ALICE ADRIFT | Sarah Howells disappears down the rabbit hole with this short story about a first love.
by Sarah Howells
Our group was diluted by the addition of peripheral curiosities, then the inevitable coupling off and migration to the next phase. We didn’t vow to lose touch. A careless, drunken shifting, slow and inevitable. Is it a mistake to let others in? Cuckoos in the nest by their nature shoulder out the genuine residents. We drifted into the arms of others; foolishly confident love could be bettered.
It’s been five years since we last saw one another, you and I, that time when I was still bright and sharp with hurt, a mass of raw ungrounded energy, my mask still securely in place. It was like, in lieu of being told who and what to be, I couldn’t find who I was, and I’ve always hated being lost. London had offended me then. The sheer force of the crowds, the choking fumes, the catacomb-like claustrophobia of the underground, all squeezing; my mind liquifying as I couldn’t help but fathom how many people were underneath London’s streets at any one time.
I tried to prove myself. But London won and I seethed that it could exist without and despite me. Each corner pub in Soho had ignited an anticipation of trouble in my gut. The Seven Sisters bus rekindled the feeling of dread as to what I would find at home. The club where, presented as all good fun, I became the butt of the joke until I combusted. It is hard to imagine today, how I had been enticed away from you by someone like that. But it was different in the beginning.
By the time I met you that flaming day five years ago, I had buried myself once again, deep within my own defences, surrounded myself with barbs made sharper by alcohol; my old sense of humour guarded, tender as a pea shoot. You’d looked at me then, as if you couldn’t quite see me. ‘So, where next?’ you asked, your attention caught by something reflected in the window.
‘I’ve an offer on a small house. In North Wales. It’s quiet. Starkly beautiful.’
‘You can see the old quarry from the kitchen. It changes with the light.’
‘I’ll have to visit.’
I shrugged, conditioned by the subtle art of isolation, though I could sense you as if from the far side of a chasm. Too far to reach. I was unable to bridge it that day, ashamed of what I had gone through. You didn’t visit.
I’d been trying to figure out my place. Escaping a situation where roles were clearly defined – though not by me – my freedom came as an onerous prize. I sought out new jailers and felt as uninhabited as my cottage had been. I set about filling the void with seedlings, tended to them and watched them grow strong, a heightened palette of colour and texture. I began to feel, like Alice, that adventures were within reach.
It took those five years to unlearn the person I had become. Am I the same person I was before? You are. The years have been kind to you. No difference. Save perhaps lines around your eyes from decades of smiling, hands work-gnarled and strong from your craft. You still occupy the same outline, walk with the same easy grace. You are here and now, and I am again filled with that sense of possibility. Am I grasping at something for myself within you, as if you kept a piece of me safe? Am I here to reclaim me or you?
I remember that first time. Afterwards, you read to me from your grandmother’s copy of Alice in Wonderland. I was Alice, adrift in an unfamiliar land of familiar things. You lay there, one arm cradling me to you, the other holding the book aloft. You had a way of flipping the pages with your left thumb; a skill I’d never seen before. I could feel the steady rhythm of your heart, and mine calmed in synch with it.
We’d been flirting, you and I, for weeks. Glances caught across the table, the current between us when our hands touched as if our nerves fused, the sharing of food – a most intimate precursor, spooning morsels into mouths with the unspoken wish of placing lips upon lips – and the gentle verbal ribbing which implies ‘I know you well and want to know you deeper.’
One day we drove away from London, to visit your grandmother in the town of gentle spires, whispering courtyards and shoals of bicycles. It felt so mischievous, not including the others. Our own childish secret. We stepped out of the car and into a different era, where raves and fast food seemed an unwelcome, futuristic vexation. After tea we sat by the river, expanding the bubble of those last moments, nibbling at the cake your grandmother had given us. Across the river, a girl lay asleep under a tree, her book collapsed on her belly. Nearby, a rabbit, confident at the girl’s lack of movement, cropped the grass with neat, mechanical movements, ears twitching. ‘Look,’ you whispered. ‘Alice’s adventures are about to begin.’
“I set about filling the void with seedlings, tended to them and watched them grow strong, a heightened palette of colour and texture. I began to feel, like Alice, that adventures were within reach.”
We came together the night of the impromptu party, the windows of the basement flat thrown open to shift the glutinous heat of that London summer’s night. As a crowd, we had drifted across the Heath with the rare, blistering afternoon and stopped to sit, smoke and take in the hazy view of the city below us, the sounds smudged and distant. Your hand rested on mine for longer than was necessary. That moment, the one in the space before two people know for certain what might happen, before even the first kiss has stung lips and sent blood charged, racing around the body, when anything, everything, is possible. And yet it is impossible to know. The ultimate moment of being, firmly set in the here and now, yet infinitely expansive. A biologist might reduce this to a series of hormonal responses: a shot of adrenaline, the same reaction used for fear or aggression, but mixed with endorphins and it becomes a heady cocktail of excitement and bliss. It has the power to dissolve any barrier between any two mortals, raising them to the status of gods. It transcends race, age and gender. I accept, it seems to convey. But is this love or lust? It seems to start the same; what happens after defines which it is. Love continues acceptance, lust strives to fulfil needs through the other. Within the group we had tentatively orbited one another, displaying our brightest and darkest sides. Two satellites following a mirrored trajectory within our private universe. We walked through midnight and talked through dawn. We knew, or so we thought, all there was to know about each other. Our group was tighter than family: our family of choice. How else could we have negotiated that rocky decade? Though not all of us did, just like any family.
Back at the flat, we had sat and smoked in a jumble of cups and biscuit packets, limbs all glowing, sleepy from the sun. Coltrane was our soundtrack as we laughed about the streaker who had broken free from the bathing pools and run, for the pure joy of the day, across the crisp, brown hillside to cheers of admiration. I rose, taking the teapot to the kitchen, its fecund body still warm from the last round. I didn’t hear you follow, until you were whispering my name in my ear. My name across your lips sent a softness down my neck, a message to every nerve. You kissed my neck then turned me to face you. You held me there, in your gaze as if you were reading my DNA, the chart of my soul. Your lips parted as if you needed to speak, but you stopped, smiled, and then you kissed me.
I’ve kissed before, and since. Kissed with those whose passion is appropriating, possessive. Kissed with a determined need for piracy. Kissed like being branded by a hot iron. We kissed like the feeding of a beacon on the shore, a gradual stoking to build the heat to the strength of protection, of nurturing focus. There was nothing selfish in your kiss. You were no wrecker of ships.
We left the kettle to boil – someone else could make the tea – and in silence, slipped into my room. We peeled off what few layers we had and bathed in the scent of salt- and sun-baked skin, scent no perfumer could ever recreate. We lay on my bed, a chaotic landscape of duvet and pillows, within which we explored the brief historical maps of our bodies. Here, in the dip of your hip, where your appendix came out, age ten. Here, where I cut the top clean off my toe, like a boiled egg, whilst running down a street barefoot, age eight. Here, where your sister tripped you and you fell, splitting your right eyebrow, the week your father left; you were fifteen. We did this in whispered reverence, the soft saxophone and laughter from the room next door permeating the wall, but not our space. We traced with lips and fingertips, the contours, curves and recesses, reaching depths uncharted before. And afterwards, Alice.
It continued for the entirety of that dream-like summer, drifting until the air altered to a crisp autumn scent. A party. The first cuckoo party. You, in the arms of another and me, disappearing into the shadows, until only my Cheshire cat smile was left. I convinced myself I wanted your happiness, let you go without battle, hiding in the embrace of the next cuckoo. I didn’t understand back then that such a love was worth fighting for.
London feels different this time. The crowds fail to intimidate. I negotiate buses and tube trains free of the feeling of sinking into the soft earth. London bears a mantle of familiarity, yet it is a strange prospect, as if viewed through a mirror: those five years, in which nothing really happened yet everything changed. It’s like the cells of my body had to renew, to shake off the past, to be free. Now, after the jangling awkwardness of our last meeting, it feels right to reconnect, to catch up, to enjoy the fruits of friendships and love, of times past. We have just left a concert, a casual invitation. Two friends, easy in each other’s company, grateful for the beautiful moments shared, and yet.
‘I missed you, you know,’ you say as we leave. You reach for my hand as if across the years. ‘You just seemed to disappear, you seemed so involved, I didn’t like to interfere. And then after…’
I am stumbling into the rabbit hole again, passing my years of pain and regrowth on my way to Wonderland once more. My body relaxes to the fall. Wonderland is in reach. ‘I missed you too.’ I feel the relief pressure my eyes. We stall as people flow past us; a mighty river heading for the sea, we all return to the sea eventually. And you whisper my name in my ear. My senses ebb and what is left is the anticipation of that moment once again. My name from your lips. There is no longer twenty years between our discoveries, our cardinal directions merging, our acceptance, our intent.
‘I’ve met someone,’ you say, as you squeeze my hand and my heart is pinched and hungry for the feast it can only watch. ‘I know this is it.’
‘Oh,’ I whisper as I wrap my arms around you, feeling the shape of you, and the you contained within. Your arms, my safe haven, my harbour, envelop me as if for the last time. ‘I’m so happy for you my love. It’s what we each hope for, after all. And what we hope for each other.’ I am Alice, adrift in a sea of my own tears watching the raft undulate out of reach.
Sarah is a Welsh writer living in Scotland for 18 years, via South East Asia. She writes about belonging and longing, exploring the self and the effects of different forms of domestic abuse. She is single mum to two sons and a rescue mutt and her day job is at the beautiful Central Library in Edinburgh. She has recently been accepted to do a PhD in a similar topic at the University of Aberdeen.