Shani and I had our argument on the third day of the summer holidays. My week of psychological hell had ended little better than it had begun, with the manufacture of tiny therapeutic sandpits called ‘Zen gardens’, accompanied by half an hour or so of guided imagery. The tone of the Irish psychotherapist, I must add, was discomfortingly deep and breathy.
We were sauntering along the seafront, Shani and I, soaking the sunshine into our routine-scarred skeletons and savouring the salty vigour of the summer-saturated air. The tide hissed softly from across the sea wall, and glaring sails drifted languidly atop their masts.
I sighed a breath of shimmering heat. Delaware so very different to Douitchurch. The two places began with the same letter, but Delaware stood for Dandy and Douitchurch stood for Downer.
“You weren’t happy last week, Den.”
It was a statement. My anger of the bygone week began to broil and bubble again. She supposed I wasn’t happy. Did she? Did she really?
“Not particularly happy,” I owned. I tried to let the lethargic hush of the great Atlantic inspire those predestined tenets which silence the truth of my mind. “Didn’t realise you’d noticed.”
My words did not directly convey ingratitude, but I saw, from the slight squinting of her eyes, that the abuse in my tone had acutely singed the goodwill in her kindness.
“What is it, Denis?”
“Too happy for me.”
She startled. “What?”
“Aw, Den, I thought you were different,” she moaned. “No one else believes I possess the capacity to suffer. They think I’m a happy person—too happy. They don’t understand.”
“No, I don’t.”
“I didn’t think you were like them. Please tell me you’re different. Just say you’re in a bad mood and I won’t say any more about it, Den.”
She was pleading with me, forget-me-not-blue eyes set in a trust-caressed face.
“I’m not in a mood any worse than usual,” I said. Maybe that just proved it. “I know you’ve suffered. I can imagine what it must be like—your parents…”
“No,” she said, her voice suddenly hard and flat as paving slabs. “You can’t imagine. Not even close. Your parents are together in the same house. They’re still faithful to one another, as they pledged twenty-odd years ago. No, Den. You can’t even begin to imagine. Your family isn’t split down the middle.”
I paused, seething, but smooth on the surface. I was the ocean itself: my emotions a disastrous current beneath baby-blue rippling waves.
“You don’t even know what my problem is,” I said finally.
“No, I don’t. ‘Cause you won’t tell me.”
“You won’t tell me.”
“I can’t. You expect me to tell you in straightforward words. Well, I can’t do that. I literally can’t.”
“I told you.”
“I’m different from you. I don’t understand what you’re thinking; you don’t understand what I’m thinking. Let’s just accept it.”
“Why can’t you tell me? Now? Please? Just do it, Den.”
“I could if you cared.”
“I do care.”
“Why can’t you just open your eyes for once? I’ve dropped enough clues. Even if they are cryptic, I reckon if you were destined to understand, you would understand. It’s just a matter of looking and finding. Seek and you will find. You love that verse, Shani, don’t you?”
“That verse applies to God, Den. You’re not God.”
“No! So why can’t you accept that I’m weak and easily influenced? I’m male and I’m taller than you—what makes you suppose that those things make me strong? I wish I could be a girl. A short tiny-boned girl. She’s vulnerable. Wouldn’t people love me more and make more of an effort to understand if I were that girl?”
“Maybe they’d bully you because of your vulnerability.” The tears were glistening in her eyes, which were now steadfastly keeping to another direction; any direction but mine.
“Don’t think I haven’t been bullied. Man, those enemies of mine were clever. I reckon they had the potential to be my greatest friends, if only I’d had the courage to stand up to them just once.”
“What are you scared of, Den?” Her voice rose hysterically. Was she scared of me? Scared I’d hurt her? Why else was I throwing my arms about like this? Fending off demons?
God, I’m such a joke.
“Why do you want to know? Stop frickin’ asking me all these questions, woman! You saw what that pair in the memory game said to us all: ‘SCARED’. I’m scared. What more do you want?”
“Den, how do you expect me to understand you?”
I hesitated in my rage—yes, I mean ‘rage’.
“Because everyone I’ve ever loved has always understood me.”
“You said a moment ago we were different,” she whispered, her voice cracked with horror. “Why…?”
“You don’t understand.”
She paused. She was trying not to retaliate using my own arguments. She was scared of me.
“I don’t understand why you make things worse than they are. You’re never happy, Den. You never let yourself smile with your eyes.”
So she’d noticed that, if nothing else? Or was she just guessing?
“I don’t understand why you pretend things never happened.”
“My parents’ divorce isn’t everything I’ve ever had to deal with. I got over that, lingering nightmare though it seems sometimes. You don’t know what it is to have acne, Den. I was eleven when I was tired of waking up every morning to an ugly face—to have to accept that face was my own, and I had to take it out of the house, and show off its hideousness to others—others whose opinion of me I cared for—and all the time I had to pass off that face as my own.
“I wasn’t just sorry for myself. I was sorry for everyone who had to look at me. If my face was this bad in the mirror, it would be even more disgustingly warped and twisted in real life, when everything was turned the other way round and this spot was on the other side and this other on this other side to how it appeared in the mirror. A mirror is only an image. Truth is much more detailed, more sickeningly repellent.
“There was no other explanation: this is my face and stop staring at it like that. Hate me if you want; bully me; call me names. Just don’t stare at it. I know it’s there. I know it’s mine.
“You’ve never had to deal with anything like that, Den.”
“No?” I said.
She shot me a look that was unimpressed to say the slightest of it. “I was eleven when I asked my mum how long it would be before I was clear. She said those spots would be long gone by the time I was fifteen. I believed her. ‘Course I did. I was shocked that it might take so long. But I had utter confidence in that assurance. That was what kept me getting up every morning and grimacing humorously at my reflection when I saw what I had to take to school.”
“And?” My fury was cooling.
“On the morning of my fifteenth birthday, I woke up and looked at myself in the mirror.”
“Oh.” I paused. “Why?”
“My trust was broken. She broke it once when she divorced my dad. She broke it again when my acne didn’t go away. Over five years I lived with it, Den. Over five years. You don’t know what kind of time scale that is.”
We were silent. She thought I was sympathising. I wasn’t. I was remembering what I was doing at the age of fifteen; where I had been five years before. Not crying, certainly. Oh, no. I was well past that.