The Rebellious Swan
It all starts with a girl named Roland eating strawberries on the bus.
I am sat near the front of the bus, my rucksack on my lap, on the journey home from school. It's packed with kids in the remnants of their uniforms, laughing and shrieking and playing their music too loud. I'm resting my head against the window, staring out at the view – tree, tree, tree, lamppost, tree, tree – when I see a flash of white up ahead. The bus pulls in at the stop and she steps on.
Her dark hair is all piled up on the top of her head in a messy yet somehow stylish knot. She's wearing a white dress with a huge frilly skirt and a black leather biker's jacket, black-and-white stripy tights and faded greyish combat boots with the laces trailing on the ground. She sits down in a flurry of white netting and pulls her bag onto her lap – a satchel style one, slung across her body, with a badge bearing the motif "Cute. Adorable. Deadly." – taking out a small Tupperware box. A purple iPod blares music into her ears. She's humming along, opening the box and revealing a small collection of misshapen strawberries.
I study her as she eats – I don't mean to at first, but there's something about her that just makes you want to look. She has this way of looking at each strawberry as if she's sizing it up, working out how much effort it would take to eat, how sweet it would taste. She keeps bobbing her head from side to side, and the effect of this, her long white neck and frilly white dress with the black jacket make her look like some sort of rebellious swan.
She bites into a strawberry and chews while humming loudly along to the song in her ears. Once her mouth is empty she begins to sing. People stare at her, including me. She doesn't have a bad voice, it's just loud. She doesn't seem to care when the school kids laugh at her and the old women sat two rows behind us begin to tut and whisper and grumble to each other. She just keeps on singing.
When the bus next pulls in to a stop, the driver gets out of his little booth and waddles over to stand beside the singing girl. "Excuse me, miss, I'm going to have to ask you to either keep the noise down to a minimum or exit the vehicle."
She pulls the earphones out and looked at him. "Fine." She gets up in one fluid motion and straightens her skirt. Then suddenly she looks directly at me and grabs my hand. "Come on." I am pulled off the bus against my will, a bit scared, a bit excited. She commandeers me down the road and into an underpass, where we sit down on one of those broken marble-style benches that always seem to be in underpasses, but covered in graffiti so nobody ever sees them in their original state. I'm kind of frozen to the spot, not having a clue what to do. The girl pulls out a packet of cigarettes from her inside jacket pocket and flicks the bottom of the packet expertly, causing a single cigarette to spring up and out. She catches it deftly in her mouth and quickly lights it with a lighter shaped like a goldfish. Then she looks at me meaningfully, with burning deep blue eyes, and cocks her head to one side. "Want one?"
I blink and stammer. "What?"
She rolls her eyes and offers me the packet. "Do you want one?" She emphasises each word separately, as if I'm an idiot. Maybe to her, I am. I notice now that her voice has a slight accent to it, but I can't place it.
"Oh." I feel myself blushing. "No, thanks."
"Suit yourself." She takes a deep drag and holds it for a good ten seconds before letting out the smoke, shaping four or five smoke rings that vanish into the slight breeze.
I fidget, wondering if I should just get up and leave, stay sat with her, what she would do if I did get up and leave, what we would do if we stayed together. I clear my throat several times before speaking. "So…um…" – my voice is very squeaky; I clear my throat again – "why did you drag me off the bus?" It sounds like such a stupid thing to say that I immediately look away from her.
"I like the look of you." She says it with easy nonchalance, as if it was obvious, like she does this sort of thing every day. Maybe she does, I wouldn't know. "There's something about you, like you have no idea what your purpose is in the world but you won't give up trying to find out."
Slightly incredulous, I turn back and look at her. "What makes you say that?"
"I'm psychic," she says without missing a beat.
I splutter with laughter. "No, you're a liar."
"And you're very rude to call a complete stranger a liar," she retorts. She stares at me fixedly, challenging me with her eyes. I stare right back.
"So don't be a complete stranger. Tell me your name." I'm trying really hard – really, I am – not to seem unnerved by her. I mean, a strange yet fascinating girl basically kidnapped me off the bus, how am I supposed to react when she stares directly at me as if she's about to jump on me and bite me?
"Tell me yours first."
"Err, you kidnapped me. I think I'm entitled to know."
She shifts forwards so we were nearly nose-to-nose, her dress rustling and undoubtedly picking up dirt from the seat. "I didn't kidnap you; subconsciously, you wanted to come with me. And if you'd really been kidnapped, wouldn't you want to do what your kidnapper said?"
Dammit, she has a point. "Fine. My name is Jenny."
"Jenny." She smiles, baring her teeth which are pearly white and even, apart from her two incisors overlapping slightly. "I like it. I'm Roland."
I stare at her. "Roland?!"
"Yeah." She looks a little bit confused at my reaction. "What's wrong with that?"
"It's a boy's name," I say, stating the obvious. This girl really is bizarre.
She shrugs. "It doesn't have to be. It could be one of those names that suit both genders, like Kim or Joe or Sam or Andy." She swings her legs up onto the seat suddenly, so I have to move backwards or I'll be hit in the face with her boots.
I'm still incredulous. "I don't believe that your parents would name you Roland."
"Oh, they didn't name me Roland," she says calmly, hugging her knees. "I named me Roland. I name myself something different every month."
Okay, now I'm even more confused. "Why would you do that?" I feel like I'm asking more and more stupid and obvious questions, but I can't help it. I don't want to leave this girl, so I have to make up some reason to stay.
"Because I don't want to be the same person forever," she says simply. She's looking at me with all seriousness, and I have to look back because somewhere in the back of my head, what she is saying is making sense. "I relish change. Change is what makes caterpillars into butterflies, acorns into oaks, sun and rain into rainbows. If I was the same person for every minute of every day of my life, I would want to do the same things, eat the same things, never try anything new. So I change my name and change my persona, see what that new version of myself wants to do for a month before changing it again, keeping it nice and fresh and pretty."
She's saying words that don't belong to her, words that feel eternal and beautiful. I can't help but listen, despite knowing deep down that I will have to leave soon. As fascinating as Roland is, I can't stay with her forever. I get up slowly, hitching my rucksack onto my back, tugging at my hair when it gets caught underneath the straps. Roland is watching me with those big blue eyes, black leather arms still hugging her knees, hidden within a cloud of netting. "I'm sorry for making you late."
I look at her. She suddenly seems very small, as if all the fascination and intrigue she conjured up with her impressive speech has dissipated and all that is left is a girl with a boy's name, not much older than me. "Don't worry. It's only partially your fault." I add humour to my tone, trying not to seem callous, because I'm really not. I don't think I could hate this girl if I wanted to. She didn't do anything to hurt me.
Half of her mouth curves up in a smile. She reaches into her bag and hands me the Tupperware box from before. "Have my last strawberry, Jenny."
I can't help but echo her smile as I take the box and pop the lid off, observing the strawberry inside, scarlet as one from an advert but distorted in a way that tells me it's home-grown. I flick my eyes back up to say thanks but Roland is gone.