BY DERVILLE QUIGLEY
Copyright is held by the author.
THE PROTESTANT boy that lived on the hill had a jagged scar down the middle of his forehead. It probably stopped him smiling, whatever caused it. She never found out, but it winded its way, twisted and forked like a shard of glass had cut through the skin without warning. She pictured running her finger down the raised pink, crooked line until it was no more.
Robert Gullion was one of three on Harry the Lamp’s bus, who wore a black blazer and grey tie uniform. You couldn’t imagine Robert, Audrey or Meredith laughing out loud with wide gulpin mouths like the rest. Or jumping on the blue vinyl seats until they split, spilling yellow lumps of sponge across the floor. As for spitting phlegm on the roof, they were never the culprits. Robert, Audrey and Meredith went to Blackwater Collegiate. The others attended convent or seminary schools.
Sineád believed that the Protestants talked to each other in silence. They didn’t need to open their mouths. Instead their thoughts and feelings were transmitted. Instinctively rippling across condensation on windows or pinging from silver bars like pinballs in a machine. Perhaps it was a survival technique, developed for their own protection. After all they were in the minority.
Sineád wouldn’t dream of sitting beside Robert let alone opening her mouth to talk to him. Besides, the deafening racket would die down and everyone would hear what they were saying. No, she didn’t want that to happen. However, that boy inhabited her mind now and again and although they would never have a conversation on Harry’s bus communication was in full flow and it wasn’t at all uncomfortable. Robert Gullion understood how things were.
It wasn’t that they were bullied on the bus it was just that they were ignored. In a way that was worse than being tormented by name-calling. They had become invisible and gotten used to it. That was until Hackett’s Dad began whispering venomous nothings in his ear which started to take effect. Hackett turned his attentions to Meredith first. Telling her everyday how well she looked saying things out loud like:
“I could get stuck to the axels on her.”
Robert was uneasy but there was little he could do.
“Meredith”, Hackett would call out.
“Your Dad works up the North, doesn’t he? For British Telecom isn’t it?”
British Telecom, Sineád knew it. Meredith’s Dad was in on it too. Transmitting signals not visible to the naked eye. Typical.
Robert stood up.
“Now Robbie don’t be getting all hot and bothered over nothing”, Hackett would say and continue whistling The Sash followed by Spancil Hill.
After mid-term Sineád found herself stood at the deep-end of Monaghan town swimming pool wrapped in a saggy swimsuit which had lost its shine. Why couldn’t she be like Pamela Anderson on Baywatch, she thought. Saving lives at the drop of a hat, in the blink of an eye. In truth she was probably too consumed by blinking eyes and dropping hats to notice someone drowning. But maybe achieving a Level 2 badge in Water Safety, would, in some way, bridge the gap between Monaghan and Malibu.
It was one of those hideously, inevitable coincidences and no surprise that Robert Gullion was there, pasty white and shivering in beige shorts. Surrounding voices warped and echoed, black lines blurred then broke under water as she dived in to get away from him.
The pool was a harsh environment for young goose-bumped skin with its overbearing smell of chlorine and the constant sound of an alarm like that of an air raid shelter. Even the faded transfers of octopi and seahorses seem to slink across white tiles seeking refuge. But the water had its way of softening unruly hair.
Swishing across lanes and ducking under ropes she came to her senses and decided to take part. No time for introductions, the instructor barked, and they swam as fast as they could up and down the pool, stopping only to catch their breath at the handrail.
The following day on the bus, he seemed to half smile at her. She glanced over at him but failed to break his stare. As a last resort, she closed her eyes, and in her mind said, “I saw you yesterday.” Time seemed to slow down, background noise filtered out. No eye contact was necessary. Her thoughts were like treacle, but she could wade through them and eventually she sought him out.
“I know” he said. His voice crisp and clear as if he was sitting next to her. At last, she thought, ‘I knew it – I’m one of them.’
Audrey had gotten braces fitted, train tracks across top and bottom teeth.
“Hey Robocop”, Hackett shouted over at her.
Robert stood up.
“Not you Robbie, sit down. We’re talking to Robocop. We like Robocop”, Hackett insisted.
The swimming instructor had a snide streak to him, asking everyone to find a partner. He made a point of saying, “that includes you” to Sineád. Her heart sank at the sheer predictability of the whole affair. Its weight carried her down to the bottom of the deep blue sea. Of course, Robert was the only other person without a partner.
She lay on the cold wet tiles with her eyes closed. The instructor called out the drill:
“Lean in, and check if the subject is breathing.”
Robert leant down and turned his head. He would have felt her breath on his ear but pretended otherwise. There was little between them, except a faded swimsuit and tangible awkwardness.
“Check if the fingertips and lips are blue”, said the instructor.
All she had to do was lie there and pretend she wasn’t breathing. Robert lifted her flaccid wrist, examining each finger carefully. Then he lay her hand gently on the ground.
“Tilt the head back. Check the airway’s clear. Hands in position for CPR”, the instructor shouted.
Sineád opened her eyes just enough to see Robert’s hand hovering over her breast.
“Right, thirty compressions, followed by two rescue breaths, now!”
It was the first time she had heard his voice out loud. He was counting. When he reached thirty he leant down as if to give her mouth to mouth resuscitation, but not really. Then he continued with more fake chest compressions. It took three cycles before the instructor would let them recover and by that stage Robert had lost all sense of embarrassment and repositioned her limbs and head like lumps of clay. Hardly a work of art but there was some satisfaction attached to it.
On the bus Robert didn’t acknowledge her as such but she felt his manner soften. He seemed more co-operative. However, she couldn’t make up her mind if she wanted to be his swimming partner or not. As they approached Gaffney’s corner, she closed her eyes and said in to herself, ‘Robert…how did you get your scar?’
There was nothing. No reply. Hackett began to hone in on Robert.
“Hey Robbie, show us your calculator for a sec, will you?”
The next thing he was rifling through Robert’s bag with every intention of just taking it. Everything grated on Hackett and that included solar powered calculators.
“Say you’re sorry”, Hackett said.
“For what?”, Robert asked
“Say you’re sorry taking my calculator.”
Robert said nothing.
The following week she packed her clothes into a red mesh basket and handed it through the hatch in return for a coloured armband. She waded through the chemical foot bath and followed the bouncing echoes and dizzying fluorescent lights to where the instructor was standing.
Raindrops pelted off the corrugated iron roof and in the weeks, that followed, the water, silky-smooth seemed to transform their bodies as they glided through circular light reflections.
She got better – faster, stronger, sleeker. She wore her hair and shoulders back, neck straight and chin up. It had everything to do with a newfound sense of physical perfection. When her arms felt tired or she developed a stitch in her side, she learned to work through the pain.
She felt she needed to document this time and started to ask the girl behind the hatch for a receipt every time she paid. She then stuck the receipts in her diary as proof that all of this happened.
That week it was her turn to be the victim. The rest of the class stood watching her thread water. She waved at them, but it wasn’t enough.
“C’mon Sineád, you’re really drowning.” The instructor sounded exasperated.
Then piercing through her mind, as clear as day, she heard Robert’s voice. “You’re drowning”, he said. “Let yourself go.”
She took a deep breath, then exhaled and let herself sink down underneath the water. She stayed down for as long as she could and rose panicking to the surface, coughing and spluttering.
“Help me”, she shouted. “Help me.”
Her voice was so pained and desperate that even the regular swimmers in the cordoned off area stopped to see if she was all right.
Robert didn’t wait to be told what to do. He dived in and swam out to her. Her arms were flapping as she struggled and gulped.
He reached over, grabbed her by the ponytail and proceeded to pull her in to safety. She was no easy damsel in distress as she kicked and resisted all the way to the edge of the pool. With a firm grip and little sympathy, he hoisted her up and onto the tiles. Then he placed her right hand on top of her left and held them there, to mark the end of the exercise. They were both out of breath but smiling.
The next day Sineád got on the bus before Robert. Hackett was down the back with a grin on his face and when she passed Robert’s seat she looked up and noticed why he was so pleased with himself. It was more than a bold statement, but she did it anyway – she sat on Robert’s seat. Meredith arrived and sat beside her, then Audrey, then Robert. There were no seats left so Robert had to stand, hanging from an overhead rail.
All eyes were on fixed on Sineád as she solemnly stared ahead. It took them two miles until they were just past Hanley’s cross before the inevitable happened. A huge long green drip of phlegm stretched down from the roof of the bus, landing on her the bridge of her nose. The bus erupted with a mighty roar from the crowd. Boys and girls standing on seats, elbows digging, necks craning to get a closer look.
Hackett joined in, puffed-up and proud but hell bent on getting Robert another day.
Sineád closed her eyes again. “How did you get your scar?”, was the question she asked.
“Car crash, black ice”, was the answer she received. There was no going back.
Derville Quigley is an Irish writer based in the Netherlands. Her short stories and poems have been published in international magazines and journals. Currently, she manages communications for ELIA, a European network of art schools, and is co-founder and organiser of Strange Birds, a migratory writing collective. www.dervillequigley.net