Short Story: Back To School.

Lillian had reached middle age. The stage in life where you realise that you are not going to be able to do everything. There are places that you will never see, books that you will never read and skills that you will never learn. However healthy you are, however much cash there is in the bank, time is going to run out on you. She had no patience with people who claimed to have no regrets. By this point a life with no regrets meant one of three things. You had either done very little, managed to survive with remarkably little understanding of the choices that you had made, or you were lying to yourself. She had learned to keep her mouth shut about these facts. Mostly her friends didn’t want to hear them, and those who knew that she was right didn’t want to talk about it. They seemed to come in three kinds. The first were the age deniers who had fossilised while in their prime and now remained in the past, still carrying the remnants of the style they had once had and enjoying the same things that they had always enjoyed, blithely indifferent to anything new. They seemed to Lillian to have lost the ability to see themselves as they really were. The world had moved on without them and they had remained secure in their own outdated version of it. The second were the fighters. They knew that their looks and their strength were not what they were and they were hell bent on slowing down the ageing process and using every bit of ingenuity that they possessed to stop others from noticing it. Those in this group were apt to complain that they had become invisible- particularly the women. The third group, the one that Lillian liked to think that she belonged to, were the ones who had always been invisible. They had been plain, quiet young people, never one of the crowd, and it had taken time for their wit and kindness to be given the respect that it deserved. She had needed to find success by hard work and intelligence, without the beauty that had both opened doors for others and sometimes masked their shortcomings when they were young. Now it was payback time. At least that was the story she liked to tell herself- and don’t we all need to rewrite our past just a little bit to make ourselves more palatable? If we weren’t the hero of our own story at least we can make damn sure that we change the plot later on to put ourselves centre stage, where we belong. Lillian wasn’t very well liked. She never had been. Thankfully it didn’t bother her as much as it used to. Until today.
She bustled along the road with her head up and her scarf carefully draped across her jacket, trailing her husband behind her. It would not do to be late. Lillian was never late. A quick sidelong glance in a shop window reassured her that the blue had been a good choice, and there was nothing like a good blow dry to perk you up. The heels were perhaps a mistake, or at least they would be by the end of the afternoon, but you had to do something to prove that you hadn’t given up trying to make the best of yourself.
“Hurry up David.”
“It’s only a bloody school reunion.”
“I know what it is thank you.”
She pursed her lips. He had better not swear like that once they were in the hall. There would have been no point forcing him into a suit and insisting that he have a haircut if he was going to do that.
When she reached the heavily painted double doors that led into the school hall she turned around smartly.
“David!”
He held out the rice salad which he had been carrying, safe inside its carefully chosen Waitrose carrier bag.
“There you go.”
“Thank you.”
Lillian fixed a smile on her face and swept though the doors. Her husband stood very still for a second, raised his eyebrows and gave a tiny shake of his head, then followed her. He could always listen to the footie commentary on five live through his ipod if things got a bit much. Once she was in full flow she would never notice.
Lillian’s heels clicked on the wooden floor and the lighthouse beam of her smile scanned the room as she made her way down the centre of the floor towards the buffet tables, holding her offering straight out in front of her.
“Marcia! Lovely to see you!”
Marcia looked up and blinked. For just one split second her face showed her real feelings before she brought it under control.
“Lillian!”
“I’ll just put this on the table shall I?”
“Yes, that’s fine.”
“It’s just a little rice salad that I put together.”
They locked smiles.
“Perfect.”
Lillian moved on. Marcia Williams had always worried her. Too bright and not as ready to listen as she might be. Lillian appreciated a good listener and she liked to feel that the person she was talking to shared her values and understood that she was fulfilling them better than they were. Marcia’s shapeless skirt, wild hair, soft worn boots and hapless beads were an unspoken declaration that she wouldn’t be impressed by how much Lillian had paid for her jacket and how she had already cleaned her kitchen and prepped a casserole to put in the oven before she came out, and if she wasn’t impressed there was no point telling her. Susan Baxter was a much better prospect and she spent a very pleasant minute or two sympathising about the husband who still didn’t seem to get round to doing much before spending twenty minutes explaining about her own holiday plans and exactly how they had been booked and paid for by a dutiful son.
Finally she wondered where David was.
Her husband had settled himself in the corner on a plastic chair with a glass of red wine, a plateful of food from the buffet (no rice salad) and his ipod earpiece relaying the football to him. He knew better than to follow his wife around on occasions like this. Damage limitation was the order of the day.
“David! You are being unsociable.”
Of course he was.
“I know. It’s intentional.”
“You might make an effort.”
He picked up a mushroom vol au vent and looked at it carefully.
“Get yourself some food and stop talking for a bit. This isn’t a competition.”
Lillian stood there, gaping.
“Go on. You can fetch me another of these vol au vents. They’re all right.”
She looked at his plate, frowning.
“Was the rice salad good?”
“It was excellent. Go on, off you pop.”
Lillian did as she was told. It was why their marriage survived. David might allow her to rule the roost outwardly but both of them knew who was really boss and liked it that way. Trying to prove that she was top dog all the time was exhausting enough outside the house. At home Lillian sometimes needed to relax and take orders. At home she didn’t always have to be right.
David watched her cross the room. It might be some time before he got his vol au vent. Could his wife not see the way that husband was backing off when he saw her coming, the sharp glance from a woman in a grey dress followed by a slight turn and an avoidance of eye contact, the look in their eyes as she moved on? These people didn’t care about her- why did she care about them so much? She was like a bright blue battleship steaming across a sea of indifference tooting her foghorn and flying her carefully blow-dried flag. It was pitiful. Face after face shut down on her as she approached. Sometimes he could even tell what she was saying from her hand gestures. That flattened hand was demonstrating the height of the new patio fence he had built. That shrug of the shoulders and wrinkled nose meant that she was imitating the granddaughter again, and getting a tiny polite laugh in return. Nearly all these people had grand kids by now and the only ones that any of them were interested in were their own. There was a damn good reason why she hadn’t seen any of them for twenty years. He was relieved when he saw her finally reach the buffet table. He watched her pick out what she thought was the polite amount of food, and come straight back to sit on the empty seat next to him. He took his vol au vent.
“You enjoying yourself then?”
Lillian looked at him sharply, wondering if this was a complaint.
“What do you mean?”
“I meant are you enjoying yourself. What do you think I meant?”
“Marcia Williams doesn’t change.”
“Is that good?”
“You’d have to ask her.”
“And Susan Baxter’s husband still hasn’t found himself a job.”
“I was asking about you.”
This was confusing. Lillian wasn’t used to thinking about herself. She was used to thinking about other people and adjusting herself accordingly. She could only work out things about herself by watching other people and seeing what she thought about them. She had opinions about everything and they all began by watching someone else and deciding that what she saw was not good enough. Her husband watched her face, half smiling.
“I said are you enjoying yourself. Are you glad you came?”
“People seem to like my rice salad. There isn’t much left.”
“And that’s all?”
“What?”
“We’ve driven all the way here and wasted a whole afternoon just so that you could feed a bunch of strangers some rice salad?”
“Well it’s nice to catch up.”
“Is it?”
“Yes. Of course it is.”
She had said it, but even as the words were coming out of her mouth Lillian realised that she didn’t believe it. It wasn’t nice. It was awful. She didn’t have to be here and she didn’t have to do this.
“Thirty years is a long time. It’s good to mark something like that.”
“Best forgotten if you ask me.”
“Oh David.”
Lillian caught Susan Baxter’s eye accidentally and rearranged her scarf around her neck. David frowned.
“When are you going to stop worrying about what other people think?”
“I don’t.”
This blatant lie silenced both of them for a few minutes. Lillian watched as people gave up trying to make an effort and settled themselves in small groups with the few people they actually wanted to talk to. Nobody came to join them. A few people were already leaving. She wondered whether it was too early to go home. After a drive that had taken almost two hours it probably was. If only David would make an effort she could have introduced him to a few people, but there was no point suggesting it. She could play the conversation that would follow in her head without having to hear it.
There was some movement on the hall stage. David winced.
“Oh hell, they’re going to start playing music.”
This had been promised in the letter. “The greatest hits of 1982. By DJ Pete “dinky” Jackson.” Lillian didn’t remember the short, agile man in a trilby and thin tie who was organising the CDs – he would have been one of the “cool” crowd- but the swirling rhythms of Do You Really Want To Hurt Me were as irresistible as ever and she recognised them within a few beats. Suddenly she had had enough. The music brought back memories that she could do without. The one thing that none of those oh so clever psychologists ever said about denial was that it damn well worked.
“Do you want to go?”
She looked at David, hoping for a yes. The yes that would mean that she didn’t have to admit that she had made a dreadful mistake in wanting to come.
“I was going to have a piece of cake. Do you want some?”
“No thank you.”
David slipped his ear piece out of his ear without his wife seeing and made his way grimly across the floor, through the hardy people who were on their feet, swaying around as though they had something to prove. Perhaps nobody really knew why they were here.
“Are you Lillian Shaw’s husband?”
It was a woman in strange beads and a shapeless skirt who was asking. He felt like saying no, but he was going to have to go back and sit down next to Lillian so that wasn’t an option.
“I’m afraid I am.”
She laughed, unsure whether he was joking or not.
“Marcia Williams. I was at school with Lillian.”
David knew that Lillian would be watching and when he got back to his chair she would expect to be told every word of this conversation.
“Oh right. Friends were you?”
“Well, same crowd, you know.”
David nodded. The woman smiled and nodded back.
“Give her my best wishes. I was too busy with the buffet and all that to chat earlier.”
David decided to leave the question of why the woman hadn’t come over to say hello in the hour since they arrived. Sometimes it was best just to be thankful that people wanted to be polite and let them get on with it. Even when you knew that they were fibbing. He grabbed his cake and went back to his chair, feeling as though he had just completed a complicated level in one of his on line games. Sadly the next level was going to be even more of a challenge.
“What did Marcia Williams want?”
“Nothing. She sends her best wishes.”
“Stupid cow.”
“Where did that come from? You sure you don’t want some cake?”
“Best wishes………..”
“That’s what she said.”
“She didn’t mean it.”
“She said it. Just let it go.”
“You don’t know her.”
“Nor do you. You haven’t seen her for thirty years.”
“I know enough.”
David recognised the look on Lillian’s face. It was a look that meant that she was going to tell him whether he wanted to hear about it or not.
“Spit it out then.”
And she did. David watched as the years fell away and his wife became the ghost of the vulnerable fourteen year old that she had once been.
“It wasn’t just her, but she was the ringleader. They were very clever, never touched me, never did anything that would have been thought of as bullying if I’d reported it. I would have just sounded like an insecure little whiner. Well I may have been just that, but if I was they were the ones who made me that way. The constant little comments, nasty little notes, snide looks. It was like a dripping tap of hurt that allowed the stain of worry to seep right into me. They would cut me out of a conversation or a group, just by talking over me, or a single movement that cut off my view of what was going on, and I would be left wondering exactly how they had done it. I never thought of it as bullying- I thought you had to be hit for it to be that- I just knew that I was miserable. And so did they.”
David put his hand on his wife’s arm.
“That was all a very long time ago.”
“You don’t forget. Not when it happens at that age.”
“You have to try.”
“I shouldn’t have come. I thought it would help coming here, show them somehow, but it doesn’t. It’s just brought it all back. Every single one of them still sees what they used to see and I can’t change that.”
“They were just kids. I doubt they even remember.”
“Best wishes. Best wishes. Why would she say that? And not even to my face. She had the chance.”
“Go and ask her.”
David really didn’t expect her to go but she did. Marcia was surprised too.
“Lillian.”
“We’re leaving now but I just wanted to return your good wishes before we go.”
“Thank you. Nice to see you again after all these years.”
Lillian smiled thinly.
“Brings back memories doesn’t it.”
“It certainly does. You know, I wouldn’t want to go through those teenage years again- not for anything.”
“Nor would I.”
Lillian looked at the anxious, scruffy, middle aged woman standing in front of her and realised that she didn’t have to. Not any more.

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