy, picked from a miracle of soil between cracks in the dry stone wall.
She ran ahead then, pigtails bobbing back and forth.
I didn’t see her again after that last day of school. I asked my parents how far away Australia was, and they said it was on the other side of the world.
The summer came and went, in the end. An anti-climax. Then there was another, then decades of them, back to back, each one a musical note, forming a tune that only makes sense now in hindsight. The boreen has vanished, lost beneath the endlessly expanding gorse. But I still think of it, and her, often.
A bit of the past. Stuck to me like goosegrass.
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