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Friday, October 09, 2009

The Kids of Haven [4]

The Kids of Haven: Part 4

"You have a beautiful family, Lemon." My sister is stretched out beside me, her head raised as she peers at me over her large, heart-shaped sunglasses. "But you don't have to keep staring at them, they're not going to disappear."

I feel as though I've been caught out. "Thank you. I know."

I look at my husband playing with our children, spading out a large hole in the sand. Our youngest boy looks ruffled as flying sand gets in his book. His older sister grabs him, laughing. Her thin gait reminds me of Nicola, our Nicky.

Family is so important. It's all we're about. Different types of family, marked out by blood, by friendship, or by connections we can't even see.

A Freshers' Week family, that's what we were. We had marked each other out at the start of our university days and we'd dreamt it would be the best of our lives, expecting the friendships forged to last a lifetime.

Why are things never like they seem? It's like a fairytale that takes on different meanings after you're all grown up. Like those children's books on Narnia, Phil had always read. When I had first gone up to his room in our house, I had been surprised to find a boxed set of the things, and had laughed at him.

He had looked hurt, slightly. "I've been reading them since I was a baby. They're my favourite," he said.

"But they're racist against Turks," I protested. "Brainwashing from an early age to fear the Turk."

Phil had looked at me from his bed as though I was crazy. "Oh, stop it."

"They are," I said again. I picked up The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe from his table. "The Snow Queen and her pack of wolves luring you with Turkish Delight to a place she reigns where Christmas never comes? What does that symbolise do you think? Even the name of the lion, Aslan, means lion in Turkish."

Phil didn't reply at my little tirade. I continued, not noticing his features drop, by picking up The Horse and his Boy. "This is probably the most blatantly racist one of the lot. So much so, you can't even argue it. That's why it's the least promoted, because it proves my case in point."

He spoke up then. "That's my least favourite," he replied quietly. "I never read that one."

"This won't be reading material for my children when I have them," I growled. "You can be sure of that."

He got off the bed to come over to me. We stood there staring at each other. I could hear Nicola's faint Oompah-pah float up the stairs.

"Little Leyla fighting for her wolves," he said.

"What else am I supposed to do? It's the best part of me."

He looked me deep in the eyes. "I only ever seen your eyes light up when you talk about your roots. Is there anything else that does that? Does Tom do that to you?"

Nicky had burst into the room before I could reply. The next day, I had walked in on Phil in the kitchen looking embarrassed. I had caught him throwing his Narnia books in the bin. He had walked out without saying anything.

I questioned him about it afterwards, but he had just given me a small smile and said something about Aristotle saying that the desire for friendship comes quickly but friendship does not.

I hadn't known what he meant then.

I was to understand him better that night at the hospital. Or so I thought.

We had experienced so many things together in such a short period that it suddenly felt like we knew each other better than people actually do. Had we been fooled into thinking we had forged a greater friendship than there really was?

"Family?" The casualty doctor had eyed us suspiciously after our foolishly dramatic punchline, before delivering his own. "Who's her next of kin?"

"What do you mean?" Maxine had demanded.

But we all knew what he meant.

We hadn't managed to save Nicola, and her loss would haunt us for the rest of our university lives. Her last words had been not to blame Maxine, but I did. Even when the police decided not to press charges, I charged her with Nicky's death.

Maxine dropped out, and I never saw her again after that. I heard she left for America. Now I search for her on Facebook sometimes. I half joke with my husband that I'm on a ghostwatch, trying to catch an apparition in a haunted house. I don't know why I search for her, but sometimes I just do.

Tom dropped out, too. He went into the army. We lost him in Afghanistan. A casualty of war, out of so many. I send his wife cards at Christmas.

I remember back to when we all first met again, and then the night they had nicknamed me Little Red Wolf. I also remember things I'd forgotten. Nicky and Maxine singing "Over the Rainbow" and making me cry. Tom collecting beer mats from every pub we went to, and glueing them to his bedroom walls. The frenetic whirlwind of pub crawls and late nights. We were exhausted and broke, but we had each other.

And then just as suddenly, we lost each other.

Now and then I feel things are getting more and more sketchy as I grow older. The people we meet, the things we say. We do less, we feel less. I'm older, but am I wiser? I've always tried to work out why things seemed clearer back then, even though it was dizzying. Can things ever be both? Well, they were to the Kids of Haven.

They had been my family, even if it was only for the briefest time.

My husband looks across the years back at me, as he plays with our children. I smile as I watch him gently pick out sand from between the toes of our youngest. He of the curly hair and flapping book building sand castles by the seashore, wearing an inflatable orange ring around his waist like a lifesaver vest.

My eyes light up. I feel sane again.

My sister gives a huff, and resumes her sunbathing. I get up to join my family and throw a few memories into the sea. My husband walks over to meet me halfway. I raise my face up for a kiss. He gives me a funny smile instead, and I query it with a questioning smile.

"I finally know what makes your eyes light up, Little Red Wolf," he replies.

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