Whether I returned Shani’s attraction for me or not – well, I can’t deny that I was attracted to her – I soon became commonly welcome at her house. Her parents were divorced, I had learnt very early in our acquaintance, and her dad lived away in Toronto, so she didn’t see him often. She didn’t feel comfortable around her dad in any case, she said. He made her feel nervous and unworthy, because she wasn’t especially clever. He being a top lawyer and acclaimed barrister, she felt that she disappointed his expectations, and felt small and clumsy in his big white house.
Her mum, to the contrary, was one of those wonderfully hospitable and accommodating people who can be relied upon to welcome any friend of her daughter simply for the sake of that friendship.
After just a few visits, Shani’s mum was pressing me to feel welcome in staying overnight, and free to take advantage of their spare room, which was a ‘butter-yellow one and comfortable to the best’, to quote her exact words. She would go out in the morning and buy us croissants and jam tarts fresh and warm from the bakery, Shani would say enthusiastically, though she rolled her eyes at the same time.
Who wouldn’t love a young mum like Shani's? She was a friend to Shani – and I had the uncomfortable feeling that Shani told her everything.
I declined the offer, politely.
If I stayed overnight at Shani’s – separate rooms or not – wouldn’t it become silly and awkward, and she’d probably hate me forever afterward. It was too much. She liked me very much, they said, and it was evident enough – but I liked her, and no more.
The honour of 'more' was reserved for the memory of Deanna Macpherson, who slept in my bed for several nights as she was recuperating from Blue Cloak’s latest attempt. I would preserve that dear image of Deanna talking to the ghost of her little sister. I would cherish that moment when I sat on her leg and she kissed me in the numb silence forever and ever.
Shani was no part of that wondrous moment, and for that reason, her reference cannot share the same paragraph.
“Are you doing anything tomorrow, Den?” Shani’s mum asked me one Friday evening when I had been revising for exams with Shani and the others. They had gone home before me, leaving us to clear up a difficult maths problem which only I could explain, according to Chelle. I just think she wanted to leave us a alone for a bit, but I wasn’t really that bothered. We finished the problem, and then I got up and said that I needed to get home.
“Uh, not really,” I replied. “My dad wants to teach me to play pool down at the club.”
“Pool? We have an old snooker table in the garage, don’t we, Shani?” said Shani’s mum. “Call me Clara, won’t you? It’s much more friendly. Why don’t you come to dinner tomorrow, and bring your parents as well?”
I thought of dad, who was working rather hard to be cooking much at the moment, and felt grateful for Shani’s mum’s supreme hospitality.
“That would be great,” I said. “What time should we come over?”
“Seven or so?” suggested Clara. “It’s always steak and homemade chips on Saturdays. Is that acceptable?”
“Perfect. I haven’t had homemade chips in years,” I said, feeling dreamy. “Not in seven years. Not since…”
My words trailed away, and I felt both pairs of eyes locked on my wistfulness.
“Since what?” said Shani gently.
I hesitated. No; I was not ready. I shook my head dismissively. It wasn’t important. “I’m afraid my mum isn’t that talkative.”
“Nor is my sister, but I entertain her and her husband, who is equally quiet, every other Wednesday,” said Clara. “Shani and I are quite used to making conversation.”
“Ah, well,” I said. “The four of us will be there just before seven, unless I phone up between now and then and beg otherwise.”
Again, I was aware of the eyes on me, speculative. I shrugged, but they continued to stare. What had I done?
“Do you have a brother or sister?” asked Shani in a strange tone. “I thought you said there was only you and your parents.”
Oh, Hell! What did I just say? ‘The four of us’. Where did that come from? Am I so sore that I can’t remember that my sister died six and a half years ago? Am I that scarred, that I can’t actually remember?
“It just came out my mouth,” I said, but my tongue slipped and my words faltered, and I felt my cheeks burn with the fire of grieving embarrassment. “I was just confused for a moment.”
“It happens all the time,” said Clara warmly, giving my shoulder a squeeze and leading the way through the kitchen. She paused with one hand resting on the door handle.
I felt the colour drain from my cheeks, and I shivered. When had it become so cold?
“You’ve gone deathly pale,” she said, abandoning the door and leading me back in. “Would you like a drink? Something sweet and sugary, maybe? What about some hot cocoa?”
I bit my lip and tried to stop a pained expression from escaping my mind and becoming reality. “Really, I’m fine,” I said, trying to sound calm, but feeling jittery and feverish. What had got into me? Why had the kitchen table suddenly flickered? It was swimming now. And what was that eerie whistling sound at the back of my head?
I thrashed a little, looking round, trying to see what that sound could be.
“Den, are you okay?” a voice undulated in the background.
I frowned and turned frantically, like a cat chasing its tail. What was happening to me?
“Den, what is it? What are you seeing?” the voice came again, breaking through my eardrums, cracking my skull.
“Den!” the voice was a shout, a scream, urging me to stop, to come out from my reverie, to bring me back from the whine of death and the fever of confusion, the wild grieving hammering inside me.
But I couldn’t come back. I was overtaken and overridden. My name was no longer relevant. There was but one name that mattered any longer.