Beauty From Ashes

Entry by: writerATGJFYSYWG

12th October 2016
No one fits in. Not at secondary school. But Cathy hadn't known that, not back then. Back then she was alone and, as far as she could make out, she was the only one who was alone. Everyone else was getting along just fine. They were in packs from the first day. Some had come up from primary school together; others fell into friendships as easily as smiling. It would take a special person to step out of the pack and walk by her side. And he had done just that.

That was such a long time ago, and now her old drama teacher was dead. Not old at all really, come to think of it. There had only been a few years between them, but to her Ms Lavonne felt a world away. Sweeping in, her petite frame made elaborate by a generous laugh and expensive scent. Ms Lavonne: her first love. Glamour, embracing arms, kitten heels. No sign of that now. Cathy stole a glance through the milling funeral party at the urn on the mantelpiece. The blinds were drawn halfway down and the lights were turned low on their dimmers and inside the urn lay ashes in place of life. She was gone and although the room was full, Cathy sensed the void. A West End show without its lead.

Mostly the room was filled with more recent students. Beautiful, bright faces, shining with wet tears and youth. She thought about him looking at them and wondered how she could make herself attractive when there was such stiff competition. Perhaps it was useless to even try, she thought, as she studied the rich nut-brown tresses of a girl by the fireplace. Cathy imagined running her fingers through her hair, her fingernails gently scraping her scalp, and then letting them fall through the heavy thickness to the tips. She could feel her heart at the surface of her chest. She inched up the blind and looked out of the window. Perhaps he wasn't coming.

It would have been the first week of secondary school that they had walked home together. She liked to think he had run to catch up with her, but they probably just fell into step as they left school that afternoon.

It was a warm September day and he had taken his jumper off. She was hot and wished she had thought to take hers off too, but now she was self-conscious. He was walking with her. He was sauntering. She attempted to saunter.

His hair was bright blond back then, almost white. Easy to pick out in an assembly hall or a school photo years later. Blue eyes, clear. Bit of a lad, Ms Lavonne had said when she cast him in his first role. Another girl had been cast opposite him, someone outgoing, one of the crowd. Was her name Vicky? Vicky had worn make up since day one: an orange line across her jawbone diving her face from her neck.

Cathy had been put backstage and she watched him, unnoticed, from the wings. It was good to feel part of something.

On that first walk home, in the heat of the sun and with sidelong glances, his hair had been shocking. Later, she imagined feeling it beneath her fingers, imagined electric charges jumping between them. Too late for all of that. His photos on Facebook showed him to be completely bald. He had grown a beard but it was a slightly disappointing sandy colour. Divorced, his status said. She had never married.

He was kind; that was his biggest attraction. Who else had bothered to talk to her in that first week? They were too busy forming alliances, positioning, posturing. Those first few days would establish who you were for the rest of your school career. She hadn't known that.

By the time he walked home with her, she had already been cast as the aloof loner. Not that the kids used those words. She remembered 'stuck up', 'snob', 'weirdo'.

He had paused to tie his shoelaces. Should she wait? Should she carry on? She dangled her foot nonchalantly off the kerb and looked into the distance. She had all the time in the world, except she had promised her mum she would be home by half past three. He shifted and began retying the other shoelace. Halfway through, he glanced up and seemed surprised to see her.

'Why are you waiting?' he said with a grin.

She hadn't known what to say and felt her face flush red. His grin spread further and he began to laugh, but he stood up again and they carried on, her face turned away from him as they walked side by side. Why should she be embarrassed? He had caught up with her; he had joined her.

'I was being polite,' she said finally and then realised how unnecessary her reply was.

He raised his eyebrows. 'Polite?'

'Waiting for you. I was just being polite.'

'Well madam, I am most grateful to you for your airs and graces,' and he bowed low.

It had been a mistake to say it, she knew that, but it was said and now he would think of her as everyone else did.

After that first walk home, he slid effortlessly towards the crowd and over the next five years she charted his relationships with several girls.

Michelle, a younger sister of his friend: loud, abrasive, corkscrew perm. After Michelle came Alison: skinny as a stick, sharp elbows in netball. Finally, in the last year, there was Vicky. The school rejoiced. It had been a long-awaited love affair, its seeds first sown in that first production of Ms Lavonne's Grease. To celebrate, Ms Lavonne cast them together in a final-year showstopper of West Side Story.

He signed her notebook on the last day, just as everyone else did. No personal message, no hint of a secret between them. And all that time she had been harbouring the memory of that first walk home.

She blinked back the tears and looked past the urn. A bald head ducked through the doorway. He looked up and caught her eye. Through his sandy beard, she thought she saw him smile.