BY YVETTE NADEN
Copyright is held by the author.
MY FRIENDS, they think I’m a barrel. Rolling down a hill, or a canyon, speeding up, accelerating. Absorbing a gown of muddied leaves. Rolling into a river with my eyes clamped shut, failing to open until I’m facing the brow of a waterfall. Ready to tumble.
Part of me was grateful that, due to the lockdown order, I was trapped in the one blind-spot for phone signal in the entire village.
I’d rushed — or rolled as my friends would have said — into a cadre of routines. Washing the floors every Sunday, ordering a curry every Saturday, donning the VR Headset for two hours each afternoon.
All the same, it took just two weeks for sheer desperation to draw me out of the house, and even then, I never would have left if it weren’t for the woman on the balcony.
Well, perhaps calling the carmine mountain of bricks coveted by the leylandii a balcony was a bit of stretch.
I’d always seen her as The Neighbour. Her name had faded into the ink of my mind and no matter how many times I swilled a quill around my salt-water brain, nothing emerged. So, she became The Neighbour. The woman who’d flashed me a dimpled smile the day I brought her biscuits to welcome her into the community. The woman with hair like the Croatian flag. The woman who waved at me from atop a balcony of bricks, like some Princess from a fairy tale. One I was naïve enough to believe in.
The sun hit me like a shotgun blast. I almost staggered. I’d always been pale, and the lockdown had done nothing for my Gamer’s complexion. It seemed as if my body were made of dairy. Semi-skimmed. Full fat. Not even the joy of freckles peppering my face like stars of maroon.
Still, the woman on the balcony, smiling and waving, coaxed me into the heaving light of day. And soon as I saw her eyes, unobstructed by the window, and listened to her greet me with her Yorkshire lilt, her name bloomed. Amelia. A governess of a city of bluebells, or an engineer with a Sword of Truth instead of a soldering iron. Amelia. The woman who slipped out of the back door in a haze of ocean blue. Dressed in smooth fabrics, hair curled in a bun, a yoga mat clutched under her arm. Yoga on the grass, drawing on the patio. Reading on the bench and standing in the corner of the balcony. Waving to me. Carving out a sliver of her day to make time for me, the Undertaker’s daughter living alone, almost permanently glued to the sofa or the desk. Always buried in papers.
Amelia curled over the balcony. She was dressed in a loose-fitting grey tee with black leggings. Hair loose, naturally wavy. The Red Sea. I was the Dead Sea. Floating. Absent.
“I feel like I’m privy to some grand animal emerging from the jungle,” she was saying. Part of me glanced around, certain she was referring to someone else.
From atop the balcony, my neighbour laughed. Chiming bells.
“Sorry. I didn’t mean to make you feel uncomfortable.” I ducked my head.
“I’m always uncomfortable,” I said. Hadn’t meant to say anything, but there I was. A shadow slithering into the daylight. A Black Skink. A blush crept onto my cheeks. Amelia laughed again. She laughed a lot — I liked that about her.
“Well, you look lovely. A tigress, that’s what you remind me of,” she said. I frowned. Could she see me?
“Are you sure you don’t mean a Red-Lipped Batfish?” I asked. Amelia smiled, wide and as open as my front door.
“Ah yes, but the Red-Lipped Batfish has a unique feature: they don’t resemble any other fish.” I’d never thought of it that way before. Now it was my turn to smile.
Amelia leaned over the balcony and I almost held my hands out, fearing she might fall. Somehow, she didn’t. She was as balanced as the collectible katana in my living room, festering in its glass case. 400 years old and it was sitting in mothballs, forced to endure my Netflix bingeing.
“Such a shame about this weather. I know. Terribly British of me. But still. It’s the most ironic thing. Trapped at home, but the sun is screaming at us to pack up and go to the beach. I didn’t like the beach, but I still found myself drawn into her words. Sinking into her soft lips — like twin plums. Eyes like bottomless pools of limpidity.
Slowly, I began to edge towards my garage. Even though the League had emailed me to cancel all our races for this season, I might as well put the finishing touches onto Stormracer. The motorbike almost grinned at me as I lifted the door.
A gasp drew me from the bike’s jet paint work. Somehow, Amelia was still there. Still leaning over the balcony, hair spilling towards me. Beckoning for me to grab it and haul myself up. Juliet. Romeo. Even though no such balcony existed in the original play. That was perhaps the only thing I remembered from English at school.
The gasp drew me from the mouth of the garage. Just before I surrendered myself to the darkness.
“Did you build that?” Amelia was sitting on the balcony now, on the top of the wall. Kicking her legs to and fro as if she were a child on a swing. Another blush sprouted, so I was glad to be half concealed by the rim of the garage door.
“Assembled the parts. Built the engine. The paintwork needs fixing; it’s a little rough. I’m not sure if I want to re-paint it black or choose an actual colour rather than a tone,” I told her. My mind had already fixated on her crimson hair. Red. Hot-rod read. A desert nestled in the bosom of a sunset.
Amelia sat back against the air.
“That’s amazing,” she said. I frowned again.
“Really? Most neighbours think it’s noisy.” But then, Amelia wasn’t most neighbours.
“Perhaps it is, but it’s still amazing,” she said. Swung her legs back over the wall.
Instantly, I rushed out into the sun. Amelia half-turned, pausing in front of the back door to her house.
“Will I see you again?” I asked. Perhaps a little too desperately. Somehow, despite the motorbike obsession and my Anime body pillow collection, I had very little friends. At least, no one I could count on. Since my Mother was trapped on a Norwegian Cruise, hugging her duffle coat amongst terrible reception, I couldn’t rely on her either.
Amelia chuckled, as if I’d spoken in tongues.
“Well, I do live here.” Another blush.
“Yes. Yes, of course. Sorry.” She shook her head.
“You don’t have to apologize,” she said. “In fact, I think people apologize too much.”
“Maybe they do,” I replied. I was still smiling as she left. Still staring at the space she’d vacated when the back door eased shut.
All afternoon, I worked on the bike. Tightening coils, putting the finishing touches to the engine. I spent a good two hours scouring the internet for red paint. Nothing matched Amelia’s hair.
In the end, I gave up and re-treated indoors: my natural habitat. Spent the evening cuddling up to a tub of cliché ice-cream (cookies and cream) and watching Inception.
Amelia appeared again. And again. Over the following week, she leaned down from the balcony. Asked about my job, my family. In turn, I relished in the skeletal details she offered about her own life. Only child, bad relationship with her parents, single woman living alone. I fought off a sigh of relief at that last part.
Only once she did allow me to bring up her past relationships. Or there lack of.
“I haven’t really dated all that much. I suppose our current situation gives me a bit more of an excuse,” she laughed. I smiled back. I smiled more now, a lot more since talking to her.
“I don’t really date either,” I said. “It’s not a bad thing.” Amelia rolled her eyes.
“Tell that to my Father.” She didn’t talk about her father. I only knew he’d tried to force her to marry a man she learned was her second cousin.
“My Mother doesn’t really understand my wishes either,” I offered. Hoping she would take my words and wrap them around her heart. Being a conversationalist wasn’t exactly my forte. But, for her, I would try.
“Parents don’t always get it right. I just hope mine didn’t ruin me,” Amelia whispered. She glanced up, eyes wide. As if she hadn’t meant to let that final detail slip. I half reached up, up towards the balcony. Pulled my hand away at the last moment. Two metres, two metres.
“No one could ruin you,” I said. Meant it. More than I’d meant anything. How could she think she was ruined?
Amelia smiled, dimples pinching her freckled cheeks. Red hair drowning me from above. A waterfall of mauve satin. Smile widening, she held up her hand.
“Wait here.” I frowned. Before I could ask, she’d already rushed back inside.
I waited for a minute or two, then five. Ten. Fifteen. Twenty minutes later, she returned. With a paper aeroplane. Her eyebrows rose when she realized I was still there.
“Sorry,” she winced. “I cannot fold paper to save my life”. I shrugged.
“It doesn’t matter.” I stretched my aching limbs, shivering a little. Twenty minutes and the world had faded from a boiled egg to frozen peas.
Amelia grinned, holding out the paper plane from atop the balcony. Juliet leans toward her Romeo. The image blossomed inside me before I could quell it. Shaking my head, I stepped back.
“Catch!” She threw the plane. Its descent was by no means graceful, nor was my attempt at catching it before it hit the floor.
Opening the folds, I almost laughed. A phone number. Her phone number. Her mobile. I looked up, but the balcony was empty. She’d rushed back inside. By that point, it didn’t matter. Somehow, having her number made it seem as if I’d never be alone again. Even if there was no one in the house.
The next few weeks bled into each other. Reds, blues of the sky, greens of the front garden, all mixing and merging into a single pallet. I texted Amelia every day, and at night we’d meet. Amelia upon her balcony, grinning at me with a glass of wine. Me below her, sitting on my concrete drive, unashamedly devouring numerous packets of crisps. For a time, I avoided telling her my favourite flavour was Ready Salted. After three weeks, when I finally plucked up the courage, she frowned.
“I don’t understand. What’s wrong with Ready Salted?” she asked. I shook my head, told her it was silly.
“Nothing you say could sound silly.”
“I just feared you’d already think I was plain enough,” I told her. Head down. Eyes drilling bore holes into the driveway. Amelia chuckled.
“You’re such an idiot. Why would I ever think that? I like you, which is more than I can say for half the community. I . . .” she trailed off. Mirrored my own shaking head.
“Never mind. I’ll speak to you tomorrow, yeah?” I could hear my heart starting to barrel. To roll down and down and down and crash to a stop in a cloud of dust. But perhaps, perhaps not this time.
“Amelia!” I called out. She turned, strolling merrily back to the edge of the wall.
“What’s wrong?” She glanced down. I reached out, wishing I could touch her.
“After all this,” I gestured at the ghostly driveway, the carcass of my BMW. “Would you like to go out sometime? To a café, if those still exist by the time we’re released from lockdown.” I was expecting her to brush me aside, or to scream in disgust. Instead, her smile broadened, something I never thought possible.
“Yes. That would be lovely. And Scarlet,” she said before I could scurry back inside the house and hide. “You were right. My father didn’t ruin me. Because I met you. Because I met you and I like you and I want to know you more.” Without waiting for me to reply, she vanished into the house.
For the next month or so, I was walking on air. Even the News on TV couldn’t carve a scowl onto my face. I worked on the motorbike in the sun, wearing my best clothes. Even when I was covered in motor oil and red paint, Amelia would smile down at me and say,
“You look beautiful.” Somehow, it seemed more magical coming from her. Like a Princess from a fairy tale. One I could no longer run from.
At night, when we were cocooned in our houses, we texted, talked on the phone. About where we would go after lockdown. One night, Amelia suggested we could try a first date.
“Where, the local park?” I mocked. “Oh wait, hang on. That’s closed.” She laughed down the phone.
“Stop being such a crab. I was thinking we could have a date here. In fact, I have an idea.” She hung up. She wouldn’t even let me organize it.
All the same, prior to Saturday night, I ordered red wine — five bottles, since she hadn’t told me which was her favourite — and numerous snacks. On the driveway, I set out a picnic blanket and waited until she leaned over the balcony and dropped a box of latex gloves into my lap.
“Surprise!” She grinned. Frowning, I slipped on a pair. Looked up. And, with glass in my throat, I realized. She held out her own gloved hands, sprawled over the brick wall. Leaning out. Reaching out, to me. Fighting off stray tears, I rushed to open the garage. Dragged a box of supplies to the bottom of the wall to stand on. My height made the climb difficult, but in the end, I managed to scramble halfway up the balcony. Far enough for her hands to grip my own. I giggled like a schoolgirl.
“Date Number One: The Magic of Human Contact,” she smiled. I gripped her hands in mine, struggling to balance on the wall.
“I think you should plan all our dates from now on,” I said. Amelia blushed.
“Funny,” she said. “I was thinking the same thing.” We must have spent hours like that. Talking, holding hands. Me precariously balancing the edge of the wall. Amelia shivering on the balcony. Somehow, we managed to convince ourselves to let go. And when we did, it was as if my entire body were deflating. Bones crunching, curling in on themselves. The fat around my stomach was suddenly feather light.
Amelia smiled from atop the balcony. Red hair brighter than every star in the sky.
“Goodbye Scarlet,” she said. I frowned.
“See you tomorrow,” I said, shrugging. The moment she left, I squealed into my sleeve. I could barely sleep for the rest of the night. The last date I’d had was 10 years ago, with a woman who’d taken one look at me in my purple evening dress and faked an emergency to escape the restaurant. Amelia was the only person who’d never shied away from me. Who’d never recoiled when I smiled.
In the early hours of the morning, I managed to drift off to the sound of Amelia’s voicemail. Telling me that Romeo and Juliet never had a balcony. Telling me that it was their loss.
The morning came too fast and it felt as if I hadn’t slept at all. Crawling out of bed into the shower felt like wading through a field of blunt knives coated in marmite. I was supposed to meet Amelia soon. In ten minutes. Lightning fast, I found my best summer dress and slipped into a pair of daisy-crowned sandals. The moment I stumbled out into the sun, I heard her laughter. Amelia’s laughter, light and twinkling. Her voice was how I imagined the North Star would sound if it dared to reach across the galaxy and speak.
I might have called out her name if her laughter wasn’t followed by a man’s. Climbing up onto the box from last night, I looked over at the balcony. The patio where Amelia was sitting with a man. A man who held her hand and kissed her tenderly. A man with a wedding ring which matched her own. A man who laughed and pointed at their child — a little boy playing with figures of fairies and action men.
I could feel myself rolling. Barrelling down and down into a river. Sinking. Full of holes, water seeping in. Drowning. My body slid down the wall, away from the balcony where Juliet was kissing Paris and fawning over her four-year-old child.
The rest of the day passed in a haze. Locked in the garage, staring at my motorbike which now matched Amelia’s hair. The colour of blood, it was now. Blood and sweat and failure. The colour of the wine I’d thrown against the wall in the back garden, tears staining the grass underfoot. I should never have spoken to her.
It wasn’t until evening sagged over the house that I was forced to venture outside. The bins needed dragging to the top of the drive.
On my way back to the front door, I could feel Amelia’s presence behind me. She didn’t say anything, didn’t apologize. Only threw down a paper aeroplane. One I shouldn’t have opened. When I did . . .
Thanks for the experiment.
Her writing was a dream, coiling and waltzing over the creased paper. Her tone was light. Carefree. Like some Princess from a fairy tale. One I had long since outgrown.
My friends were right.