I’ll always remember that day. Winter still moved in the chill morning mist but daffodils defied the cold, budding all along the roadside, heralding spring. My parents had moved us out of London and into the rolling countryside the previous summer. Cleaner air and safer roads, they said. My sister didn’t care much but she was only nine and swept up in the excitement of it all. Although, she was always one for seeing adventure where others might see risk so perhaps it was not her age.
I had been worried at first. My city friends told me stories about how country folk all owned guns and hunted animals at the weekend, about how they tipped cows over and dared each other to pull at horses’ tails until they bucked. Apparently, that was why so many of them had wonky teeth. I had known not all of it could be true of course, but which parts?
A few months at Willowfield secondary school put my fears to rest. The same lugging boys with thick necks stalked the playground and pretty girls in colourful dresses huddled in corners, learning the lyrics to their favourite songs. I used the fact that no one knew me to my advantage. Before the end of the first week, rumours circulated about the bad city-boy who had maybe been expelled from a top London school. What for? Who knows? The best part was that in order to perpetuate those rumours, all I needed to do was keep quiet and act aloof. My thick, black hair and leather jacket undoubtedly helped.
There was one other pupil with a similar mystery surrounding them and that someone was Alisa Barrington.
How can I describe her? Hummingbirds and honeybees often mistook her for a golden flower petal drifting in the wind as she crossed the schoolyard, her blue eyes scintillating like a tropical island waterfall. Bullies and their victims parted deferentially like ugly ducklings before a swan. And when she walked it was as if time, stunned by her beauty, warped around her to form a glistening orb of underwater slowness.
She was insanely rich, apparently. Her father was a lot of things. A duke, a spy, a film star, a hitman, an international drug lord. Someone once told me they had seen her mother handing a briefcase to a strange man in a dark suit and darker sunglasses, underneath the weeping willow trees right outside the school gates. Another told me all of Alisa’s clothes came from Italy and that her hair was insured for £100,000.
All I knew for sure was that my heart throbbed upwards the closer her layered, floating skirts came to me.
That day? Oh yes, that day when the bees murmured around the early bloomers and squirrels ventured out of their nests. That day, Alisa Barrington spoke to me.
I was in the common room, getting books for my afternoon classes when she appeared at my side, leaning against the lime-green lockers with one hand casually resting on the slope of her hip.
“You’re in Mr. Engleman’s class,” she said, her voice brushing against my ears like smooth satin.
Not trusting my voice to exude the gruff tone I had been practicing, I grunted acknowledgement. She didn’t seem fazed and judging by the sidelong and openly direct glares I was getting, I gathered this was uncharted behaviour on her part.
“I need help with my maths homework. Mr. Engleman said he’ll call my parents if I don’t do well on next week’s test. You,” she said, flashing me a knock-out smile, “are top of the class. So, will you help me?”
“Of course,” I managed, surprising myself with the gravelly tone I wished for, though it was probably from holding my breath for the entire encounter.
“Great! Meet me by the willow trees after school and we can go to my house. It’s not far,” she said before gliding off like some majestic bird of prey, satisfied with its kill.
The rest of the school day passed for me in a haze of droning voices interspersed with scratching pens and scraping chairs. At one point, the thwack of a ruler on my desk alerted me to the fact that the teacher had been asking me a question. Everyone seemed to know that she had spoken to me but thankfully, no one seemed to know why. More than once, hushed conversations in the hallway were abruptly cut off as I sauntered past. In the classroom, furtive glances and whisperings rippled outwards from wherever I sat. I enjoyed that quite a lot. The secrecy. It added to my persona as well, my aloofness achieved stratospheric heights that afternoon.
And so, it was on that crisp springtide afternoon that I found myself walking away from school next to Alisa. I could actually feel the looks of scorn and suspicion from my classmates as I fought to keep a ridiculous grin from infecting my face.
I fought so hard to hide how giddy her presence and her mere proximity made me. Budding flowers winked at me from the hedgerows as the spring breeze whipped through my hair, ruffling it in what I hoped was a style Alisa found fetching.
She had said her house was not far from the school gates yet I was still surprised when she abruptly turned down an immense driveway. It was my regular route but I hadn’t seen this house before, although I had noticed the preposterously high hedgerow. When I entered the neat, gravelled path, I took note of the thick oak trees standing like old, sturdy sentries to a hidden castle.
I had never seen a house that big up close. I wondered how many rooms there were. How large Alisa’s bedroom could be? That thought made me blush furiously. Thankfully, Alisa was far ahead having not slowed to gawp at her own home.
Inside was no less impressive. I decided to feign nonchalance as if my home was equally grand and spacious. I followed her down the hallway and into the living room. One side was all glass looking out onto a huge back garden. A large, tan animal skin rug dominated the centre whilst the periphery was inhabited by fancy armchairs and looming bookcases.
They even had a fireplace. A real one with chopped wooden logs waiting in a nearby wicker basket, a stack of old newspapers and kindling. A beautifully carved oaken coffee table rested atop a large, brown animal skin rug. By the shape, I guessed deer. An ornate crystal fruit bowl, abundant in bright apples, oranges and bananas, was displayed in the centre of the table. That gave me pause. Even I knew bananas shouldn’t touch the other fruit but I wasn’t going to say anything. I wasn’t stupid.
“Do you want something to drink? Diet coke? Lemonade?” Alisa called from the other room.
“Lemonade please! Thanks!”
Oh, how I cringed! That wasn’t nonchalant and confident at all. What would a confident boy do? I shrugged off my schoolbag and flung it onto the smooth leather sofa. That was better … but she hadn’t seen that. I grabbed a vibrant green apple from the fruit bowl and looked again at the room.
My eyes paused warily on a large shotgun on the wall above the fireplace. The rumours surrounding her father floated in my mind like dead fish in a murky pond. What would he think of me being here with his daughter?
“It’s not real,” she said.
I shrugged as if I saw guns all that time, but I didn’t believe her. It looked real to me and it wasn’t displayed in an awkward, hard-to-reach place either. An image of Mr. Barrington, gun in hand, eyes hot with fury entered my mind and I had to physically shake it free.
Alisa was giving me a curious look so I gave her my most disarming smile. She was still gazing at me with those large, mysterious blue eyes and I bravely held that gaze as I bit into the apple.
It was strange, rough and spongy. My heart stopped. Oh God no! It wasn’t real. The apple wasn’t real!
Desperate ideas swarmed my mind. Do I drop the apple and run? Do I try to actually eat it? None of which appealed. Saliva filled my mouth as I struggled, tonguing around the fake fruit.
Alisa’s puzzled expression twitched into one of amusement and in one moment that I will never forget, our eyes met and we burst into hysterical laughter.
"I hope that everyone here has a day like that to remember. The day…” the old man paused, his voice trembling for the first time. The church before him was a blur of deepest black and brightest yellow; the mourners framed with wreaths overflowing with daffodils, Alisa’s favourite flower.
He cleared his throat, "... the day that Alisa stole your heart." And with his voice breaking on that last word, he stepped down from the pedestal. His eldest son leapt up to offer him a steadying arm and he took it with a grateful nod. Nestled back into his place in the front pew, he glanced left and right. His children and grand-children surrounded him, each one bringing with them a lifetime of memories of Alisa. To his left, his grand-daughter cooed and rocked the newest addition to their family, a beautiful baby girl named Alice, whose blue eyes made him think of waterfalls and butterflies.
“I’ve been a lucky man,” he murmured, a slow smile comforting his sad eyes. Alice gurgled, wriggling happily in her mother’s arms. “So very, very lucky.”