Tuesday, 14 January 2014

A guest at my table - Suzanne

Sometimes, even now, when I'm lying on my back in the long grass on a summer's day, my eyes half-closed and sunbeams bouncing off my eyelashes, I dream I'm back in that long hot summer of '79 in a small town in Normandy, lying on a towel by the open air public swimming pool with most of my school friends. Our  french exchange partners are all congregated together talking animatedly about us in a language we don't understand. We are bored, blotchy and wilting under the heat in our freckled English skins. Mutiny has started to break out as we compare notes as to who has the most obnoxious frog for a partner.

I think I score quite highly as my partner is four years older than me, obviously bored at having to drag round a child and spends most of her time trying to imprison me in her large house when all the others are happy to be rid of their charges for a few hours.

Suzanne is applying cherry lip gloss with the aid of a small handbag mirror. She fancies one of the brothers of another penfriend. She giggles as Alison shows her something in 'Jackie' magazine - the one we all get; the only one to get. On this trip we are thrown together. Here, it is us versus them - the garlic breathed, hairy underarmed skinny french girls who prance rather than walk and seem to know how to eat without putting on weight. We cover ourselves in towels and Ambre Solaire and try not to look self-conscious in our new bikinis which don't seem to fit properly.

She offers me the sickly smelling stick and I wrinkle my nose and say ' no thanks'. There is a mint one leaking out of the bottom of my beach bag which I have made from a large towel and some rope cord to a pattern in the magazine. I am proud of it for five minutes until it starts to lose its shape and look less like the one in the picture and more like the remains of a trip to the laundrette.Suzanne exudes the confidence that I lack. I put it down to hormones. All those of a well-developed 'D' cup look down on those of us a bit late off the starting blocks. The clothes that don't quite hang properly, the boobtube tops that threaten to fall down at any minute, the green eyeshadow that we haven't quite worked out how to apply (despite the many diagrams in our bible).

Our penfriends are friends so we are thrown together with a couple of others and herded round to the pool most days as the weather is too hot to do anything much else. This is the summer I am faced with a plate of raw meat swimming in an ocean of blood. It is also the summer that I am bewitched by a huge globe of warm succulent leaves which have to be stripped and dipped into a tepid speckled cream and scraped against your teeth. It is heaven; and my first taste of artichoke that stays with me long after the holiday is wrapped up and fixed into an album. Small square prints with a slightly faded look to them behind a wrap of gradually yellowing plastic that will ruin them all in time.

She comes through the door and greets me as if it was yesterday that we cut our ties into pieces and waved goodbye to the hockey pitch and other implements of torture and went our separate ways. Me, to the college up the road where A levels and academia were the order of the day, and she to the Tech college down the road. Like an invisible divide down the streets of Belfast our school was suddenly torn apart. And ne'er the twain should meet or have anything to do with each other again.

I lost touch with Suzanne at this point. Our lives diverged. Soon I was off to another town, to work, a home, another life. But I have lived a hundred lifetimes since that day. I carry with me the scars of battles won and lost. She is fresh as a daisy still living for the day. We sit and she sips her coke from the bottle, ignoring the glass beside. There are no wrinkles on her face, no hollow cheekbones or sleepless baby nights ringing her eyes.

She talks of the small and the daily, the future only as far as next week. And maybe this is just as well, for I am sitting in the rest room above the bank where I have just started working, looking through a newspaper someone else has left behind. And there in the black on white is a name I recognise. A name I used to know. There is a tragedy ( in every sense). A landslide victory by the conservatives, which has the bank a-buzzing and hyper, is celebrated by a disco in a large marquee down by the river. I don't go because I have joined another world where everyone lives to work and the social life is incestuous. But Suzanne went to dance, and, stepping on a live wire, danced her last.

But she is here now, unaware, and with all the certainty of youth that the future will be eternal and blessed. It will be forever the summer of '89.

But what of those left behind? What of the parents who will never know the joy of Grandchildren. Who choose to move away because the pain of others' pity is too great to carry. The brothers at that gently formative age who will rage with their anger against the world and all there in it. Where will their lives end up. And what of Alison, the Best friend through thick and thin, from playschool to puberty. One on one side of the street, one on the other. The sort of friends you never tried to tackle because they had each other linked and wouldn't sway. Their lives mapped out perhaps with husbands drinking in the same pub; their children, a boy and girl each matching bumps apart. What happens when the future dissolves before your very eyes and has to be remade in a different way, bits missing where nothing matches up. Perhaps there is another friend but there will be no symmetry, no shared memories to feed on. Perhaps Alison will turn to her husband for support; will become clingy and needy and afraid. Who knows.

Only today is visible now. And today is 1981. We have finished our exams and have been sitting on the swings celebrating with a coke for her and Dandelion and burdock for me. Some of us are smoking, some are not. There is a feeling of elation and unreality and something soft and sinking that hasn't sunk in yet which marks the end of something for us all, that this place will no longer be ours.

Sitting at the table now I am struck by how much more life I have lived - more than twice - and yet youth glows in its certainty in a way that few of us are lucky-enough to hold onto for long. It is a brightly burning torch which lights the way, and brings illumination to the faces of all it touches.

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