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“My father is a registered sex offender.”
The students in the auditorium gasped and began murmuring while some of the teachers looked at each other in surprise but the young girl standing at the podium just looked straight out at her audience and continued speaking in a slow, calm voice.
“You’re probably all thinking that he’s a pervert who preys on little kids and that he deserves to be locked up for life.”
Many heads nodded in agreement, some swivelling to see the reaction of the teachers standing at the back of the room. Mrs. Hughes, the English teacher, was used to the shock aspect of Speech Day; it was the one opportunity to say controversial things in front of an audience, and students sometimes crossed the line, forcing the teachers to shut down a speech, but she had not expected this from Jessica Wilson, the new girl who always sat at the back of the class, and rarely spoke.
There had been the usual sighs and sniggers from her class of teenagers when she reminded them that Speech Day was coming up.
“And before you all ask,” she had said, “yes, you do have to participate, and your speech must be your own, not one copied off the internet or from one of last year’s students, so you can use the rest of this period to think about your topics.”
The students groaned as they pulled out fresh sheets of paper and began doodling and writing about the usual subjects of pets and family holidays. Now that she thought about it, there had been some commotion in the class.
“Ugh, gross!” cried Nick Dobbs, peering over at Jessica’s paper. “Jess wants to talk about sex offenders.”
“Pervs, you mean,” said Elizabeth Culter, “like you.”
“Lock them all up,” called somebody from across the room, and several other voices began to chime in, until Mrs. Hughes quieted the class. She noticed that Jessica’s head was down, her long hair obscuring her face while she wrote.
When the bell rang the students all jumped up and gathered their belongings, moving out of the room in a herd, already talking about other things. Jessica gathered her books and left on her own before Mrs. Hughes could say anything and now here she was, giving her speech.
“He’s not like that, but I don’t suppose you’ll believe me, now that you’ve heard the term ‘sex offender’. That’s all you’ll focus on and you’ll all avoid me and whisper about me behind my back.”
The girl looked directly at the student on the end of the first row, then moved her gaze along, pausing at each student in turn. The room was silent now, and some students began to squirm in embarrassment. Mrs. Hughes glanced over at the school counsellor and raised her eyebrows, indicating the obvious: this girl needed some form of help. The counsellor nodded and Mrs. Hughes wondered if the school had a file on Jessica, whom she had always found to be so quiet and withdrawn you could almost forget she was in the class.
“That’s OK. I’ve been there before; I know how it feels to be an outsider, to be excluded.”
Jessica talked about her lack of friends and Mrs. Hughes wondered if this was a result of bullying, and if so, how long it had been going on for. She sighed; in spite of the rallies and pink shirt days, bullying was as much a part of teenage life as it had always been, and teachers were always the last to know.
“Well, let’s forget about the offender part and talk about sex,” continued Jessica, breaking into a grin.
The students sniggered; they were back onto a favourite topic, one they could relate to. The teachers rolled their eyes and some looked at their watches.
“I know you’re all interested in sex, and some of you have even tried it.”
The students laughed and all looked around, wide-eyed, as if they could spot the cavorting couples. Some pointed fingers at particular students while others whispered in the ear of the person next to them, no doubt passing along salacious pieces of gossip. Mrs. Hughes took a step forward, intending to stop the speech, but the deputy head signalled to her to wait.
“Well, my Dad had sex with my Mom,” said Jessica, “and they had me. Just like each of you is here because of an action by your parents. It’s simple biology.”
The students were now making gagging noises; sex was all fine when it was on TV or between themselves, but totally gross when connected with their parents, or any adult that they knew.
“My Dad was eighteen, the same age as some of you,” Jessica pointed at the tall, lanky boys sprawled on the chairs the in back row who cheered and waved their fists in response.
“This is getting out of hand,” whispered Mrs. Hughes to the deputy head, “should I stop the speech and move on?”
“No, I think this could be interesting,” he replied, “wait and see what point she is trying to make.”
“But my Mom was only fifteen, the same age as some of you,” and here Jessica pointed at the first row of students, and the younger ones blushed and glanced at each other.
Jessica waited until all the snickering and elbow nudging had died down and addressed her audience again.
“And because of that one time, when a teacher found them in their school’s store room, my father was declared a sex offender and placed on a national registry.”
The students were silent now, staring intently at the girl standing up on the stage.
“And do you know what that means? I doubt it, because you probably don’t know any sex offenders. Let me tell you.”
The students were silent now, staring intently at the girl standing up on the stage.
“And do you know what that means? I doubt it, because you probably don’t know any sex offenders. Let me tell you.”
Jessica moved away from the microphone and began to pace back and forth along the edge of the stage, her voice rising in volume as she spoke.
“My Dad is not allowed to come within 300 metres of this or any school. I take a twenty minute bus ride to come here every day just so there’s no chance that anybody who becomes my friend might try to walk home with me. I can never invite kids to my house. My Dad can’t watch me play sports, and he can’t come swimming or bowling with me. My Dad never pushed me on a swing in a playground because he is not allowed in the parks. We’ve moved house six times because the neighbours threatened him after discovering he’s a registered sex offender; one time we nearly had our house burned down.”
The students were all staring at Jessica, mesmerised by her speech. Mrs. Hughes looked over at the counsellor, wondering how many students would seek advice after this revelation.
“You probably think this speech is all about avoiding underage sex,” Jessica continued, “but it’s not. It’s about accepting other people. People like me and my Dad. I’ve been bullied, ignored and threatened, all because of something that’s not my fault. I’ve learned to ignore it, mostly, but it can be hard. My Mom and Dad just want to lead a normal life. Is that too much to ask?”
There was a moment of charged silence as Jessica walked back to the podium, gathered her notes and turned to step off the stage. Then the students at the back began to clap, and the applause spread across the room, with many students standing, and all craning their necks to follow Jessica as she took her seat in the centre of the auditorium.
“Well, how do you follow that speech?” the deputy head muttered as the next speaker stepped up to the microphone.
Mrs. Hughes looked over at the counsellor who was already surrounded by a group of students.
“It’s not Speech Day we have to worry about,” she said. “Just wait until this news gets out to the parents.”
With his cutlass clamped tightly between his teeth and two primed pistols tucked into his waistband, the pirate captain vaulted from the forecastle of the Flying Dragon onto the deck of the captured ship, avoiding the sword fight that was engaging most of the crew. He scaled the rigging like a monkey, hand over hand, pulling himself up to the topmost spar before launching himself on a rope across the deck, swinging like a pendulum over the heads of the struggling sailors, from where he was able to pick off both the ringleaders, with two carefully aimed shots.
After that, the battle was over, save for the trussing up of the defeated sailors and the symbolic walking of the plank. The pirates had discovered that it was more lucrative to ransom captured sailors than push them into the sea, but as the sailors did not know this, the pirates enjoyed lowering the plank over the gunwale and watching the prisoners cower as they teetered on the bouncing board, pleading for their lives.
“You won’t get away with this!” shouted one of the victims, as he was led down to the hold, “there’s a bigger ship coming after us and when they catch you, you’ll all hang!”
The pirates laughed and set to looting everything of value from the ship.
“Shall we scuttle her?” asked one of the pirates, getting ready to chop a hole in the side of the captured ship, as was their usual custom.
“No, let’s keep this ship,” said the captain, so the pirates raised their own flag on her and set sail, in convoy, for the sheltered bay where they had established their winter quarters.
It was a very convenient hideaway. Wide sandbanks protected the bay, and tall cliffs provided a good lookout, making it hard for enemies to approach unseen, whilst a tree lined river that flowed into the bay provided fresh water. The only problem was the women who had taken up permanent residence by the sea shore, and who had re-buried the pirates’ treasure, refusing to divulge its new hiding place.
“Avast, ye landlubbers,” cried One-eyed Pete, standing up in the longboat and shaking his fist at the women standing on the beach as two junior pirates rowed him ashore. “This is our camp, so move off, if you don’t want to become shark bait.”
The two women laughed, and waved their weapons: a pistol and a nasty looking axe. The longboat slid onto the sand and Pete jumped out, raising his hands in the air as one woman pointed the pistol at him, while the other lady minced up to him and, dropping the axe on his toes, put her arms around his neck and planted a kiss on his cheek. One-eyed Pete cursed, and kept his good eye on the pistol, worried that it might go off, but then he noticed the medallion hanging around her neck.
“Hey, that’s mine! Where did you get that, you little strumpet!” he shouted, but had to step backwards into the water as the woman advanced on him waving her pistol.
“That’s our treasure!” said Pete.
“And this is our land,” said the woman, gesturing around her. “You can visit here, and re-supply your boat, but you leave us in peace, and in return, we keep your treasure safe.”
While Pete gnashed his teeth and stomped in the sand, keeping his distance from the women, another longboat slid onto the seaweed, bringing several more pirates, armed with the usual cutlasses and pistols. The captain leapt ashore, but instead of disarming the welcome party he swept his hat off his head and made a smooth bow.
“Well, my lovelies, have you missed me?”
“Captain Jasper, come back to visit us again, have you?” said axe woman, kissing him, and winking at Pete, who curled and uncurled his fists, glaring at both women.
“I couldn’t stay away, darling,” replied the captain, squeezing her round bottom, which earned him a clout on the head from the axe.
The longboats made several trips to and from the ships, transporting the captured sailors who were made to walk up the beach and into a hut made of stout logs with a door secured by a heavy bolt.
“Not more mouths to feed,” said axe woman, “it’s bad enough having you louts here once a month, scaring all the fish away.”
“Don’t worry, Marianne, darling; they’ll be gone as soon as we get paid for them, and then you can have your house back,” said the captain.
“House, indeed!” she harrumphed, but she swung her hips as she walked back into the trees.
With the prisoners stowed out of sight, the pirates got down to the serious business of celebrating their haul, while the women, now numbering several dozen, listened wide-eyed to their tales of adventure. By the time two casks of rum had been emptied and the last cooking pot had been licked clean, there was not a sound to be heard from the beach but snoring.
A few hours later, the sun rose slowly, majestically, almost unnoticed, sending out fingers of light, tentative at first, soft pink hues as if testing the terrain and then longer, more definite rays, broken only by puffs of clouds, which reached to the farthest corner of the shoreline, turning each blade of dune grass and each strand of seaweed a brilliant green, where once they had appeared black and sombre, and dispatching the morning dew into a gentle mist that rose to the heavens in the endless cycle of water and cloud.
Down at the beach the pirates lay in a drunken heap, eye patches askew, cutlasses tossed aside, while crabs scuttled into and out of their discarded boots. A couple of the women had lit the cooking fires and were brewing coffee, with much banging of pots and muttering about good-for-nothing layabouts, while the birds, who had been up for hours, cawed to each other from the tree tops until a sudden disturbance sent them all flying away.
A moment later, a young boy came racing down the hillside onto the beach, scattering sand onto the sleeping pirates and yelping with excitement.
“A ship! A ship! It’s coming around the headland!”
“What sort of ship?” asked Marianne, throwing a bucket of water over Jasper, who sat up with a start, reaching for his pistol.
“A big ship,” said the boy, “it has guns at the side.”
“Who was on lookout duty?” roared Jasper, kicking the nearest pirate, who grunted and then covered his head with his hands as Marianne threw water on him and his companion. Either the cold water or the unwelcome news had a sobering effect on the pirates who began to scramble up and pull their boots on, sending the crabs flying.
“There must have been a warship following the ship we boarded,” said One-eyed Pete, “that’s why the prisoners said help would be coming soon. Now what do we do? We can’t get the Flying Dragon out of the bay in this low tide.”
“You men take your ship up the river,” said Marianne, “and leave the warship to us, but bring me some rope.”
“How long do we have?” Jasper asked the boy who had brought the news.
“The big ship was rounding the point, and it seemed to be coming fast,” the boy said, his eyes bulging out of his head.
The pirates struggled to their feet and collected their cutlasses. The more sober ones were already rowing out to the Flying Dragon and shouting for the sails to be raised and they quickly steered the pirate ship into the mouth of the river where it was concealed by the tall trees, leaving the looted ship anchored alone in the bay, still flying the pirate flag. The women cleared away all signs of revelry from the beach and then trussed each other up like turkeys and waddled into the wooden hut where they knocked the terrified prisoners unconscious.
“Drag some of those green branches over here and set fire to them, to make smoke,” shouted a woman to one of the pirates, “but mind you don’t cook us – put some water on the roof first!”
As the building began to burn, the women began to wail and screech like banshees and the remaining pirates sneaked off into the trees.
It was not long before the warship arrived and soldiers landed on the beach and rushed up to the burning building, carrying buckets of water to put out the flames, creating more clouds of smoke, while the distressed damsels all cried at once about the evil, depraved pirates who had tied them up, and worse, and clung to the soldiers in gratitude for their rescue. In all the commotion the group of unconscious sailors went unnoticed, and so did the small posse of pirates who swam out to the captured ship, clambering on board in time to repel a boarding party of soldiers.
By the time the soldiers who had remained on the warship realized that the pirates had overcome their comrades the tide had turned and the warship was stuck in the soft sand, her cannon pointing uselessly at a sandbank.
Pirates swarmed out of the trees and overpowered the soldiers on the beach, while the women resumed shrieking and flailing about with smouldering branches. Within an hour the pirates had roped the soldiers together and were unloading the supplies from the warship, while the women huddled to one side, whispering among themselves.
“This is treason!” cried a soldier.
“No, this is piracy,” said One-eyed Pete, grinning.
“I ask that you spare the women,” said another soldier, who had obviously been brought up on tales of chivalry.
“Spoils of war!” cried one of the pirates, drawing a finger across his throat and making a gurgling sound, which caused several of the soldiers to flinch, and shuffle backwards.
It took some time to ferry all the soldiers out to the captured ship, where they were laid out on the deck in rows, like sausages, each with a cannon ball positioned on a delicate part of his anatomy, and then the pirates and the women sat down to parley.
“They’re our prisoners; we lured them onto land,” said the women.
“They came searching for us, so they’re ours,” said the pirates, “besides, we swam out to the ship, and we fought the soldiers. All you women did was weep and wail.”
“We were being burnt to a crisp!” said one woman, pointing to the soot marks on her face.
“It seems to me,” said Jasper, rubbing his hand along his stubbly chin, “that we should come to an agreement. If some of us were to stay here permanently – for protection, you understand – then perhaps we could share the ransom money.”
“Stay here?” repeated the pirates, with a mixture of horror and excitement. “What would we do here?”
“Well you could build me a house, for a start,” said one of the younger women, sidling up to the pirate and putting her arm around him. “This is a great place to live.”
The other pirates whooped and slapped their thighs, which seemed like an invitation for other women to make similar offers.
“But won’t the Flying Dragon be shorthanded?” said one pirate. “And how do we know you’ll come back for us?”
“Oh, we’ll be back,” whispered Jasper, “after all, the treasure is here somewhere, and it’s your job to find out from these sirens where they’ve hidden it.”
And so, gradually, a small settlement grew up around the bay. Several times a year the pirate ship called in for supplies; sometimes one or two of the pirates would stay and settle down, and sometimes one or two of the settlers who wanted adventure, or just to get away from their women, would join the pirates. The young boys were always eager to spend time on the pirate ship, returning home months later with tall tales of plunder and pillage. The girls were content to stay in the bay, waiting for their sweethearts to come back to them, for the girls shared a secret which they guarded fiercely and would tell to nobody, even to this day: the secret of the buried treasure.
James held his breath and poked the shovel one more time into the pile of manure. He did not know how one horse could produce so much dung and he did not see why he had to clear it up when it was not even his horse.
“I can ride my bike faster than any horse,” he had said, when his father first proposed the idea, “and I don’t have to feed it or clean up after it.”
His father had thought he was smart, beating the oil shortage by buying a horse – nag more like. James had been the butt of jokes at school for weeks until the girls started coming round to pet the horse and the boys realised that the best way to impress the girls was to claim to be able to ride the horse. Riding had lasted one week until the fourth boy fell off and James’ father had stopped them from riding.
“The horse is for transport,” he said, “so we must train it to pull the cart.”
The cart. That was another object of ridicule: a converted trailer with a sports canopy on top.
“We have to work with the materials we have,” his father had explained, “and your mother can hardly go grocery shopping or take your sister to school on a bicycle.”
James was so embarrassed the first time his father took the cart out that he had spent the day at home rather than let anybody he knew see his father riding around on the contraption. But that had been two months ago and he did not worry so much about appearances any more because their lives had changed so much, and all because of the oil ban.
He had never really thought about how much gas the old car used, nor where it all came from, although he had been aware of the prices creeping steadily upwards and his parents’ worries. When they told him he would have to give up baseball because they could not longer afford to drive to the games he was furious and sulked for a week, arguing each time the car was taken out that the journey was not as important as his baseball game but gradually all his friends gave up their sports and activities too. The lucky people who had electric cars had been able to keep driving for a few more weeks but then the government banned the recharging of cars and overnight all means of transport other than public trams were banned, and even they were rationed by a very selective coupon system.
That was when James noticed how far it was to everywhere, even on his bike. Riding the half hour to the skate park had never seemed a chore before, but now it was half an hour on his bike to the library, to school, to almost anywhere he wanted to go, and of course he had to carry his stuff with him. The smart kids had bought bike panniers when the crisis started but by the time James thought of that the store had sold out and of course with no new goods coming into the country there was a shortage of everything.
His mother still taught at the elementary school, although the number of students was declining each week as more and more kids stayed at home to help with finding food and work. His father had given up his job in the city once he could no longer get there on a daily basis and was now stuck at home, trying out this crazy scheme of using a horse and wagon as a taxi service, and he, James had to clean up the taxi poop.
It was just not fair.
Anna pushed open the door and stepped into the waiting room. The buzz and chatter died down while those assembled inside turned their heads towards her, the newcomer. Their curiosity satisfied, they resumed their mumblings and moaning, and Anna was able to creep to an empty seat, where she shrunk down, hugging her knees to her body, trying to become invisible.
She hadn’t wanted to come. Somehow it was like admitting defeat to come here, to wait in this room, hoping. She looked around her and wondered if she looked like the other people: they had a sort of desperate air about them, as if they had nothing to lose.
In the corner an old lady sat, mumbling to herself. Her head was nodding, like one of those plastic dogs people used to put in the back of their cars. Anna watched, fascinated, while the old lady’s head nodded around all the way to the right, until she was staring at the wall. The head paused, then began the journey back again, nod, nod, nod, all the way. Anna caught the lady’s eye on the return journey, and smiled, in what she hoped was a reassuring way but the woman just stared right through her with barely a pause in the nodding.
The chair next to Anna was unoccupied, but there was a newspaper lying across it. Anna reached out a hand to move the newspaper and a man in a chair on the other side of it frowned at her.
“Do you mind?” he said, in a voice that showed he minded very much, “I am reading that.” Anna pulled her hand back.
At the far end of the room a door opened and a woman in a white coat came through, carrying a clipboard. She looked around the waiting room and called loudly, “Mrs Pierce?”
Opposite Anna a lady stood up. Anna could tell from her clothes that she was quite wealthy, and she moved with an air of disdain, as though everyone else in the room were beneath her. Anna wondered what she was doing there: she did not look as if she belonged.
The designer clothes were swallowed up by the door and the room sunk into torpor again. A small baby mewled and its mother tried to hush it but the baby cried even louder and the mother looked around the room, apologizing silently for the disturbance. An older girl took some toys from a chest and banged them noisily on the floor. A couple of women deep in conversation looked over at the toddler and frowned, then resumed their discussion.
Anna wanted to jump up and scream, she was so nervous, but she knew she should not. Maybe, if she were lucky…. She wondered how the lady with the fancy clothes was getting on behind the closed door. People with money always got what they wanted, but maybe money did not count here. Anna watched a young boy of about her own age sitting with his mother who was fussing about his appearance. She fixed his collar, wiped some flecks off his jacket, then produced a comb and tried to comb his hair; the boy pushed her away irritably.
Anna hugged her knees again and stared at the clock on the wall. The jerky movements of the thinnest hand marked out the passage of seconds that stretched into minutes. Anna was able to shut out the murmurings of the waiting room as she focused on the moving pointer. Tick, tick, tick. It seemed an eternity. Nod, nod, nod; in the corner the old lady’s head moved in time to the clock.
The door at the far end of the room opened again, and this time it was the young boy’s turn. His mother followed him to the door, straightening his clothes all the way.
“I’m sorry, but you can’t come in,” said the woman in the white coat. The boy’s mother looked as if she would have a fit on the spot.
“But I’m his mother,” she spluttered, “I have to be there!”
“I’m sorry,” clipboard lady repeated, “but it’s not allowed.” She turned, propelling the boy before her and shut the door, leaving the boy’s mother gaping.
Rejected, the mother shut her mouth and looked around the waiting room, as if looking for somebody to blame. Her eyes settled on the young mother, who had just succeeded in getting her baby to sleep.
“Don’t think you’ll be allowed in, just because your children are babies,” hissed the boy’s mother. The little girl, who had been playing with the pots from the toy chest looked up indignantly.
“I’m not a baby,” she said loudly. The real baby woke up and began to cry. Its mother hushed it and looked daggers at the other woman.
Anna wondered if it would be better to have somebody with you. At least they would be a comforting presence. Still, the boy can’t have had too many problems as the clipboard lady was back again, this time taking one of the talking ladies with her. The hubbub that had started up when the baby cried died down now that the remaining gossiper had nobody left to talk to. The clock ticked, the old woman nodded and Mr Newspaper Man folded and unfolded his paper, hitting it occasionally to keep it straight, all the time making sure that some pages were left on the chairs at each side of him, warding off strangers.
A young lady entered the waiting room and once again the noise died down, while the occupants appraised the new arrival. She looked nervous and avoided looking anybody in the eye. This meant she did not get a seat, as Mr Newspaper Man did not offer to remove his papers and there were no other seats left. Anna wondered whether she should give up her seat, then decided everybody would look at her if she did and she would die of shame, so she wrapped her hands even more tightly around her knees and tried again to become invisible.
Anna must have dozed off, for she jumped when she heard her name being called.
“Annabella,” the lady with the clipboard repeated it, louder.
Anna uncoiled herself and stood up. Mr Newspaper Man was gone, and Timid Lady was sitting in one of the vacated chairs. The only other person still in the room was the nodding crone, still keeping time with the clock.
Anna followed the lady with the clipboard down a long dark passageway until they came to a large well lit room with a long table down the centre. On one side of the table were four people, three men and a lady, all wearing identical white coats while on the other side was a single chair. Anna was directed to this chair and told to sit down. “Why are you here?” asked one of the men in the white coats.
Anna took a deep breath to study her nerves then spoke.
“I want to be an angel,” she said. “I drowned in my Dad’s swimming pool and the person who brought me here said I could have one wish before I move into the eternity room.” She looked down at her feet and spoke very quietly. “I want to become a guardian angel and look after my little brother so that my mother doesn’t lose him too: she thinks it’s her fault that I am here, because she let me go to my Dad’s house, but it’s really my fault. I didn’t listen when Dad told me not to dive in the shallow end, then I hit my head and everything went black.”
The three men scribbled on paper in front of them. The lady just stared at Anna, without any emotion on her face. Anna waited to hear the verdict, but could not take her eyes off the lady’s face. She stared and stared, as if trying to bore a hole through Anna’s eyes. Anna squirmed and tried to hug her legs again but could not move her arms. She felt as if a great weight were bearing down on her, crushing her mind.
“I’m sorry!” shouted Anna, “I didn’t mean to!”
She hugged her knees, rolled into a ball and rocked herself, trying to avoid the penetrating stare. Her head hurt, and she could hardly breathe. The three men finished writing and tapped their pencils on the table. Tap, tap, tap, louder and louder, until it became a pounding that reverberated through her chest. Anna wished desperately that one of them would say something, anything.
She felt herself slide off the chair, and the room swam before her eyes. Now the three men were staring at her and the lady was holding the pencil, only it was not a pencil, it was a light, and she was shining it in Anna’s eyes.
Anna blinked and the men began to speak excitedly. She could not understand what they were saying, but she could recognise one of the voices. It was her father’s.
“It’s a miracle,” he said, “she’s alive!”
It was the smell that did it. Just a faint hint of grass and heathers, but it was enough to trigger the memories; memories she did not even know she had. She had felt restless for the past few days. Something was urging her to go, to leave this place and travel north. Now she knew she must find that smell once more; it was important.
She turned her head northwards and began the journey. Others around her were moving too. Perhaps they had remembered a smell of a grass or a rock or maybe they were imagining the days of their youth. Gentle, carefree days spent splashing in ponds and streams, with no worries of the future. She wondered idly how far she would have to travel. It would not matter; she was strong and had stored up plenty of food. Winter was coming and it would be good to be away before the temperature dropped.
Day after day she ploughed on. She fell into a rhythm and no longer thought about the effort. Her companions changed over the weeks but a few stayed constant. She had memories of one or two of them from games long ago when they were young and carefree, but she was shy and did not catch their eyes, although from time to time she was conscious of a large shape following her like a shadow. He did not come too close and after a while she began to think of him as her protector.
And they did need protection. They were attacked more than once and had to scurry for cover and hurry to get away from their assailants. After a while she realized that it was safer to travel with company so she kept close to her one time playmates and accepted the attention of her shadow.
It was tiring. Day after day, night after night, moving ever northwards. She felt herself grow weary and more than once caught herself thinking how easy it would be to sink into a gentle sleep; to just slip away and drift into oblivion. But then she remembered the smell and thought if she could just smell that heather and play in that rock pool one more time she would be content.
The journey became tougher. At first the way had been flat but after a while she found herself struggling uphill, making her way round obstacles, leaping over rocks and even backtracking on occasion. All the time her companion kept pace with her, encouraging her silently. It became harder to breathe; it felt different somehow. She slowed down, to adjust, and as she slowly breathed in the smell came back to her again. Even the light was familiar. She could remember the sunlight flickering through the heathers, the glinting of the water rippling over the stones. She was nearly home.
Would it have changed after so much time, she wondered, would she recognize it? She herself had changed. She was bigger now and different somehow. She looked across at her companion, struggling to keep up; he was different too, and the strain of the journey was showing. She must not give up, not now that she was so close.
At last she saw it. The pool she remembered from so long ago. And the smell; it was just as she had imagined. She stopped, taking time to savour the scene. The old tree was still there, its branches drooping down to the ground. She remembered hiding among the roots during a game of chase. The stepping stones had moved, but then they moved often. They seemed smaller, in fact the whole pool seemed smaller, or maybe it was she that was bigger. It was all so confusing and she was so tired.
Slowly she sank down onto the stones. With the last of her energy she dug a small hole and deposited her precious burden that she had carried all the way, back to her home. She was vaguely aware of her companion moving back and forth over her treasure. He must be helping to keep it safe.
And there was that smell again. Now she knew she was truly home, back where she belonged. She felt weak. She knew she did not have long to live, but at least she had made it home to her family, to the place she had been born. She did not move much more. She was content to watch the sunlight rippling upon the water and smell the heathers and the rocks. It was so very beautiful. One day her children would learn to love this place too and they would know the smell of home, as had her mother in her time.
The salmon gave one last flutter and was still. Her journey was over.
Julie parked the car and walked slowly over to the field where a dozen little girls were practicing swings and pitches. At the side of the field a group of parents were chatting, while a dog sniffed enthusiastically at their feet.
A young white clad figure threw a ball across the field then turned and beamed at Julie.
“Great work, Megan!” The coach’s deep voice carried on the warm evening air. Julie unfolded her chair and sat in a patch of sunlight, grateful to relax after a busy day. She did not feel like making conversation with the other parents, and in any case, she knew nothing about baseball. She closed her eyes and listened to the evening sounds.
The thwack of the bat as it hit the ball. The shouts of the girls, exhorting their team mates to run. The hum of the traffic in the distance. The murmuring of the other parents. And above it all the instructions from the coach: seemingly meaningless phrases, which lulled her off to sleep.
“Here’s a list of the game times.”
“Huh?” Julie sat up with a start and opened her eyes. The coach was standing in front of her, holding out a piece of paper.
“Sorry I woke you; you looked comfortable there,” he smiled and handed her the paper.
Julie’s heart did a flip and an unexpected tingle of excitement pulsed inside her.
“Oh, yes, sorry, ah, thank you!” she stammered all at once. What had happened? She felt breathless, and she had not even moved. She glanced at the coach, who was distributing the schedule to the other parents, and felt her chest tense.
Not again. Not another crush. And surely not her daughter’s coach!
Julie sighed and looked away. This was the third time in as many years that she had developed a sudden infatuation for a person she barely knew. She must be craving attention, or a relationship, or something.
She had had several crushes before Megan was born: flighty imaginings, but then parenthood had struck, and she found herself thrown into the world of small children, play groups and other parents. At first she had missed her job, and tried to imagine she was not really part of the group, but after a few years and another child, she had accepted the situation and settled to a routine life of her children’s school and activities.
Then, three years ago, the flutterings had started again, taking her completely by surprise.
The first time, it had been the assistant at the liquor store. He had not even said anything, merely smiled as Julie paid for her purchase, and she was hooked. She had begun browsing the wine shelves, taking up to half an hour at times to select a single bottle, watching the man out of the corner of her eye, sometimes summoning the courage to ask for a recommendation. Once she had collected a dozen empties to return, as another excuse for a visit, but then she decided this gave the wrong impression.
That craze had lasted almost four months. Then one day, she noticed her idol had pierced his ears and was wearing large metal rings in his lobes. Julie didn’t have anything against earrings, but her image had been shattered. In a peevish way she felt she should have been consulted, even though she had never spoken to the man, other than to discuss the merits of one red wine versus another. In the end, she had been relieved to get that craze over with, although she still had nineteen unopened bottles of various wines at home.
Then she had met Jenny.
Jenny was a volunteer at the Thrift store. She was highly efficient and perpetually cheerful. Julie began volunteering at the Thrift store too. She had not minded the work; in fact, she had actually rather enjoyed sorting through the clothes and other bric-a-brac. She had followed Jenny around for five weeks, hanging on her every word, admiring her efficiency, basking in her smile. Julie had worn similar skirts, hummed the same tunes, emulating her hero in every action.
It was not a sexual attraction; Julie was not that sort of person. She and Mike had been married now for almost twelve years and there had never been anybody else; and certainly not a woman. No, it was more an aspiration, to be a perfect person, as she believed Jenny to be.
The Jenny phase ended one day after Julie had put in an extra long shift at the store, pricing kitchenware, and had been forgotten at the staff party held at the end of the day; abandoned amongst the boxes in the back room, whilst Jenny and the other volunteers drank punch and ate cookies in the front.
Julie sighed, stood up and looked over at the coach who had finished handing out the schedules and was talking to the last parent. What was his name? Brendan?
Me, me! Come and talk to me! Julie felt the irrational thought process grip her, as her eyes willed the coach to turn around and look at her again. She felt like a teenager, crazed with hormones, and took a deep breath.
“Come on, Mum, the practice is over!”
A little hand tugging at her arm brought her back to earth. Perhaps these crazes were a longing, for what might have been, or just an escape from her daily chores. With a last wistful look at the coach’s broad back, Julie folded her chair and walked with her daughter to the car.
It was going to be an interesting baseball season.