The Pretenders

There’s a place between the living room and kitchen where you can pull back a panel, usually invisible in the living room, and pass things through from the kitchen.

A corridor runs by both rooms so if you stand in it and stretch your hands through the panel it feels as if you’re hugging the whole house. The house of fragile dreams. The impossible dreams which will tumble and crash into eternal despair. Gods tormenting mortals – show them happiness, take it away for ever while demanding worship.

Actually, I couldn’t care less if the house collapsed. The real treasure jealous gods could snatch is the man impossibly upstairs.

How can I not think his being in love with me is some sort of cruel trick? We grew up neighbours, played in the street, had adventures creeping into forbidden places, and shared ice creams. As children we were best friends and then I thought I’d lost him. Adolescence brought the realisation he was a different species, class. Bright, energetic, always cool and calm, the school darling even older girls drooled over. Super-confident and athletic, no boy ever picked a fight with Iain Urquhart.

Every day, right from first year, we met at the bus stop for transport which was often non-existent. Flood, high tides, seaweed over the road, rock falls, snow drifts and often herds of slowly moving cattle or sheep meant the bus was a great source of uncertainty, bets and excuses for being late.

I hug the house again. Of course, in my heart I’m hugging Iain but if I did that as much as I needed to I’d drive him away.
That day at school when we, last years’ sixth form, were asked to come in voluntarily and welcome the new first years. Tiny frightened children, pale faces, awkward movements, hesitant and quiet; showing how terrified they were, or brash and over-loud showing how terrified they were. Anyway, Iain had checked three times, trying to keep it subtle, that I’d be waiting for the bus as we used to.

It was heaving with rain. Water ran down the road like a river, and rose higher than my shoes. I was absolutely sodden, right through to my skin. I must have looked as miserable as a person can get. There were no children at the stop; our road had only two, Iain and me. Now there are none.

He turned up also drenched but laughing his head off. It was like a bit of sunshine had snuck under the clouds and lit up the bus stop.

He was all smiles and a huge glow of happiness. “So good to see you here,” he said, and knelt before me – in water which almost engulfed his knee. Holding up a little box he said, “I’ve met you nearly every day of my life. I can’t bear the thought of a day without you. You’re the reason I went to school most of the time. Please, please marry me.”

I thought he was joking until I laughed and saw the stricken doubt on his lovely face. The bus never came but we got a lift on Brenna’s tractor, as we often did. She drove it into town every day, sun or snow. When she saw my ring I think she’d wanted to go and peal the bloody church bells there and then. By the time Iain and me left the school at lunchtime the whole island knew anyway.
Weeks ago they’d also learned of his father’s death in the fire, thus he was alone now. They probably put the engagement down to shock and mourning, not expecting it to last. With his inheritance, insurance and so on, he’d bought this house, recently used as a holiday cottage and spent a few weeks making it liveable in. The day he proposed he’d cycled all the way from Blackwaterfoot – via Sliddery – to Lamlash. He chose that route hoping the wind would help him over the moors. It still took him more than two hours; the only direction the wind didn’t gust was up through the ground.

That day I turned into an adult. At least I thought so but I merely transferred my dependence from my parents to Iain. My poor mum and dad went into shock when I announced I was moving in with him immediately. I’ve had to work hard to make Iain think I’m good enough for him and would never miss an opportunity to go with his wishes.
We spent a week setting up my office, phone lines, computers and internet so I could work from home. Now is now and a daily effort to bind him to me forever. I try to please him in any way I can. I hope that works, but also I’ve made it really clear that he can depend on me for an income while he writes poetry and lyrics – and earns almost nothing. When we’re setled we’ll have children – he’ll never leave them: not him.

~

I knew Steph would be hard work; that she wouldn’t understand why I’m in awe of her, adore her. She was the feeble coward at school, always tormented by other girls, never went to parties unless there were adults there to make it safe for her. Even then I had to rescue her hunched in shadowed corners. Rarely, very rarely, I got her to dance with me.

No way is she a feeble coward. Steph was the first in the water when the old ferry blew onto rocks. Bystanders were amazed that she’d stripped down to bra and pants and dived into icy water to save people. While others rushed to prepare for casualties, others just stood there and watched her.
I was second – and last – in to the water. This is because, though I already knew she made my life bearable, I was learning to follow her lead on anything. Anyway, how could I let her swim in that maelstrom alone?

Fishing boats and the lifeboat were straight out and even got there before us, but we did save one person, Steph and I together, so it was worth it. Inside the half-sunk hull we were deafened by the terrifying booming against rocks. I was able, after Steph told me, to report the vessel had no more people on board. We briefly became heroes that day – me, just because I copied what she did or instructed me to do. She doesn’t know how brave and strong she is, how cool in an emergency.

Before that were our Higher exams. We’d suffered endless temporary teachers for two years. Our maths was way behind, and therefore our physics as well. Steph organised after-school lessons. Most of us she helped got passes, most of those who didn’t turn up for her lessons did not. She’s kind and capable of helping people, and keeping at it.

On the day we turned up to meet the first years, Steph was inspirational, her laughter ringing up and down corridors. She danced and sang, bringing smiles from teachers and pupils alike. Oh, that moment when we stormed the common room and met the new sixth formers. They were moaning about the school’s appalling sports record – being beaten by almost every school on the mainland.

Steph dived into the box of shame – balls cut in half for every game lost. She said, “What you need is the thing of power,” but ‘thing’ was unclear.

Someone joked and said, “The ring of power? Sauron’s ring?”

“No, better than that.” She hoiked out a cut rugby ball and threw it at the shinty captain, and said to her, “His codpiece: wear it in your knickers!” Of course everyone nearly died of laughter. Steph is seriously witty, with the fastest mind ever. This lightning-thought and her maths genius are how she’s able to play so effectively with the money investors trust her with. For investors, read half the island and nearly all the young people on it.
When I proposed, I was certain she’d say no. But she hesitated and laughed. I felt my tears welling up and drew one onto my fingernail. In a moment of desperation I wiped it around the margin of her lips, saying, “That comes straight from my heart, sincere and yours forever.” Then she realised I was serious.

My job, my lifelong job – I don’t care how long it takes – is to make her realise what she is: see her real self. If I can help do this one thing for the person whom I love and admire beyond anything I could imagine – then my life will not have been wasted.

One day she’ll stop being nervous; one day she’ll stop trying to please me so much. I’ll see her leave a room without the backward glance, nervous I’ll not be there when she returns. Then Steph will blossom into the superwoman she really is.
Then, and only when this is done, I’ll ask Steph to teach me how to become like her, instead of acting and pretending as I’ve done all my life.

©Gary Bonn, 2019

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