09 – Sea, Salt and Silence

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7 Days Later

‘Hi, I’m Stef.’

She stared into the mirror and tried to pretend she was normal.

‘Hi, I’m okay.’

She ran her hand through her hair – the new haircut was as short as the school would allow, which, thanks to its archaic rules meant she had to retain some veneer of girliness, but it was far, far shorter than what it had been.

And that was good for now – it was one less thing to deal with every day, one less thing she could mess up. There was only so messy and so dirty that four inches of hair could get – so long as she could remember to wash it once a week, it would probably be fine.

Then, for maintenance, it would just be another cut in six months.

She drew the spiral of the nautilus using a puddle of water that had accumulated on the vanity, her finger drawing the water out over and over the shape until the puddle was no more.

The trick, the self-hack, the-whatever-it-was, was working. She’d been able to keep her inside voice inside, all arguments took place inside her head, and she hadn’t needed alcohol to keep herself from acting crazy in public.

‘Hi,’ she said to the mirror again. ‘It’s been seven days since I’ve had a drink.’

After sleeping off the hangover for two days and finally giving up on finishing the supply of chip-and-curry butties, she’d arranged with Keanan to have the apartment cleaned – and she’d gone out for the day while that had happened – there was no use sticking around while the cleaning staff gave her dirty looks.

She’d gotten a haircut, eaten an expensive lunch, and stood outside the gates to Kensington, unable to bring herself to visit Peter again.

There needed to be another goodbye, but- But it hadn’t been the time.

Today, however, seemed like it was right.

She’d slept in hours that were almost human – going to sleep when it was dark, waking up when it was light, she’d eaten breakfast while the hour was still before midday, and her head was as clear as it could get.

She turned on the water, wet her hands, then fluffed her hair a little. Gel would have been better, but that had been the one thing she’d forgotten to order in.

Her makeup sat scattered on the bench – it wasn’t to hide bruises this time, but somehow it felt that a tiny bit of pomp and circumstance were called her. She had ignored the green lipstick this time, and instead wen for the blue – this one had been marked as a special winter edition, though she suspected that it was far more likely to be used for cosplay or Halloween.

It didn’t matter though, blue fit the theme of the day.

Lipstick and a little powder applied, she stood and checked her blouse in the mirror, and made sure that all of her buttons were aligned.

You’re fine.

A Harrods bag sat on the bed, next to the treat she’d purchased herself – out of her own savings, rather than out of the accounts she was bilking throughout her stay in Mayfair. The distinction was small but somehow important.

Hook had saved her life. In some completely inexplicable way, he’d saved her. Her mind had decided that the one thing that could give her a way forward was to regress to one of the only points of safety she’d ever known.

A pirate had saved her, so it only seemed right that she be a pirate – if only for a day.

She picked up the expensive coat – it hadn’t been hard to find a goth-slash-alternative shop with the right kind of selection – nothing perfectly fit the image of Hook she’d always had, but the double-breasted punky-slash-Victorian-slash-military jacket was close enough. Even if it wasn’t perfectly pirate, it would make do, and for how imperfect her life was, close was good enough.

There had been several colours available – black, white, navy and grey – and it hadn’t even taken a second to pick navy. Dark blue always made her feel safe, so with the colour and the piratical nature of the coat, she had all the comfort and safety that her life had to offer.

She adjusted the coat, made sure her blouse sat properly, then grabbed her bags and left the apartment.

Too-loud music played in her ears as she walked towards Kensington Gardens.

She’d been to see Peter, and that had been intended to say goodbye. Had intended to be the closure that she’d never had, closure that the flying, crowing boy had denied her when he’d run away without her. Whatever it had been intended to be, however, it hadn’t worked.

Hook had given her a second chance. She had a second chance to- To try. There was no way of knowing what was going to happen with that life, but the chance was there.

She entered the Gardens, aimed herself towards the statue, but slowed her pace a little.

The first time she’d imagined Hook, she’d been in the Gardens. As spotty and blurry as all her memories of her imaginary adventures were, that fact stood out. There were mitigating circumstances – most of the other playdates were just…adventures on a rainy afternoon, stories made up on a Saturday morning when her mother wasn’t dragging her to ballet or dressage. They’d been special at the time because Hook had been the friend that real life hadn’t been able to provide. So the emotion stuck in her memory, if not the detail.

Meeting him had been another matter.

She’d been young – whatever age she’d really been, it stuck in her mind as five years old. Old enough to be a precocious little brat, while still barely having the reading level necessary to understand all of Peter Pan.

She still wasn’t sure how it had become her favourite book – it had just been one of the books on the shelves of her nursery, but something about the oversized, illustrated version had captured her imagination, and she’d learned a hundred new words trying to chew her way through each chapter.

It had been her mother’s idea to send her and James to Kensington – this had been in the period when her mother had still had some vague hope that dad and daughter could bond.

She couldn’t remember any attempts after the trip to the Gardens, maybe because of how disastrous the attempt had been, and her mother had just seemed to naturally slip into a state of accepting that her husband and daughter were just two people that happened to live in the same house.

The thought had been lovely – it should have been an easy task for James, even if he’d had no intention of trying to bond with her. In simple steps: put child in car, take child to park, buy child a snack, put child in car, drive home.

So simple, yet he’d managed to royally fuck it up.

James’ steps instead had been: put child in car, take child to park, take important phone call, leave park, completely forget about child, buy champagne to celebrate with wife, only remember about child when the kitchen asks how many will be served at dinner.

It had been his promotion to partner, so much more important than the tiny lump of flesh that he’d been tasked with minding.

She hadn’t even noticed at first – she’d been sitting under a tree reading her book – and that was an activity that could fill hours. When even at five years old, you knew that being quiet lead to less shouting in your direction, you learned to be as quiet and still as possible.

No one could hate you if they didn’t know you were there.

It had only been when tracing her finger over the final illustration that she’d noticed him gone.

There’d been the fear of being abandoned, of not knowing what to do, of not wanting to bother anyone for help.

And there’d been the hope that maybe this was the beginning of her adventure, that this was when she’d become a Lost Boy, and whisked off to Neverland, away from parents who didn’t really love her.

With no better idea of what to do, she’d started reading again.

It had been almost funny in its own way, that no one had approached her – either to help her or harm her. Of all the strangeness of the abandonment and imagination of the day, that was still something that stuck out as strange. A child shouldn’t have been able to sit for hours without attracting attention, no matter how quiet and invisible she thought she was.

When it had started to get cold, when the first lights had started to turn on, the pictures in her book had moved, there’d been the smell of the sea, and a pair of black boots had appeared in front of her.

And Captain Hook had introduced himself.

He hadn’t scared her. He hadn’t felt like a stranger. He’d sat with her on the grass and told her stories about Peter, and pointed out the stars as they started to appear. She’d wished to see a shooting star, and he’d made one streak across the sky, then fall to the ground in front of them, shattering like silvery fireworks.

And he’d disappeared as soon as her parents had come running across the grass – her father’s eyes full of anger, her mother’s full of tears.

It was a memory that was probably more a dream than anything. Imagination compounded over time until it was almost a coherent narrative.

And dream or imagination or both, it didn’t matter. Real or unreal, it was a memory. Real or unreal, it was part of her.

Tiny Stef had been so wrapped up in stories. Had been best friends with a pirate. Had made versions of herself and her mother as dolls, living out adventures where Queen Charlie loved Princess Stef.

She’d tried to let go of stories.

She touched the buttons of her pirate coat.

She’d tried to let go of stories, but now it was time to dive right back in. To realise how important they were. To- To let them be as important to Big Stef as they had been to Tiny Stef.

Stef laid her right hand on her left and traced the shape of a spiral, of a nautilus, of the gift Hook had given her. She looked up at the statue of Peter, smiled, and realised that there were no more words to say.

She’d told him that she loved him. She wanted closure, but she couldn’t say goodbye.

“Goodbye” was too hard. “Goodbye” was what you said when it was forever. This has to be something else, something more…storybook. “The End” was somehow going to be easier than “Goodbye”, “The End” meant you could start the book again. “The End” meant just putting the book back on the shelf, that it was always there waiting.

“The End” was what she needed, but she needed help.

She looked at the children milling around the statue. They ran the full gamut from disinterested to examining the details of the plinth, but none of them were exactly…right.

She circled the statue, trying to look at each child without seeming too much like a creep, then found her candidate: a tiny girl with brown skin, in a pair of red corduroy overalls and a pink shirt, eyes shining bright as she took photo after photo with a phone.

After each photo, she would look at the phone, tongue stuck out as she examined her artwork.

Stef adjusted her grip on the Harrods bag and looked around for a likely parent or guardian – and found a woman switching her attention between the amateur photographer and a tiny baby in a pram.

‘Um, hi,’ she said as she approached the woman, her mouth going dry. She indicated to the little girl. ‘Is she yours?’

The woman’s brow furrowed. ‘I hope she’s not in the way.’

Stef shook her head hurriedly and sat on the bench beside the woman. ‘This is going to be weird. Sorry.’ She lifted the Harrods bag. ‘I was supposed to go to my nephew’s birthday today, but he’s been taken ill.’ She felt herself tripping over her words. ‘I’m heading back to school, so I’ve got no use for the present.’ She slid out the gorgeous, illustrated copy of Peter Pan. ‘So I was hoping to give it to someone who would appreciate it.’

The woman’s confusion and apprehension disappeared, and a smile settled on her face. ‘That would be lovely. Her name’s Cassie.’

Stef nodded, stood, and walked towards the little girl. ‘Hi,’ she said as she approached, ‘I’m Stef.’ The little girl quickly stepped back, in full “stranger danger” mode. ‘It’s okay,’ she said quickly, indicating back to the girl’s mother. ‘Your mum said I could talk to you.’

‘Oh, okay.’ Cassie stared at her for a moment, then looked back at the phone. ‘Are you in costume?’

‘I’m a pirate for the day.’ She knelt, then sat back on her haunches. ‘I was supposed to go to a party.’ She took the book out of the bag. ‘But since I can’t see the birthday boy today, I was wondering if you’d like the present.’

Cassie looked at her mum again, then pocketed the phone before taking the book.

‘Oooh,’ Cassie breathed, then plopped down on the ground beside Stef and started to flick through the pages. ‘This is nicer than my copy.’ Cassie’s hand touched the illustration of Peter’s face, and for the first time, thinking about Peter nearly didn’t hurt.

‘My favourite are the pirates,’ Stef said as Cassie flicked through the pages.

Cassie looked at her for a moment, then dug into the big pocket of her overalls and pulled out a plastic eyepatch from a pound shop pirate kit. ‘Mine too,’ she said with a big grin.

Cassie laid the book on the ground and put the eyepatch on. ‘This makes it harder to read,’ she said, ‘but more fun.’

‘Then have fun,’ Stef said with a smile, then stood, waved to the girl’s mother and walked away, knowing she’d left Peter in good hands. It wasn’t goodbye, but it would do.

For a moment, there was the smell of salt and the sea in the air.

She was careful to only look at the ground as she walked. If she looked up, she’d see Hook. If she looked up, she’d see someone eating fish and chips.

If she looked, she’d know one way or the other, but for the moment, living in the imagination of the margins was a far better prospect.

It was easier to keep magic alive when you didn’t go looking for its edges. For now, it was something she just had to trust, even if she couldn’t see it.

She pulled out her phone, slipped on her headphones and hit play.

A strong wind whipped at her coat, and the smell of brine filled her nose, a final blessing from her imagination, maybe. A sign that she had her silence, her chance, the love of an old pirate, and the blessing of the sea.

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08 - Coping Mechanisms

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MacDitch

Wow!

That’s all, just wow.