To forgive a friend
Irish Times Shortlist 2020
I sat on my own that Monday, while the two of them, Mia and Audrey, were at the back, giggling over their little A5 copybook — The Book, they called it. It was where they stored information about everyone. It was stupid stuff mostly, just about who had got the answers off whom in tests, that kind of thing, but they acted as though it was top secret FBI information. They loved the conspiracy of it.
I’d written stuff in it. My own stuff, about me. That’s why I was worried. If they took issue with me, they could use the things in there against me. There were things about my feelings, the things that made me vulnerable, the people who scared me, all that… I only wrote it there because I thought it was the sort of silly schoolgirl gossip that they wanted in it. Maybe it would protect our friendship.
Stupid, I know.
I sat there on the seat at the front of the classroom — the only seat left once they’d made it clear they were still mad and I therefore couldn’t sit in the one beside them — trying to listen to what I was being told about oxbow lakes, but I couldn’t help twisting around in my seat every thirty seconds to see if they were still resolutely ignoring me. Most of the time, they were. But every now and then, Audrey would be looking at me, only to glance away immediately when I saw, pretending she hadn’t been. I liked to think that she missed us being friends, even if Mia didn’t. I wasn’t sure I ever had been friends with Mia; was there anything for her to miss, even if she wanted to?
That breaktime, I ended up sitting on my own again. I sat on one of the benches, knees tucked up. If I put my earphones in with the volume turned up, closed my eyes, and didn’t move a muscle, I could almost kid myself that I wasn’t in school, that there weren’t Lads all around me making rude jokes, and that I was on my own somewhere comfortable.
I noticed that I could hear snatches of the conversation between the Lads, and reached for my phone to turn the volume up. My arm brushed against something. There was someone sitting beside me. My eyes flicked open, and I looked over. It was Edison.
Edison was perfectly average. He spoke to the Lads occasionally when he had nothing better to do, sat at the edge of the middle row in every class, and never said anything notable at all. I had never had a single conversation with him, and we definitely weren’t friends.
I raised my eyebrows at him. He signalled for me to remove my earphones. I took one of them out.
‘Are you okay?’ he asked.
‘Yes. I’m fine. Of course I’m fine. Why bother asking,’ I muttered. I went to put my earphone back in, but stopped when Edison said my name.
‘What?’ I said, slightly exasperated.
‘You’re not okay. It wasn’t really… that wasn’t really the question. I meant to ask you whether I can do anything to help.’ I continued looking at him, wishing he would just leave me alone. ‘With the Audrey and Mia situation,’ he clarified.
‘There isn’t a situation.’ I shook my head.
‘Have you ever spent a breaktime not with Audrey for reasons other than having to finish homework? And even if you have homework, have you ever not done it with Audrey there too? Or Mia, since she joined? Not until today, unless one of you was out. Yet here you are, being lonely — I don’t mean being a loner, that’s different — and clearly trying not to interact with anyone. And you moved to the front, away from them, in geography.’
‘You noticed all of that?’ I said, amazed.
‘Well, yeah. We’re in the same class.’ He frowned.
I nodded sombrely, looking at the ground. ‘Yeah, I guess you could have noticed that stuff then.’ Edison did not reply. I subtly paused my music and took my other earphone out. Edison smiled, a tiny silent laugh. I looked at him and he shrugged. Neither of us said anything for another minute.
‘Do you want a hug?’ Edison said, out of nowhere.
‘You don’t seem like the type for hugs,’ I said.
‘Correct, under normal circumstances. Do you want a hug?’ he repeated.
I stared at him, then nodded, and he put his arm around me. I leant into his chest as he hugged me. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Mia pointing at us and sneering to Audrey, but Audrey simply offered me the tiniest of smiles. I did not return it.
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