Youth by Kim Farleigh

She escaped my thoughts only when I played football or surfed, activities, requiring great skill, that came easily to me, while conversation, the skill I really wanted, resembled scaling Everest.

We were only in one class together at high school; and only for one term. When she first entered that class asteroid surprise plunged into the romantic gold-dust ocean in my head, swirling dust blurring vision, like that storm on Jupiter. 

There had been nothing to lose, because there had been nothing to gain. Angela destroyed that: she blasted Relevance into Life.

Just hearing her name – Angela Beaufort – stirred up that dust, muting me with amazement. 

I fought to board the school bus first after school to get the seat I needed to see her walking home down a lane that ran behind the primary school beside our high school. I dreaded her doing something unforeseen. The expected allowed hope to flourish. 

Her honey follicles blazed with sunlight. My brain-blurring admiration was so debilitating I couldn’t speak to her. Dominating football matches was far easier. Lacking conversational ability meant I could only crack jokes when we passed each other. I was too naively conscious of my own feelings to enquire about hers.

Our paths crossed one day in the city centre. Coming around a corner, there she was, smiling, telling me about her guitar classes, her pupils in her blue eyes ringed by yellow specks, my cheeks twitching, my brain screaming: “Speak, you idiot!”

I couldn’t think of anything, except how beautiful she was, and how could I have told her that?

Love crushes spontaneous imagination or magnifies it. Back then, love numbed me.

How can you deal with it if your home life hides its secrets? My mother had run off to England before I had started primary school, leaving my father in despair. I had been in an orphanage before moving to my grandmother’s house. That monastic house shunned peace. My grandmother hated my father who consistently fled from domestic disharmony. This fuelled my grandmother’s hatred even more. She hated us talking at the dinner table. She even said: “I know it’s funny, but don’t laugh.” Her fury towards my father for his apparent irresponsibility got lumped onto me. Someone had to suffer because of it. That seemed to be her philosophy. Later on, she even told me: “I hope he dies before me.”

After school, I had to creep into the house through the back door. If I made it to the room I shared with my younger brother I was safe. Sometimes she saw me and I got clobbered. The reason for this grew clearer with age: I reminded her of her son. 

They were the conditions I faced when I first met Angela. You can’t suddenly erect bridges across gorges carved out by lovelessness. My loveless home life induced a numbness only broken by football, day-dreams, and surfing. I studied atlases, allured by unknown lands. Elsewhere had to be much better than where I was.

I marked a calendar with symbols on days I had contact with Angela. Sometimes I removed that calendar from its hiding place to study it, pouring over it in the hope that existed of her love. That calendar eventually fell apart. The past, like that calendar, disintegrates, leaving fleeting images of beauty and ugliness.

The only memory I now have of that day I ran into Angela is of the electro-magnetism that shot beam-like from her face; her comments have gone; how we said goodbye has also gone, that encounter’s brevity ensured by the gold dust swirling in a brain unable to produce coherent thought. Now I wonder how someone can occupy your mind so comprehensively without clear thought being produced, like an endless coda that establishes nothing.

My only future in those days was Angela. And she really wasn’t even in my present, my time spent day-dreaming about romantic fulfilment. I hoped for something that would change all. It almost happened. We were sixteen. I went with my older brother to a party. It was in the house of one of his school friends. That night was draped with stars. I was near the point of moving from adolescent muteness to volcanic expression, autism’s dam cracking.

We arrived armed with beer. My shyness cocooned me. That was only normal. I didn’t have expectations of being entertaining, so shyness didn’t frustrate me. It was the expected.

We sat at the kitchen table with the host and had a beer. I could hear conversational rumbling, splattered with cracking cackling, coming from the backyard, a sound typical in our city. So was the mournful singing of trees in summer winds that died by nightfall when mother-of-pearl turned into diamond-encrusted ebony above consuming people producing that guffaw-punctured rumbling. Seeing those partying people meant a world in which Possibility could flourish in green shoots of fulfilment.

The beer produced an attitude-changing shot of confidence. Suddenly I could fly, like playing football, like stepping across a low-gravity planet. I felt the sky’s silkiness had descended, bringing joy to earth, Angela beside me; we laughed under stars that gleamed with the promise of bliss. The charm that had fought so long to rise had risen. I had become what I always knew I could be.

Her face sparkled like the sky, her teeth a white zip curling up at both ends above her round chin, her hair spiralling over bronzed shoulders. I lapped up the honey of her sweetness, our chuckling cracking on that hot night of sound’s increased transmission.

Our comments have been swallowed by time, but her surprise at my unexpected wit has not. That’s jammed in memory’s vice.

Suddenly I abandoned that dream-state. I felt sick. The timing of that reaction to alcohol made bad luck seem a dream. Trying to walk up a driveway, I bumped into a fence on one side, then a brick wall on the other, then the fence again, like walking along a spinning barrel.

I vomited in the front yard. I lay beside a hose. I turned on a tap. Water spilt from the hose’s end into my mouth. My veins seemed filled with a green secretion. A girl I went to school with said: “Dave Warner. Typical.” I felt too sick for anger or embarrassment. My party was over. I lay on that grass for an hour, sipping water, cackling rumbling grumbling coming from the backyard, the moment gone, back to yearning for love, alone, in pain. I stayed prostrate for as long as I did because the need to vomit remained strong for hours. I didn’t even think of trying to hide my dilemma. Alcoholic poisoning had crushed social considerations. I was back to being boring, old Dave Warner.

After that, I saw Angela sporadically, especially as I had moved into a house in the same street she lived in, my grandmother having kicked me out because of my wayward comings and goings in that first year of university. Those comings and goings likened me even more with my father.

There was a back lane running parallel to the side of the street Angela and I lived in. I often walked down it to peer through her house’s open back gate to see if I could spot her. One day I saw her dashing from the bathroom to her bedroom to get ready to go out. My normal feelings of exclusion hit danger levels. Someone else was about to have her company. Myself and alcohol had ruined that for me. I was still just plain, old Dave Warner, poor and obscure, obsessed with a future that contained Angela, but unable to begin a process that could have brought such a future into fruition, restrained by a weighty past that had not contained free-flowing communication. The influence of that weight could only be smashed by freak events of sudden euphoria as had happened at that party, spontaneous miracles of felicitous confidence that yield new levels of self-perception. I knew such miracles were possible. What else was I going to think? Those potential miracles spun the drill of my whining hope. I took potentially embarrassing risks, hoping to perpetuate one of those confidence-giving epiphanies where the coating caused by years of verbal inaction gets split open to unleash a buried brilliance of charm. Beneath that coating I felt magmatic gems of hilarity brewing, wit bubbling in lava creativity. The problem was how to get those gems to rise.

One day, I ran into Angela on the street, the horror of opportunity right there before me. The gold dust smashed against the coating that stood firm. My temples throbbed like strobe lights. Her blue-eye oceans engulfed black islands of curiosity, her lips appealing like tropical shores.

She mentioned a band that had burst as quickly onto the scene back then as they were about to leave it, a smash-and-grab act of money-making.

“They only see women as sex objects,” she said.

Hearing her say “sex” created a storm of mouth-jamming candelabra sparks under the coating.

I didn’t know if that band’s members only saw women as sex objects or not. I didn’t say anything other than: “I admit I like their music.”

It was amazing that she was still willing to speak to me. I had unconsciously done everything to crush that possibility. Escape from love’s threat had been my brain’s modus operandi. Its will opposed mine. Her continued openness emerged from her generosity of spirit that lit her face when she produced her incandescent smile.

She said she had started running at the beach in the mornings. I endured a week of impatience before I started doing the same. My attempt at a happy coincidence was ridiculous. She ran with a woman from school. We would run past each other, approaching from opposite directions, and say: “Hi.” That happened about three times a week for months. The more it happened, the more disdainful arrogance smeared the face of the woman that Angela ran with. Her friend’s haughtiness reached a crescendo one day when that woman looked at Angela and said something that appeared to be: “Him! Again!” Angela maintained her polite equilibrium, her sensitive understanding highlighting the spite of the bitch she ran with.

The beach enhanced Angela’s already immense beauty. A freckle archipelago, pushed up by volcanic loveliness, dotted her cheeks and the bridge of her nose. Her skin turned light bronze. Her hair produced gilded rivers of silk. Her incendiary smile revealed spotlight teeth amid light chocolate.

She drove her mother’s car, its licence plate seared upon my memory: XIP 496. When seeing that plate, usually while waiting for buses on the road that linked our suburb with the beach, dormant, dour, sleepy passageways in my head ignited.

I dreamt about rescuing her from shipwrecks. Night’s multi-faceted universes opposed day’s sapping sameness. I lacked a real push towards betterment, a sacrifice for long-term benefits. I only wanted to turn night’s glamour into day, oblivious that this overcompensation for childhood’s inadequacies wasn’t the solution.

One night, I crept down the side of Angela’s neighbour’s house to peer over the fence into her bedroom window. I knew about the plants in her neighbour’s backyard. I had one day spotted, through a temporary crack in the lane’s fence, marijuana spouting from green, blue and red pots, those plants irrelevant as I tip-toed towards that window, so intent on that window I didn’t think that someone may have spotted me through her neighbour’s black equivalents. I didn’t even duck as I passed those equivalents. I could only focus on that blackness ahead as I slithered between a fence and a brick wall, as steamed up with curiosity as the night air was with summer’s silk.

A woman’s voice! The air’s conductivity chiselled that voice to perfect clarity: “Someone’s trying to steal the plants.”

She couldn’t have imagined I was after a girl’s heart. I raced back to the footpath that I charged down to the end of the street from where I saw black figures in front of Angela’s neighbour’s house entering a car. Car doors slammed. I dashed down the lane on the other side of the street that Angela and I were living in. I ran into the backyard of the third house along the lane and hid behind a brick outhouse.

The car stopped. People got out. They had seen me dash down the lane as their car had whipped around the corner. They examined the backyards of the first houses along that lane. I recognised one of their voices. He was a long-haired hippy whom I had once spotted stealing money from glove boxes in a car park. Back then theft was almost non-existent. People didn’t even bother to lock their cars.

So there I was, between a brick outhouse and a fence, pursued for attempted theft by a thief. I was also there because of unrequited love; and because I needed a sudden transformation into permanent confidence. That situation could not have been more misleading for my pursuers. All my hopes had come to crouching behind a brick outhouse, praying that my pursuers’ search would stop.

My attitude towards brick outhouses had always been positive. The brick outhouse enables one to do one’s business in peace, shameful methane polluting the atmosphere, not the house.

When they called off their search, my admiration for the brick outhouse soared. I considered writing to the government, calling for a monument to be built commemorating the brick outhouse’s inventor.

That experience was a wake up call. Surreptitious action had to go. I had a head full of irresolution caused by Angela’s sweetness and beauty, and that irresolution was thickening, weighing me down, demanding mature approaches. Climbing through bedroom windows at four in the morning and saying: “Hi! It’s me!” wasn’t destined to impress. It could have caused a heart attack and being responsible for someone’s death–especially hers–was untenable. I had a theory (hope’s new manifestation) that sincerity could smash that charm-resisting coating. I rang her. Back then, ringing people was nerve-wracking for one had to face people’s shocked voices, given that the receiver didn’t know who was ringing. My stomach and temples trembled. I had decided to tell her face to face what she probably already knew. My stomach became a pit of dread. The sensation I was a spectator to other people’s contentment magnified. I felt I was just bringing failure forward, no justification for what I wanted to tell her. But her sweetness gave her deep understanding.

“Hi,” she said, happily, my dread soaked up by spongy relief.

We ended up in a car parked in some quiet place.

“I love you,” I told her. “I’ve loved you ever since I first saw you.”

I said this without hope. It didn’t even dent the coating. She looked through the windscreen, then at me, her face shimmering with appreciation, and said: “That’s really courageous of you.”

My surprise at this unexpected view created a stumping silence that she broke by saying: “What you said is really a difficult thing to say. Thanks for saying it.”

I marvelled at this generosity. Some people claim they trust their feelings. Her good-natured sensibility, I should have realised, justified my love.

“I don’t know what to do,” she said. “Someone has asked me to go to a party with them tonight at the University. Now I don’t know what to do.”

Because I couldn’t believe she was inferring I had a chance of going out with her, I wondered what this indecision was supposed to imply. Hope is one thing, belief another. I have never believed anything. I know or I don’t know. I had no idea what her uncertainty meant.

I thanked her for listening to me.

Although I felt I had achieved a communication breakthrough, one that would have looked impressive on that already defunct calendar, stormy irresolution returned. She even concluded our interlude by saying I could visit her whenever I felt it. 

That, too, seemed impossible to believe. The past doesn’t recede easily. The injection of long-term confidence I had been hoping for didn’t come. Nothing changed within me. I was still dreary, old Dave Warner. Her words failed to be interpreted positively. I didn’t even ask anyone else’s opinion of: “I don’t know what to do now.” The past had damaged my analytical ability. Surely, she couldn’t have been suggesting I had a chance? That hadn’t fitted into my grim script. Those days were coloured by awkward attempts to attain confidence that often crushed sincerity, reducing the chance of increasing confidence. Had I been honest about myself to others I would have been better off, but pressure existed to be “smooth.” You often heard: “He’s so smooth,” as if a special gift had been awarded to the beholders of such smoothness.

Almost everyone dreamt about being “smooth.” I haven’t heard the expression “smooth” for years. Maturity alters vocabulary.

So the conquest of this elusive smoothness continued. A better-informed individual would have concentrated on the skills they already had, using them to achieve higher self-appreciation. I could have been playing league football, but I wasn’t interested, ignorant of the life-long repercussions of what professional sport could bring. I was driven by a malevolent fate to employ a skill that was beyond me–that of making desirable people love you–instead of using what I had to get the same reward.

Pursuing confidence led to depression. I ended up drunk in the back seat of Angela’s car. We had run into each other in a pub popular with people in the area where we lived. She was with a woman we knew from school. Attempting to slash the coating with piercing wit, I made comments to Angela’s friend that had the reverse effect.

“Come on, Marie, you know you love me,” I think I said, although I suspect memory has softened my real remarks because Angela looked at Marie and said, referring to me: “How rude.”

Given this was the limit of Angela’s anger (someone else would have thrown me out of the car), I knew I had seriously overstepped the mark.

I woke the next day finding nothing interesting except Bob Dylan. I wet my pillow with tears, scaled down to a core that clung to Bob. No other barnacle existed to cling to to sustain life. Angela’s displeasure had taken almost everything else with it. Failing to gain something so important highlighted irrelevancy. I was just left with beauty’s observation, not a part of it, fighting tears, having rejected a worthwhile sporting skill, whose utilization would have changed my life for the better, rejecting it for the difficult to master, Angela gone.

I haven’t loved anyone else as much since, the long, slow drift of her out of my thoughts finally resulting in constructive consideration about the future. Now thinking about her leaves a pleasant glow, like a sunset.

Kim has worked for NGO’s in Greece, Kosovo, Iraq, Palestine and Macedonia. He likes to take risks to get the experience required for writing. He likes painting, art, bull-fighting, photography and architecture, which might explain why this Australian lives in Madrid. Although he wouldn’t say no to living in a Swiss ski resort or a French chateau. 173 of his stories have been accepted by 101 different magazines.

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