I stand next to the grand piano, surveying the room once more. All around me old classmates are deep in conversation, trying to squeeze ten years of life into one afternoon tea. For some it’s easier than others.
‘Anna has her first novel coming out in May, don’t you?’ Elise Watson asks me.
‘Yes, that’s right,’ I smile at the group of faces. I’m aware that I should at least try joining in the conversation but what’s the point. I glance at the door again. He’s here. I watch him enter the stuffy room, in a grey suit, white shirt and black tie. It takes me a moment to notice the girls around me have stopped talking.
‘Of course you and Chris used to have a thing didn’t you?’ Elise says to me, loud enough for the rest of the group to hear, ‘I hope this isn’t awkward for you?’
‘It’s fine,’ I say. Elise waits and realises this is all she will get, resignedly the conversation moves on.
The hour passes. Who’s rich, who’s had an affair, what teachers are still around. I stay quiet and think to myself, he hasn’t changed at all.
‘We all remember that night.’ I snap out of my daze.
‘What night?’ I ask, though I know fine well. The group seem startled by my sudden contribution to the conversation.
‘The night poor Henry died in the library fire,’ Elise says.
‘I don’t think the school ever recovered after that incident,’ Betty Jones adds as she unwraps a purple Quality Street with bony fingers. ‘You know I still see his mother round about town. You can see it in her face, she’s never gotten over it.’ She chews carefully on the sweet, savouring it.
‘He was such a recluse though wasn’t he? He made me quite uncomfortable in class sometimes… Anna what’s wrong?’ Elise asks, passing me her napkin.
‘I’m sorry,’ I say, dabbing my eyes with it. This outburst has caught his attention; I can feel him watching me with an intensity that sets my face aflame.
‘Don’t be silly, naturally it still upsets all of us,’ she says, feigning concern.
‘It makes me sick to know they never found the person who did it,’ Betty states, shaking her head with disgust.
‘So people still believe it was arson?’ I ask.
‘I would think so,’ Elise says, ‘the police told us, off the record of course, that they found Henry’s body a couple of rooms along from where the fire started. They think he dozed off whilst reading so it couldn’t have been him.’ It’s clear she’s enjoying the fact that once again she is more in the know than the rest of us, ‘such a shame on the family too, imagine being left in the dark like that. Anna are you sure you’re all right? You look pale.’
‘Yes I’m fine, I think I just need some air.’
I stand outside with an unlit cigarette clutched between my fingers in an attempt to appear collected. Only I know it’s too late, that my mind has already fallen back into the all too familiar darkness.
‘There you are,’ his voice says behind me.
‘I thought you were going to stay in there all day.’
‘Well I couldn’t not hear about Mr Stewart’s new chicken coop,’ Chris takes another step towards me forcing my eyes to meet his.
‘You know…’ he begins, ‘I tried to contact you after your Mum passed away.’
‘Why didn’t you return my calls?’
‘I wasn’t ready.’ If this throws him he masks it expertly.
‘So how are you?’ He says. I frown at him, why the pleasantries?
‘I’m okay, actually I have a book coming out in May.’
‘Do people still read books these days?’ He laughs and nudges my shoulder. ‘That’s brilliant. Not that I’m surprised.’ I try to take a drag from my cigarette but I realise it’s still unlit.
‘Here, let me,’ Chris reaches into his pocket and pulls out a sleek silver lighter. Cautiously I lean forward but the spark of the flame makes me jump back.
‘Are we really not going to talk about it?’
‘About what?’ His voice is suddenly angry, panicked even. ‘How you stopped speaking to me? How you cut me out of your life without so much as an explanation. Sure lets talk about that.’
‘You can’t be serious? You’ve buried it that deeply?’
‘Buried what?’ But a flicker of remembered pain surfaces and I think we both watch that Friday night play out in each other’s eyes.
I can see us, two daft seventeen year olds stumbling along North Street having drunk too much. I remember him nuzzling my hair and murmuring into my ear.
‘C’mon baby it’ll be fun.’
‘What if we get caught?’
‘We won’t. We’ll climb in through the back window, no one’s there at this time of night.’ That’s what we did, hoisting ourselves into the school library like ninjas. As we lay on the carpet inside sharing a joint I remember thinking I no longer cared about consequences and boldly leant in to kiss him. He kissed me back and together we lost ourselves in that adolescent moment of need and desperation. It was only after we came round that I saw the flames licking at the curtains, the joint discarded below them. I recall screaming, flailing at the fire with my jacket but it had already spread beyond our control. The sound of crackling wood and burning words swept around us, turning the air into a choking smoke. In one leap Chris bundled me through the window, away from the blaze and into safety. Outside I lay on the damp earth struggling for breath, a bitter wind cooling the burns on my arm. Through the gasps Chris forced me to my feet and together we ran into the night but not before we heard a piercing cry behind us. Somewhere inside I know Henry’s cry is something my imagination has added in over time, yet it becomes more prevalent with each recollection. Sometimes I even imagine he calls out my name.
The sound of applause from inside brings us back to the present. Chris loosens his tie with a trembling hand and he no longer looks like the schoolboy I recognized earlier but a young man aged by the burden of guilt. Together we search each other’s souls for solace, forgiveness, closure, anything. He opens his mouth as if he’s about to say something but then closes it again. Suddenly I have no desire in pursuing what I came here to do, to confront him and finally face the shame of never turning ourselves in. I realize there’s no point, we’ll never escape this secret hell of ours.
‘That must be Mr Giles starting his speech,’ Chris says quietly. ‘Are you coming?’
‘I’ll be there in a moment.’ He gives me a last haunted gaze and disappears inside. Without looking back I turn and walk away, retracing the steps I know too well. The rebuild is modern and fresh, no hint at all of the tragedy that lies under its foundations. In fact it looks nothing like a library. Bending down I let my hand stroke the fresh grass; it’s damp and familiar. Silently I close my eyes and convince myself that the past should stay in the past - where it belongs.
© Stephanie Withers 2012