September, 1992

1

Land of the Rains

The moment I stepped off the bus, the drizzle that had lingered all day turned into a downpour. I stepped off calmly, the man behind brushing past as he ran to the shelter of the nearby shopping promenade. The rest lingered, fumbling with the clasps on their new, vacuum-packed umbrellas, purchased hastily as the July heat wave drew to a soggy close.

As they made a dash, I walked sedately, one foot before the other, to the seafront. What was the point of running from the rain? Someone must have forgotten to tell them skin is waterproof. On the deserted street, I held my head high, arrogant, and stepped up to the railing, revelling in defying convention. The rain felt nice against my skin. It was fresh and soothing, and made me forget my troubles—though not completely wash them away. I had been unable to find anything in the past month to alleviate the clutching depression I'd slipped into. Stubbornly, I ignored the telescopic in my bag.

I lingered there for more time than I'd planned, watching the roll of the waves, making sure the sprinting passers-by saw me, receiving a perverse satisfaction that only darkened my mood- not that it did anything to stop me. I never could help myself.

When everyone had taken cover I turned away, walking the well-travelled path down the promenade that would eventually lead to my house. It was empty here, too. Empty, until the chiming door of Penny's Sweets chimed open, and stubby fingers gestured me inside. I followed them in.

Penny the proprietor put her hands on her hips. "September!" she chastised me, "You look like a wet dog!" She had a bad habit of trying to stare down people she was annoyed at; it never really worked, considering she was dumpy and not even four foot five.

I crossed my arms and made to look angry, making a strange noise in the back of my throat.

"You growl like a dog too," she said lightly, and I turned my back to her, pretending to look over the pick 'n mix.

"What do you want, Penny?" I asked wearily. "I have to get home."

"You weren't getting there very fast standing by the beach acting melodramatic," Penny said, her voice airy. The blood rose in my cheeks. I must have looked like a tomato, though I carefully kept my burning face averted. I was so embarrassed. Nobody I knew was supposed to have seen me.

"You have to snap out of this," Penny said more kindly. "September, you've been despondent for weeks. Whatever is the matter?"

My lips were dry, arrogance gone. I'd known Penny for years, but I couldn't even look at her and speak the truth. It was too pathetic.

"Just… stuff," I said, through my chaffed lips, with my swollen tongue.

A hand touched my shoulder, and Penny's kind face was there again. I wanted to flinch away from her, just like I had flinched away from any human contact in the past month. I wanted to be alone.

"What kind of stuff?" As always, Penny's eyes were probing, searching.

I forced the words out. "Not knowing- about… about what'll I do with my life." And what the point was- to anything. Whether there was a God or not, why I even lived—when my life meant nothing. I wanted to scream it out, but instead I choked dust.

Penny looked relieved. She must have thought there was something seriously wrong with me, and not just the foolish uncertainties of a foolish teenager. I hated that look; the way the creases round her eyes relaxed, how she smiled at me with sympathy- and amusement.

"You're sixteen," she said, and her tone forewarned me of a coming lecture. "Of course you're going to worry about the future. But you've got your whole life ahead of you. It's something to look forward to, not dread!" When she saw I didn't look consoled, she added, "You could always go to college and keep studying if you don't want to work right away, you know."

For what? To do the same thing I'd done since I was five? To learn useless knowledge I'd never remember? With the same people I hated, and who hated me? I shook my head furiously.

"Well then there must be a career you're interested in…" she continued helplessly.

"No." I'd told the career officer I wanted to be a teacher, just to shut her up.

"I really don't know what to tell you then September. But you shouldn't worry so much; you're young, you don't have to figure everything out now." Her mouth split into a grin. "You should really cut out the melodrama though; it doesn't suit you. Plus you'll just confuse all small-town folk here- they're not the poetic type. They'd never understand the standing along, tears mingling with raindrops down your face drama."

"I wasn't crying," I said defensively. She raised her hands in wan apology.

"Alright," she said, a surrender. "I see my attempts aren't working on you. It makes me think of when you were a little girl… you could have been in the baddest of bad moods, and I'd give you a lime lollipop and there wouldn't be a cloud in the sky."

I could see it now; I'd only been seven when my family had moved from the centre of urban London to the south coast, and even the sea- which I adored- could not calm my distress. But then Penny had found me crying outside her shop, she'd asked me what was wrong, invited me inside…

"Yes, I remember," I said, and I was startled to come out of my thoughts with Penny holding something up right in front of my nose. It was a lime lollipop.

"Penny…" I said plaintively, blushing for the second time in a minute.

"These aren't popular, but I saved a few for a rainy day." She glanced at the window, at the torrent streaming down the glass. "And, well, today's definitely a rainy day." She thrust it at me again, and I quickly took it before she could ram it down my throat. The taste was comfortingly familiar, and in spite of myself, I managed a small smile.

Penny laughed buoyantly. "Still got it," she said to herself, disappearing into the back room.

Really, it shouldn't be allowed that one middle-aged woman be so embarrassing!

It was still raining outside, the gutters streaming down like rivers. Suddenly, it occurred to me that I was wet through and cold. It didn't look quite so inviting out now. I hesitated by the doorway.

"Do you want to borrow a brolly September? You can use this one."

I looked round to see Penny emerge with a pink plastic umbrella. Before she could offer it to me, I withdrew my own telescopic, smiling sheepishly.

She rolled her eyes, said, "You're hopeless," and disappeared again into the back.

I unfurled my umbrella, pushed open the jingling door and stepped into the rain. I don't know how Penny had done it, but my small rebellion was over.

I felt strange on the way home. Though my depression hadn't ended, Penny had brought a lull. It was such a relief. I was finally able to see again- everything had been so clouded, and wrapped up in my self-centred thoughts I hadn't even noticed. When I'd stood by the beach acting out my own tragic drama, I'd only seen my own tortured state of mind. I hadn't seen the curling wreaths of mist out over the ocean, the sparkling silver rocks, the endless pit-pat of rain, a hypnotic and rhythmic melody.

I sighed. I'd made an idiot out of myself, and knowing me, I'd do the same thing tomorrow and be back to square one. I could never ask for a helping hand- it took Penny shoving hers in my face to even get through to me. And she only partly knew what was wrong.

It was the summer holiday. I was a school leaver. I should be happy. And yet, tomorrow had become a terrifying thought. Nothing interested me anymore, I felt that nothing ever would. Today I'd gone for an open day at North Devon College in Barnstable. It was boring. My life would be boring. I'd go to college, be bored and then get a boring job. I'd get older and die- and yet nothing in my life would ever have happened.

And the whole thing would just be… pointless.

It was as though the pins holding my life in place had been removed, and like a scrap of silk I was being borne away to foreign, frightening places. Suddenly, I was reasonless and alone, trying to tag everything with a purpose as quickly as I could, before it all fell apart.

And I could not even think this clearly, till today. What had I been doing this past month? All I could remember was a haze, slight and harmless at first, till it had grown and swallowed me whole.

My feet sloshed through puddles that were becoming lakes, my canvas shoes soaked through. I was nearly home now. A seagull shrieked above me. I looked down and focused, and I saw I wasn't alone.

She was walking with one hand running absently on the steel railing. No umbrella or coat, her dark hair running in wet rivulets down her back. She didn't hurry, but neither did she purposely linger. I was struck by her grace and self-assurance.

She was soaking. And I was almost home… before I knew it, I was splashing right up to her, and then, for some reason, offering her my umbrella.

Why did I do it? Even years later I question my motivation. She wasn't hurrying to get out of the rain, for all I knew she might have been enjoying it, just as I had. But it's this that makes me think I know why; because she reminded me of myself, because I wanted someone to accept my help, as I had never been able to accept theirs. I think, if Penny had not offered me that lime lollipop, I would have gone on and walked straight past her. But kindness begets kindness.

She was beautiful. She heard by noisy approach and looked over her shoulder. Her face was just as calm, just as self assured. She looked to me like someone who never doubted herself, who knew her place in the world. And yet, there was something sad in her features, the slight downturn in her full lips, a poignant look of knowledge in her eyes. And I thought to myself then- this is a person who could pull it off. This is a person who could stand alone with her tears mingling with the rain, and you would weep to see it. It wouldn't be melodramatic, it would be poetry. Poetry in motion. It was something my brother once said, and the words were spoken in reverence- "She's got poetry in the soul."

I held the umbrella out dumbly. Any words I had prepared died in my throat. She scanned me curiously, and those sad eyes were bright and clever.

I saw I had to say something. "It's raining."

She glanced up at the darkening clouds. "Yes, it is."

I was still holding it out for her, but she made no other move to take it. This was getting embarrassing.

"Please," I said. It seemed imperative to me that she had it.

Abruptly, as though the clouds had broken open into sunshine, she smiled and reached out her hand.

"Thanks," she said, and she seemed to mean it. Her smile was so lovely that I was taken aback. Poetry in motion.

I wanted to say something else, but my lips wouldn't move. My cheeks burned red and I ran, hurrying for the first time, though not because of the rain.

It wasn't till I got home, collapsing under the porch panting, that I realised I hadn't told her where to return the umbrella to.