Authors: Steph Bowe
Tags: #Juvenile Fiction
Nina nods. He continues.
‘About six months ago my mum found out she was pregnant,’ says Spencer, slowly—like if he’s not careful his mouth will sew itself shut and won’t let the words out. ‘Apparently pregnant women aren’t supposed to announce the pregnancy until three months and anyway, Mum didn’t want to tell Monica, my sister, until she started showing. But she told Dad and me.
‘We’re not a perfect family. I don’t think such a thing exists, but it all seemed especially imperfect then. I was fighting with my dad a lot, and Mum and Dad were fighting with each other. Not like they were going to get divorced, but things were just…strained. And then Mum says she’s pregnant and it just reminded me that we were a family and what miracle it is that I’m alive and with people who love me.
‘She had scans and found out it was a boy, a brother, and it was great. I was too young when Monica was born to appreciate how amazing it is to have someone who totally looks up to you but at the same time is their own person. It was just…I don’t know whether other kids feel like this when their mother’s pregnant, but six months ago I just had faith in the world and people and life.’
They’re walking up the bridge over the river now. He pauses and leans against the railing, the one kids are always leaping off in summer, just missing boats as they head for the water. And no matter how clumsily they fall, you always see them resurface. They’re always okay. No wonder they think they’re invincible. Nina leans against the railing beside him and looks up at the sky.
‘Then just before she was planning on announcing it to my grandparents, and Monica, she went in to hospital, um, with pains.’ Spencer exhales unevenly, rubs his eyes with the back of one hand. His voice is choked. Nina reaches over and holds his other hand.
‘She lost the baby. God, that sounds weird. Like, I don’t know, she put him down and forgot where, like she just misplaced him. And “miscarried”, that’s just as bad. Like she wasn’t holding him properly. I don’t know, maybe those words just try and make it sound nicer, soften it a bit. But it’s the same thing. It’s fucking horrible. He died, and he never even got to live in the first place.
‘It’s so strange, grieving for someone who was never really alive. I mean, of course he was alive and growing and he had the same flesh and blood I do, same as my sister. But he didn’t have a birth certificate. My parents never got to hold him, I never got to hold him. My sister only found out that she would have become a big sister after he’d died.
‘I suddenly felt so…mortal, if that makes any sense. I got so afraid of death. For a few months I actually believed that if I wasn’t careful enough, I was going to die, too. I stopped going out at night, I avoided parties and everything, because it was dangerous, because I might hurt myself, or…’ He shakes his head. ‘Not that I was much of a partygoer to begin with. It sounds so ridiculous now, kind of OCD actually. You probably think that’s nuts.’
‘I get it,’ says Nina. ‘I’ve never lost anyone, but I sometimes feel the same.’
‘You know what I realised?’ he says. ‘I figured out that I couldn’t avoid death without also avoiding life. And that sounds like something you’d hear in a shitty made-for-TV movie—’
Spencer closes his eyes and pauses. ‘But I don’t know whether I’ll ever succeed at living life to the fullest, as they say. I don’t know if it’s even possible. I just always get this overwhelming sense of not having enough time to live all the lives I want to live. To live the lives everyone who didn’t get to live this long is missing out on. I don’t want to waste my youth, then end up turning into my dad. And I want to hold on to this feeling as long as I can, but at the same time it drives me insane. It’s as if no matter what I ever accomplish, there’ll always be more and I’ll always feel like I’ve failed.’
‘It’s okay,’ says Nina. ‘It’s the unknown that gets to me, too. Like this feeling that I don’t know whether I’ll ever really be my own person, or ever truly be happy. The future freaks me out because I’ve got no idea what’s there and whether I really have control over any of it.’
Nina’s nose is pink with the cold.
‘I’m sorry about your brother,’ she whispers.
‘I was hoping he would bring our family together, but I don’t even know if that would have happened. And now all of these things that could have been are hanging over our heads, now that we almost had him and then lost him…we can barely hold ourselves together. We’re so close to falling apart and if that happens I don’t know if I’ll be able to put us back together. I feel as if I shouldn’t even be this affected by it. Mum went through it all and is still going through
, so how can I be the one grieving?’ Spencer tries his best not to cry.
‘You lost him, too, Spence,’ whispers Nina.
‘I haven’t even told Bridie,’ Spencer whispers. ‘I’m sorry, you know, weighing you down with it.’
‘It’s okay, Spence. Do you want to keep walking?’
He nods. She’s still holding his hand. Over the bridge, and they’re almost at the swimming complex.
‘You know how I always feel?’ Nina says. ‘Like I’m on the verge.’
‘That’s the thing. I don’t know. It might be something great, or it might be disaster. I just feel like I’m always about to get to it, I’m just about there, but I can’t reach it. Like chasing your own shadow. But then again I’m not sure if I’m on the verge of reaching it, or on the verge of failing. I just always feel something big is about to happen, but it never does. And you know what I think? I think you’re on the verge, too. You have to decide not to be afraid of whatever comes after it.’
‘I think you’re wonderful,’ says Spencer.
‘That’s probably because I am.’ Nina grins.
Spencer laughs, and tilts his head towards the sky to hold the tears in his eyes. He thinks of a word, it’s a German word:
. Coming to terms with the past.
‘I’ll tell you what worries me more than anything,’ Nina says, ‘I mean, apart from death and losing my family…I worry that other people will feel about me how I feel about myself. I absolutely loathe myself. I don’t want to, but I do. I think I’m an idiot, I always say the wrong thing. I don’t have any redeemable qualities. I know in my heart it’s not true, but it doesn’t stop me from feeling it. That’s the thing no one knows about me. The palm-reading thing doesn’t really count.’
‘I always say the wrong thing, too,’ says Spencer. ‘But nothing you’ve said seems wrong to me. I don’t know you all that well, but it also seems to me as if you’ve got lots of redeemable qualities. I mean, for one, you’re a fantastic palm-reader.’
Nina laughs. They’re right outside the swimming complex. The outdoor pool is lit up even though it’s closed. ‘Hey, you wanna go for a swim?’
‘It’s a bit cold, don’t you think?’ It’s not a proper autumn night—they’re too close to the equator for that—but it’s still at least ten degrees cooler than a reasonable temperature to go for a swim in an unheated pool. Let alone at night.
‘You’re a wuss. I dare you.’ She pauses, as if considering something, then adds, ‘I double-dog dare you.’
Now Spencer laughs. ‘No one has double-dog dared me to do something since I was about ten. Bridie made me pinkie-promise about something earlier.’ He thinks about it, glancing over at the pool. It couldn’t be that cold. ‘I’ll do it if you do it.’
Nina nods. ‘You’re on. I think we should pinkie-swear on this, too.’
The fence isn’t too high; and it’s just cyclone fencing, but stable enough to climb. Nina throws her bag over, and they’re on top of the fence in a matter of seconds. She perches briefly then jumps down. Spencer feels the sky extraordinarily close.
‘Hurry up!’ says Nina, picking up her bag. He climbs down the other side to her. He wonders if there is anywhere better to be than this place in this moment.
‘You’re also adept at climbing fences,’ says Spencer. ‘Now that’s a skill you can use. If, you know, you’re a thief.’
Nina doesn’t laugh; she’s already walking towards the pool. Did she not hear or did he say the wrong thing? It sounded funny in his head. Of course, a lot of unfunny things sound funny in his head.
‘They should really put the cover on this pool at night,’ he remarks.
They walk around to the deep end. Nina drops her bag by the pool and slips off her shoes. Spencer kicks off his shoes, too. ‘Do you actually want to do this?’ he asks. ‘Because I don’t care either way. Honest.’
‘We’ll jump in at the same time,’ says Nina, as if she didn’t hear. She grasps his hand again. ‘Do you want to do a running jump?’
‘There’s a sign over there that says
No running around pool
,’ he says.
‘There’s a sign over there that says
,’ Nina says.
‘Okay, fine, let’s get this over and done with.’
The water is bracing and smells of chlorine and the splash is so loud that Spencer thinks someone must notice and they’ll get in trouble, but right now, when he’s submerged, he doesn’t care. After the darkness of the night, even with his eyes closed, the light is bright—neon turquoise. When he surfaces Nina is laughing. ‘It’s freezing!’ she splutters.
‘It’s not that bad,’ he lies. His teeth are on the brink of chattering. He feels intensely alive. He dips his head under the water again, pushing his hair out of his face. Perhaps he shouldn’t have jumped in fully clothed. Perhaps he shouldn’t have jumped in at all.
Nina swims a lazy breaststroke to the side of the pool. ‘You’ve no idea how afraid I am of getting caught,’ she says, all her earlier bravery apparently gone. She sits up on the edge of the pool and squeezes the water out of her hair.
‘I think I do,’ says Spencer. ‘They’ve sent people to prison for less than this.’ Nina laughs.
The feeling of weightlessness in the water is so nice. He hasn’t swum in so long. Right this instant, he isn’t worried about anything. It’s like cleaning up at the vet’s—nothing but that moment on his mind. And he’s having fun for the first time in ages. He actually feels happy.
He sits up on the edge of the pool beside Nina, and lies back, looking up at the sky. ‘I’ve spent so many summers here. I mean, usually I go to the beach. But all the kids from school hang out here, so Bridie invites me along. They sell Milko chews and Redskins and Cornettos, so we bring all our change. I don’t think Bridie would ever leave if they didn’t close.’
‘That sounds like fun,’ she says. ‘Having a summer hang-out.’
‘It’s a lot of fun, yeah. But it never feels like reality. It’s so hot your mind’s all hazy, and everyone hangs out over the summer holidays but you’re not really friends when you get back to school. It’s like a different world. Whatever happens in the summer is nobody’s real life, even though it’s what everybody lives for. I don’t know.’ He sees Nina’s face lit by the pool lights and the moon, her hair still dripping. She’s smiles at him. She’s beautiful. This doesn’t feel like reality either.
There’s a long quiet moment. Spencer sits up and turns to Nina. ‘Do you mind if I kiss you?’ He pauses and looks down at his feet. ‘Actually, that’s a bit forward, isn’t it? I’m sorry. Perhaps pretend I didn’t say that. Oh, God.’ He shakes his head.
Nina laughs. ‘No, it’s okay. You can.’
Spencer leans forward and they kiss, a quick, soft kiss. He worries about his nose getting in the way, or his teeth. How is it possible to have so many thoughts running through his head in an instant? But nothing terrible happens, and there’s nothing awkward about it. It’s nice. It’s wonderful. His hand is still against Nina’s cheek when she leans away and smiles.
She whispers, ‘You’re really lovely. But we should start walking back.’
Spencer is lying in bed, staring at the constellation of glow-in-the-dark stars on his ceiling that has been there since he was ten. He is eating buttered bread, getting crumbs everywhere, and feeling quite unlike he has ever felt before.
He’s trying to think of a word to describe Nina, or a phrase at least, maybe in another language. It’s not so much that he’s
to think of a word to describe her, it’s just that it’s impossible to think of anything except her. And it’s a frustrating thing, having his head full of thoughts about a beautiful girl and not being able to tell anybody (his sister would definitely not be interested; it’s certainly not something he can raise with either of his parents; and Bridie’s still off somewhere with the band).
But Spencer is electric with thought and energy. At the same time he’s filled up with something so overwhelming that there’s no room in his head for anything else. How can he be electric and exhausted simultaneously?
So he thinks of words—lilting, lissom, lithe, fetching, comely, ethereal, effervescent, ebullient, efflorescent, redolent—but nothing fits. And just before he falls asleep—around three a.m.—Spencer reaches the conclusion that Nina is indescribable.
When Nina gets in, Tom is sprawled across the couch, snoring. The TV is on, late night infomercials flashing, the sound turned down. For the next ten minutes there’s a one-time only exclusive price. But who is buying exercise equipment advertised on TV between one and one ten a.m? Her hair is still dripping. She kicks her shoes off. Sophia wants to keep the beige carpet nice.
‘Your mother’s asleep,’ says Paul. He’s sitting at the bench, marking assignments. ‘I was going to take Tom to bed, but he’s so big now. Suddenly he’s taller than me. He was three foot nothing two minutes ago.’
‘Don’t get nostalgic, Dad,’ says Nina. ‘He was a horror. Still is.’
‘You have a nice evening? Go for a dip, eh?’
‘Yeah, I did. Bit of a swim.’ She realises that most fathers would not be so indifferent about this. Is it a good or a bad thing?
‘Make us a cup of tea, would you? I think it’d take a stampede to wake that kid up, so we needn’t worry about the kettle.’
Nina fills the kettle and puts it on the stove. In the dark of her room, she changes out of her damp clothes and into tracksuit pants and a T-shirt. She feels as if every single one of her cells is in motion. She has had an evening that does not feel as if it belongs in her life. Back in the kitchen, she takes out the cups and teabags and sugar and milk and spoons, lining everything up neatly. How mundane her life is. Except for a bank robbery every now and again, she is close to normality.