"Hey, Den, wanna hang out on Saturday?"
My parents and I had been living in Delaware State for four months. I had been a student in an American high school for nearly a term, it being the last week before Easter; but I had already begun to speak with a more pronounced accent.
Why? I felt excluded, and am apt to adapt myself to my surroundings for my own comfort, if I feel comfortable in the first place, that is - my friends and their textured tones, and me with my posh English pronunciation.
Shani loved my voice. She would reproach me every time I attempted to produce the desired sounds in keeping with the American way. Colby would just snicker and find the 'record' function on his phone, whenever I tried to sound the words from my vocal box, assisted not especially ably by a rather inflexible tongue.
"Saturday, two thirty, the Japanese Walk in Ellendale Park," thus Chelle, returning to our conversation in the main corridor that Thursday.
"'Kay," I said, turning to fetch my art portfolio with a warm fuzzy feeling at heart. The dank loneliness of Douitchurch - me immersed in self-indulgent misery, brooding most inexcusably on the irremediable past - was swift in dissolving, though its effects liked to scar my thinking habits and confuse the bearings of my ultimate destination for better or for worse.
Rochelle, Alf and Colby were already congregated at the opening of the Japanese Walk when I arrived a little after the appointed time, having stopped to advise Dad on the possible purchasing of a water cooler, and taking the trouble to persuade him from his initial antipathetic stance to the notion.
"Den!" cried Chelle as I joined them. "Shani's gonna be a bit late in coming. She said she'd meet us at the café at three-ish."
I nodded acknowledgement, but I was a little disappointed. Shani's optimistic disposition, such a contrast to my own erstwhile melancholy one - thank goodness it was erstwhile indeed! - was one of my favourite aspects of our little camaraderie.
We continued along the walk, chatting, admiring - or paying little or no attention to, as befits the average gang of teenagers - the Japanese plants, which were uninteresting on this dull day; yet the grass seemed oddly fairylike with its impression of silvery frost from the dawn; now evaporated, but still dainty.
Upon approaching the café I was pleased to behold the fair figure of Shani, set on a light chair and sipping a mug of hot chocolate. She waved upon regarding our advent, but stayed seated with cheery calmness.
She greeted us, and Chelle claimed responsibility for the refreshments, disappearing inside to order, though I declined any drink on the grounds that I felt no thirst.
After Chelle’s departure, a lively conversation about the group’s favourite meeting place, a renowned climbing tree in a remote part of the park unknown to many, but discovered by Shani and her cousins a few years hence, ensued, and the latter had finished her drink long before the drinks-caddy returned, annoyed that she had been held up by the previous order, which had been a large one.
“This is dull,” Shani said as the three simultaneously burnt their lips on the rims of their hot cups. She turned to me. “This lot are gonna be ages. What about I show you our hangout place while they spend forever scorching themselves on their beverages?”
I laughed, though it wasn’t all that funny, and assented immediately, feeling a natural curiosity for the tree of which they spoke with such familiarity.
“Come on then!” she said, shunting me off my seat and causing me to lose what little balance I did possess.
We sauntered over the paths, her leading wordlessly, me following equally wordlessly, her nattering, me laughing at her senseless banter. At some point I believe she began to compliment me, in a roundabout way.
“You’ve improved a lot since you got here,” she commented in a lull as we passed the playground.
“Thanks,” I grunted. “What makes you say that?”
“I was meeting one of my legendary cousins last year sometime, and I believe I saw you as you stepped onto the jetty,” she said, more seriously than usual. “At least, I reckon it was you. Your average broad ugly hairy Englishman looking for a better life.” She giggled, as if to lighten her words. “You looked pretty sick,” more solemnly.
“Yeah, I know. I guess it was me. You got the description pretty accurate,” I said glumly, disheartened, and lapsing into a little of the gloom I had felt that day before I stepped off the boat. So contrary to the gleeful calls of the children in the playground as they swung on swings, slid down slides, climbed ladders and the like. I envied their innocence.
“Aw, don’t look like that, Den. You know I didn’t mean it like that,” she said, and I roused myself. Those thoughts wouldn’t do. Just because I had seen death and desolation didn’t mean I couldn’t be happy and carefree like the children.
“Yeah, I know,” I assented again. “You’re right, though.”
“You’re much better now, as I said. Then, you looked like you didn’t have a friend in the world, like you hated everything, like you were seriously considering drowning yourself or something equally idiotic.”
Too right you are, I thought soundlessly, but settled to listen to what else she might have to say.
“You’ve had a haircut, for one thing,” she continued. “I like that style.”
I looked as I felt: conscious. Conscious of the novelty of my hair, taking into consideration the past six years; but conscious that a girl had just complimented me on my appearance – well, sort of.
“If I hadn’t seen you then, I’d be asking if you left behind a girlfriend or something,” Shani said with a giggle.
I stopped, and Deanna Macpherson seemed to loom up in front of me, as she had done that last time I saw her, that last time…
“You okay, Den?” cried Shani. “You’ve gone absolutely white. What have I said? Did you leave your girlfriend behind?”
Deanna Macpherson – Vere O’Derron – was there so much difference between them? One a dear friend, one a dear sister. They were both so dear – and I had left them both behind. Should I tell Shani everything? Should I tell her of these two dear people, the death of one, the disappearance of the other?
I looked down into her merry face and saw her pale bouncy hair – she was too happy, she was far too happy. I could not have the heart to spoil her happiness with my story. She was too young and sweet. Innocent, like those children on the swings.
“Nah,” I said lightly.
She broke into a wide beaming smile. “I’m glad, Den!” she said. “I’m glad!”
With this, she took my hand, and led me off to the hangout tree, and though I felt a great heartache at my calm dismissal of the existence of both Deanna and Vere – somewhere out there – I was too delighted to pull away from her firm childish grasp. I was enjoying myself – and Deanna and Vere weren’t here to see. They were – where? Somewhere – no matter where.