I Hope You Are
17 years was a long time. Puberty and adulthood and all manner of life-altering events should, by all rights, have moulded the bunch of 8 and 9 year olds I'd known in 1998 into completely different people. As I looked round at Ms Clarke's reunited grade 3 class, however, I was struck by how similar everyone seemed. We'd been a ragtag bunch back then and we still were.
Trevor Young, for instance, still looked vaguely surprised by his immediate surrounds, as if he had no idea how he'd got there. Kim Li still had the best hair of anyone I'd ever seen. Shaun Christo and Sean Behrens still stood together, possibly continuing to believe that having the same name, albeit with different spellings, meant that they should be best friends. Chantelle Stacey still stood with most of her weight on one hip, periodically crossing and uncrossing her arms in a nervous kind of way, and so on.
Facebook aided the game, obviously. I probably wouldn't have recognised Claudia Manus without having witnessed her 'miracle weight loss story' play out on my newsfeed; probably would've forgotten her existence entirely, in fact, as she'd moved away at the end of primary school. But there we were, smiling at each other as if we were best mates rather than simply silent observers of each other's lives.
And then there was Ms Clarke; sweet, hippy, 'native flowers are our future' Ms Clarke. I hadn't seen hide nor hair of her on social media, but I didn't need an electronic reminder to bring her perfectly to mind. She was the teacher everyone remembered; the one who made you feel special and clever no matter your abilities, and whose voice narrated your moral compass as you grew older; the satnav for the soul for all who'd been fortunate enough to have been taught by her.
She stood before us and beamed her warm smile, her honey blonde hair now more silver than gold, but still in the same delicate swoop of a bun on the top of her head, and her long, colourful skirt swishing in the light breeze.
"Welcome back to Sharn Lake Primary!" Ms Clarke opened her arms to encompass the, honestly, fairly uninspiring expanse of asphalt that made up the bulk of our erstwhile primary school. She looked so proud of it, however, that we all smiled back in a suitably appreciative manner, some people even applauding. "It's so good to see you, and I'm looking forward to speaking with each of you individually to hear how your lives are going after all these years."
This comment prompted some interesting reactions, with some people looking like they couldn't wait to tell her how well they were getting on, whilst others looked a bit nauseous at the thought of a play-by-play of what they'd done with themselves since primary school. I was especially pleased to see Russ Ingram look a bit queasy as I knew, from my mother this time rather than Facebook, that he'd just left his lovely, and also very pregnant, girlfriend for an 18 year old.
"We're not just here to catch up with each other, of course," Ms Clarke continued, apparently unaware of the angst she'd stirred up in some, "but with ourselves. 17 years ago each of you wrote a letter to your future self and we buried them right here."
To illustrate, she tapped a cement manhole set into the ground with her foot. It was sacred, that space; the keeper of letters to future selves since 1985 when Sharn Lake's principal of the time had set the program up. Since then, every Sharn Lake Primary School child in grade 3 had written a letter to themselves and watched it be lowered, along with all the other letters from their class, into the specially built vault (which was really nothing more than a concrete lined hole in the ground...which I suppose was what most vaults were). 17 years later, when each child had grown to be in their mid-twenties, they were called back to receive a message from their past. It was a sweet tradition and one afforded a lot respect in our small community. Hardly anyone refused the summons, although I couldn't help noticing that he hadn't shown up.
But, I wasn't going to think about him. I'd absolutely not donned my nicest 'looks good, but doesn't look like you tried' dress on the off chance he'd turn up, nor taken a good half hour trying to get my hair to look effortlessly sleek.
"So, without further ado, let's see what you had to say to yourselves!" It was a dramatic moment as Ms Clarke bent down to unlock the padlock and throw back the hatch, and it felt as if the national anthem should've been playing or something. Instead, there were just a few desultory claps from the same people as before and we all huddled in closer to see our box being lifted out.
Mr Dalca, the school's groundsman for the better part of the last 30 years, had obviously done a good job at sealing the vault, and the box labelled '1998 - Ms Clarke' looked almost as pristine coming up as the day it'd been lowered down.
As the letters were handed out, I wondered whether any of the others could remember what they'd written. For myself, I couldn't recall a word of it. I remembered writing it, though; how the warm spring sunshine had been streaming onto my back through the large windows, and how I'd chewed on the end of my pencil (I'd yet to get my pen licence) wondering what to write. He'd been there, of course, nudging my arm and wanting to know what I'd written, asking if I could come over that night and pouting when I said that it was my sister's birthday and we were going out. All of that came through crystal clear, so it was strange my memory cut out when it came to the actual letter. Handily increased the anticipation of the day a bit though, I suppose.
When my name was called, I stepped forward and received a maternal hug from Ms Clarke.
"Here you are, May," she said, handing over the sky blue envelope with my shaky, 8 year old handwriting proclaiming 'May Childs' on the front. "I hope you left some words of wisdom for yourself."
I strongly doubted it, but I nodded anyway and took my letter over to one of the low plank benches that lined the main brick building. I distinctly remembered having to clamber up onto these seats when I went here, but I felt like Gulliver in Lilliput sitting on them as an adult.
A quick glance around showed me that some people, like the Shaun/Sean partnership, had opened their letters with someone else, but that the majority of us had picked a quiet corner to peruse them. That principal back in 1985 had known his stuff. I, at least, felt that there was something about being 25 that made you want to have a check-in with your past self. Call it a quarter life crisis or whatever, but it was the age when most people's personal anthem seemed to switch from Alright by Supergrass, to The Logical Song by Supertramp; from '…we are young, we are free…' to '…please tell me who I am'. And who better to ask than yourself?
I ripped open the envelope and pulled out the lined paper, noting, with a pang of nostalgia, the carefully drawn margin down the left hand side. The letters had been sealed just as they were, with no proof-reading or corrections made by Ms Clarke and, as such, the handwriting was higgledy piggledy, the words misspelt and the grammar atrocious. With some difficultly, I put my head down and started to decipher it.
Dear Future Me
Hello! Ms Clarke says you'll be 25 when your reading this. I hope you go to bed whenever you want.
Ms Clarke says we should talk about what we want to be so that you can see if its the same. I want to be a race car driver and a zookeeper and a garbage truck man that gets to hang on the back of the truck and the woman in the ad who eats a whole cake. Are you those things? I hope you are.
Whos your best friend? Mine is Eddie. Is it still Eddie in the future? I hope your married to him then you could be together all the time because my mum says you can't be with your friends all the time when your grown up. I want to be with Eddie all the time because hes my best friend. I'll tell you why hes my best friend. One time he gave me his sandwitch because mine had beetroot and I don't like beetroot. One time he laughed at one of my jokes and cordial came out of his nose. One time he let me play on his gameboy all day because I was sad even though its his favorte and he didn't get to play on it (do you have a gameboy? I hope you do). One time I had to speak in front of the class and I got nervus and people laughed and Eddie told them to shut up even tho he got in trouble for saying shut up and he said he didn't mind. One time he taught me how to wistle on a gum leaf. One time I fell over and riped my jeans and he coloured in my leg with blue texta so I wouldn't get in trouble.
Do you like the future? Do you have helth and welth? Mum says your helth is your welth so I hope you have them. Also Eddie says to ask if you have a jetpack because his asking his future him and he thinks if we both have jetpacks we could fly around everywere together so I hope you do have a jet pack.
p.s. heres a picture of me and Eddie with jet packs.
And, sure enough, the bottom half of the back of the paper was filled with the image of two stick-like figures zooming about amongst 'm' shapes presumably meant to represent birds.
I read over the letter a couple more times and then sat back and stared over the playground as it was bathed in the amber glow of the late October afternoon.
Given an audit by my 8 year old self, I felt there would've been pluses and minuses to my current situation in life. I do go to bed whenever I want and, in a particularly low pre-menstrual moment, I had once eaten a whole cake to myself. Plus, my health probably was my wealth considering my actual wealth was fairly unwell. Unfortunately, also non-existent in my life were jet packs and Gameboys, and my working days were not spent as a race car driver, a garbage truck man, a zoo keeper or a woman on an ad.
As for all that stuff about marrying Eddie and being with him always...
As if on cue, I heard someone shout: "Eduard? Oh my God, it is you, I thought it was!"
And, just like that, letters were suddenly being thrown aside as the proverbial tall, dark and handsome man in a suit materialised at the entrance to the vault and was swarmed by his former classmates. Apparently the cult of Eddie had not lost its appeal, he still seemed to be best friends with everyone. Except me.
The fact of the matter was that Eddie and I, despite the myriad of hopes detailed in the letter I held, had abruptly, and conclusively, stopped being friends a few months after I'd expressed said hopes, and I had absolutely no idea why. All I knew was that, at the start of grade 4, after a long summer apart as he went off on a fishing trip with his dad, I'd been deemed surplus to requirements. Eddie grew to have more friends than he knew what to do with, whilst I was left to find a new pack…and, yes, it still rankled.
It wasn't as if I didn't know that friends grew apart and that sometimes there was no specific reason why people move on from each other, but it was the suddenness of the whole thing that I still didn't get. My time capsule letter had pretty categorically shown just how enamoured of him I'd been and, I'd thought, he was of me, so what the hell had happened?
We hadn't turned into enemies or anything; it was more like we became acquaintances who had read the other person's diary once years ago. He knew I got so anxious about the athletics carnival and how I'd lose in every event each year that I would be physically sick. I knew that his dad had gone as if to hit him once and that Eddie'd walked on eggshells around him ever since. But we never spoke of those, or any other of the myriad of snippets we knew of each other, after grade 3. We never spoke at all.
In the middle years of high school I'd, rather predictably, developed a bit of a crush on him; relishing in the ever-so-romantic concept of the love I couldn't have. For a while I went through an E.E. Cummings stage and wrote 'I carry your heart with me (I carry it in my heart)' on all my books and felt very deep and jilted about it all, but it never amounted to anything, and I'd tried not to think about him too much since leaving school. It was a technique that had varying degrees of success.
The trouble was that he was our community's 'boy done good'. It seemed like every time I talked to anyone from back home there'd be a moment when they'd suddenly say: 'And have you heard about Eduard Kingsley?' Of course he'd had to go and get rich and successful whilst I was left meandering my way through life as an eternal student; clinging to higher education as a way of feeling like I was doing something with my life whilst not actually doing anything of the sort.
We were friends on Facebook as well, so I had a ringside seat to his success. For every 'beautiful sunrise from an aeroplane window on my way to an interstate business meeting' photo he posted, there was a matching one of me having just downed 4 tequila shots and accepting a dare to wear a banana on my head for the rest of the night. It did rather put one's life into perspective. Which is not to say that I think he was disdainful of my uni life compared to his corporate one. On the contrary, he seemed to like my photos and statuses with an almost alarming regularity, although he'd never made any actual contact.
And there he was now, greeting everyone cheerfully, shaking hands and kissing cheeks like a pro. He was like a sleazy politician without the sleaze…so, basically, a good guy pleased to see people without agenda. It was a bit sickening and I wished I'd turned up in my grotty study clothes so I could've hammed up the illusion that I didn't care about seeing him again.
I looked back down at my letter, irritated by how grumpy and unkind I was being. 8 year old me would undoubtedly have been horrified by my unwarranted snarkiness towards her bestest buddy. I needed to just pull up my big girl pants and be the gracious human being Ms Clarke would want me to be. I'd catch Eddie's eye once the tumult of his fans had calmed down and send him a cheery smile and wave from afar. I'd exude pleasant 'good for you doing well for yourself, I'm in no way still hung up on your sudden abandonment of 17 years ago, and my subsequent unrequited crush' vibes, and we'd both move on with our lives. Lovely.
"Hi, May." I jerked my head up to see that, whilst I'd been planning our non-committal, long-distance greeting, Eddie'd had other ideas.
I gaped at him, at his sharp suit and ever-so-slightly strained smile, and then somehow, I have no bloody idea how, he'd drawn me up into a hug. It wasn't a presumptuous hug, or a personal-space-invading hug, it was just the sort of hug you'd give an old friend whom you hadn't seen for a while…which I guess is what I was?
Just for the record, he smelt amazing. Like, if our school had voted on people 'most likely to' like American teen films had led me to believe was a thing, he'd have been voted most likely to pick exactly the right cologne to match his pheromones. That was a category, right?
"Eddie Kingsley, as I live and breathe!" I exclaimed as we drew back from each other, sounding, oh horror of horrors, exactly like my mother. What was I saying? I'd never said 'as I live and breathe' in my life! "What the hell are you doing here?" OK, that second bit sounded a lot more like me.
"Same as you." He held up his own blue envelope. "Checking in with my inner child."
He sat down on the bench and, somewhat dazed, I sank back down next to him.
"I don't think anyone thought you'd come," I said, glancing over to where the majority of the class were still standing, staring in surprise at Eddie's apparent abandonment of them in favour of me. As well they might. "Aren't you a big captain of industry now?" I babbled on. "Who keeps the capitalist ship sailing if you're not on deck?"
Eddie looked at me steadily for a moment, his expression unreadable. "The First Mate of the Free Market," he replied seriously in the end, "I would've thought that was obvious."
I blushed, realising too late how judgy my words had sounded.
"Just so long as it isn't the Cabin Boy of Communism," I joked feebly. "I've heard that kid's always been a real thorn in your side."
He smiled and then, apparently willing to let the laboured metaphor lie, changed the subject. "You just back in town for tonight?"
"A couple of days," I corrected him. "It's my sister's-"
"- birthday, right," he finished for me. "How's she doing?"
"My sister?" I asked in some surprise, because come on! He'd barely spoken to me for coming up two decades and now he was asking after my family? "She's fine. She's engaged." I had no idea why I'd added that last, superfluous, piece of information, but he seized upon it like it was the most fascinating thing he'd ever heard.
"That's great!" He said heartily, adding, "Isn't it?" as I raised my eyebrows.
"She certainly seems to think so." Hearing how dour that sounded, I amended, "Honestly, they're a sweet couple, I'm really happy for them."
"And how about you?" He asked and I wondered for a mad moment whether my slight delirium over suddenly being so close to him after so long meant that I'd been carrying the conversation on in my head without actually saying the words out loud.
"Like I said," I began cautiously, "I'm happy for-"
"No, I mean…" he trailed off meaningfully, but I could only look back blankly for a couple of seconds before I copped to what he was intimating and scoffed loudly.
"Do I have a fiancé?" I asked. "No, not even close!" My mouth closed with a snap and I glared down at my feet. Again, why had I added that last bit?! I may as well have screamed 'I'm a sad-sack loser who repels men'.
"What about you?" I rallied, feeling that I shouldn't be the only one confronted with personal questions so soon after making the re-acquaintance and, to be honest, curious to know. The grapevine of small town gossip headed by my mother hadn't told me he was seeing someone, but even their substantial investigative powers had been known to fail.
There was a pause, and then…
"No, I'm not with anyone," he said, something about the bold way he declared it making me feel even hotter around the face.
Perhaps sensing my unease, he quickly looked away and put us onto a new topic. "And do I take it from your disdain about my capitalistic ways that you've been working towards a higher purpose?"
Continuing with the theme of the afternoon, it took me a moment to realise we'd moved on from 'are you dating anyone?' to the other reunion standby of 'what do you do now?' To be honest, it wasn't a topic I was necessarily any more comfortable discussing.
"I'm just finishing off a Masters Degree," I said, sounding flat even to my own ears.
"Not loving it?" He queried, obviously noting my lack of enthusiasm, and I quickly wrapped my thin cardigan more closely around myself in, what I saw too late, was the most overtly defensive gesture imaginable.
"No, it's been fine, it's just…" it was humiliating admitting it to someone who I knew was so successful, but I forced myself to finish, "I have no idea what comes next, you know?"
"The great unknown," he said understandingly and, when I looked at him in quick surprise, he laughed. "What? You don't think I've been having, on average, about 6 heart attacks a week since I left school? It's hard when you start off, but I don't doubt you'll figure it out."
What. Was. Happening?
I couldn't seriously be sitting at my old primary school casually chatting about life, love and the universe with my old bud, Eddie, could I? It just didn't make any sense!
Grappling to pull the situation back to something approximating normality, I looked down and saw his letter still sitting unopened in his hand. That's why he was here, that's why our paths had crossed and we were having this chat, that was all.
"Cheers." I cleared my throat awkwardly. "So, are you going to open that letter or what?"
For a moment he almost looked as if he didn't know what I was talking about, but then he finally switched his focus to his envelope, and I breathed a small sigh of relief.
I made myself look away while he read his letter, desperately wanting to know what it said and, more specifically, whether I featured in his as much as he had in mine, but knowing better than to read someone else's mail. Even if it was only, or maybe especially because it was, correspondence between himself.
After several seconds' perusal, Eddie let out a snort and refolded the paper.
"And?" I quizzed when he didn't immediately say anything. "Are you enlightened? Did your past self have anything earth-shattering to impart?"
He shook his head. "Not really. My 8 year old self liked video games, TV and you, and didn't like the boring sitting in the boat bits of fishing. Nothing earth-shattering in that. Wanna swap?"
He held his letter out to me and I hesitated, mentally scrolling back through my own. I mean, it'd been pretty Eddie-heavy, but then he'd said that I was mentioned in his…
"C'mon, Childs," he prodded with a tease, "there can't be much about you at 8 that I don't already know, can there?"
He had a point and so I reluctantly passed mine across to him, taking his in my other hand as I did so.
His letter was shorter than mine, but the handwriting was even worse so it probably actually took me longer to read.
How are you? I'm good. I'm sitting in class riting to you but I don't know were you are. Maybe the moon! How is the moon? Is it good?
Do you play Nintendo? My favourite is Mario Kart. I can beet my brother on it now.
Are you marred to May? You shod hav 3 kids. They shod be named Rocky, Tommy and Kat. May is my best frend. She is good at bomberman. I sit next to her. She likes twisties and her cat. Her cat is called Marvin.
What do you like? I like soccer and Power Rangers and transformers. I like fishing wen I catch fish but I do not like sitting in the boat with no fish. Dad says thats the best part but I do not like it
Do you have a jetpack? May and I want to fly on them. Maybe I'll be a jetpack tester wen I'm older. Am I?
It was a ridiculously endearing letter and I found myself smiling at his stream of consciousness and his belief that his future entailed the moon and jetpacks.
"There's a lot of 'I hope' in yours," Eddie said, drawing my attention back to present day him as he added, with a bit of a smirk, "and a fair bit of me."
"You're one to talk," I protested. "I wasn't the one who named our three kids!"
"Fair point," he grinned, "although you'll notice I named them after Power Rangers."
"Classy," I deadpanned, before looking over his letter again. "God, I'd forgotten about Bomberman," I admitted. "I rocked that game."
"You really did," he granted, "it was a bit scary, actually. Did I really colour your leg in to make it look like you hadn't ripped your jeans? I have no memory of that."
I nodded. "You did. I mean, it didn't work, my mum figured it out the second I walked through the door, but I guess I appreciated the thought."
He shifted on the bench and I suppressed a smile at how out-of-place he looked, all long-legged and smartly dressed on a seat designed for primary school kids. He didn't seem bothered by it, however, and continued, "I remember Marvin, though, how's he doing?"
I laughed, the awkwardness from our previous, more serious, tête-à-tête all but forgotten as he asked after a pet from so long ago. "Shuffled off this mortal coil, I'm afraid," I confessed. "Way back in grade 8."
Where I felt more comfortable, he suddenly seemed much less so and, face falling, he muttered, "Oh right, I didn't know."
I looked at him oddly. "It's been 17 years," I pointed out. "And he was a cat. Did you think we'd been sneaking him sips from the fountain of youth?"
"No, I mean I didn't know he'd died in grade 8." There was a guiltiness in the way he said those words and I felt a little crawl in my belly as I realised what he was obliquely referring to.
"Yeah, well," I said bluntly, "we weren't really talking much by then, were we?"
"You wouldn't credit it looking at these." He gestured to the letters we held.
"I didn't credit it at the time," I countered, trying not to sound too accusing, but probably falling a few centimetres short of the mark.
He blew a heavy breath out between his lips. "May likes Twisties, her cat and not beating about the bush," he said sardonically.
"No lie in that," I agreed, looking at him searchingly. "So is this it?" I wasn't able to stop myself asking. "Is this where you tell me why you suddenly stopped talking to me?"
He rubbed uneasily at his jaw. "I guess so," he said slowly. "I mean, it's stupid. You're going to think it's…I do. I was such a…" he tripped over his words and I felt my brow furrow, wondering where the self-assured businessman of a few moments ago had sloped off to.
"It's going to sound completely pathetic," he said stoutly in the end, "because it is. You remember my dad, right?"
I was further taken aback by the unexpected topic shift, but nodded my head; Eddie's dad wasn't exactly someone you forgot in a hurry. He was the kind of man who was all buddy-buddy and friendly one minute, and then yelling and cursing the next; the ultimate in scary unpredictability. Not having to interact with him again had been the one bright spot in so suddenly losing my best friend.
"Yeah." I put enough weight behind that one word to show that I didn't just remember his father, I remembered him.
"And you know he took me on that fishing trip over the summer between grades 3 and 4, right?" I nodded again. "Right, so he basically just spent the whole time talking about how real men weren't friends with girls," he said all in a rush. "How I'd start to like them properly in a few years, but that it was weird to be friends with you as an 8 year old, crap like that."
"Nice guy, your dad," I said flatly, comprehension starting to dawn.
"That's one way to describe him," he said grimly. "I've used plenty of others. But, I don't know, I was 8. He basically spent a solid month talking me out of being friends with you and he was kind of king of the world from where I was sitting, so-"
"I get it." Those three words were so often used passive-aggressively, but nothing could've been further from the truth for me in that moment. What I meant was that I got it. After years and years of not understanding, I finally did in a great lightning flash of the obvious. Why hadn't I connected it all before?
"I'm really sorry-" Eddie tried to continue, but I cut him off again.
"Jesus, no, don't be," I objected. "Your dad…I should've figured it out."
"OK, so take 8 year old me off the hook," he agreed, turning to me, his expression constricted. "But when I was old enough to realise that everything my old man said was a total crock, I should've, I don't know, tried to be your friend again."
He looked so earnest, but I couldn't help letting out a short "Ha!" of incredulity. "And how would that have gone down?" I asked, suddenly allowing myself to see his side of it after all these years and realising just how difficult it would've been to reverse the situation. "You'd have just thrown aside the years of silence and the puberty and the social norms of high school and crossed that great divide to try and be my friend again? I mean, that would've been great," I hastened to add when he looked a bit crestfallen at having his apology so brutally rebuffed, "but I understand now why you didn't attempt it."
For another couple of seconds he remained taut beside me and then, like a pressure valve had been released, his whole body relaxed. "So I'm forgiven?" He asked quietly.
"I guess so."
I'd never really appreciated before just how lonely my feelings about Eddie had been back then. I mean, he hadn't stopped talking to anybody else, it'd only been me, but now I could see that I wasn't the only one who'd carried that around. If anything, it appeared to have weighed even heavier upon him, an assessment backed up as he leant in and said lowly, "God, May, you have no idea. I've been working up to this for-"
"Hey, you two! We're moving on to the pub." We both jerked in surprise, and looked up to see Adrian Muswell (why is it you always remember the full names of people you went to primary school with?) gesturing for us to get a move on.
There was a heavily awkward pause, the moment well and truly broken, and then I stood, an ungainly move thanks to the stupidly low bench.
"Well," I said, somewhat bracingly, "I've already paid my $10 for the buffet and am never one to turn my nose up at a feed. You coming?" I'd tried to find the balance between inviting, but not overeager in those last two words, but was fairly sure the undertone of 'please say you're coming, we were just getting somewhere!' shone through painfully brightly.
If it had, it didn't seem to turn him off any, and he was on his feet and falling into step beside me as we began the charmingly short walk from the primary school to the pub in no time at all.
The others had waited for us, so there was no chance for him to finish off his comment about what he'd been working up to as we were swamped by everyone's recollections and catch ups. I tried not to put too much weight on it, though, as I politely listened to the people around me. He'd been working up to explaining what had happened and, now he had, that was all.
And yet, there'd been something about the way he'd been looking at me before we'd been interrupted...
"It was good to see you and Eduard together." I turned to see that Ms Clarke had come up beside me and, despite my minor case of the 'inner-turmoils', I couldn't help but smile to see her. "You two used to be inseparable, it was sad to see how you stopped being friends."
"Yeah, we were just talking about that, actually," I agreed. "We're very much bygones now…as you'd imagine after 17 years!" I gave a flippant little laugh, but she looked back at me gravely.
"People carry things around," she said wisely, "and, as per the old adage, even the smallest of things can become heavy if you don't let them go. I'm pleased you've worked it out." She patted my arm and it felt like a benediction from the highest authority.
Ms Clarke had barely moved away to proffer her significant wisdom to others, when we reached the dusty old pub and entered to see that a long table had been set up to accommodate us all. In the way that human nature dictated, we all milled around for a couple of seconds, dithering as we waited for someone to make the first move towards it. When someone did, and with the aid of a few sidelong glances and some fancy footwork, Eddie and I manoeuvered ourselves, with all pretence of coincidence, so that we were next to each other as we took our seats.
We'd only spent a few minutes not in conversation on the walk over, but even that short absence, combined with Ms Clarke's blessing, had served to clear the majority of the conflicted feelings I'd come into the reunion with regarding him. It was such a relief to finally be rid of those many years of 'whys' that, as we settled ourselves, I found myself beaming at him.
"What's that for?" Eddie asked, even as he grinned just as widely back.
"I'm just glad we talked," I said honestly.
It looked like he would've said more, but someone leant over to ask me about what I was studying before he had a chance and, feeling suddenly a lot more positive about my life decisions, I turned to politely answer them.
And that's how the next hour or so progressed. Every time there was a break and I tried to check back in with Eddie, he was deep in conversation with someone and vice versa. I felt his eyes on me often, though, and would look back at him when I did, our gazes briefly locking before our attention was pulled away again.
A fizzing had begun in my belly, a jittery excitement that grew with each glance, with each failed attempt to recapture each other's attention. Why, hello crush, my old friend, nice to see you again…
Eventually, however, after a particularly lengthy period of time spent with our backs to each other, Eddie seemed to have had enough. I felt him tap me on the shoulder just as I was congratulating Jacynta Bernacki, who'd said she wanted to be a doctor in her letter to herself and was a doctor (or nearly) at 25, on her excellent follow-through.
"Sorry, Jacynta," he said politely, "but do you mind if I borrow May for a sec? If you're OK to be borrowed," he added for my benefit.
Jacynta gave us a knowing look with a healthy side of 'you kids have fun' and I tried not to appear too eager as I leapt to my feet, nodding heartily.
"Outside?" Eddie suggested as I was forced to glare down someone who was approaching with an unmistakable 'so what are you doing with yourself these days?' look in her eyes.
"Absolutely," I agreed, and we slipped out into the overgrown garden at the back, the cool air and soft, dusky light a welcome relief after the packed bar.
"Did you get a chance to chat with Ms Clarke?" He asked as, by unspoken agreement, we sat down on a bench at the far end of the unkempt lawn.
"I did," I tried to concentrate on answering his question like I hadn't noticed that we'd sat facing each other, and that our knees were brushing. "She's great, hey? Imagine being one of those people that someone still thinks about years after the fact."
There was a beat of silence, and then Eddie let out a sudden weird sort of half laugh, half choke thing that made me raise an eyebrow. "What?" I asked as I saw that he was looking at me disbelievingly.
He rubbed his jaw, that awkward move again, and I saw that there was something white clutched in his fist. It looked like a napkin, but I didn't get a chance to ask him about it as, in the tones of one who couldn't believe what he was saying, he murmured, "I'm just going to put it out there that you don't need to imagine that."
"Meaning?" I asked slowly and he took a deep breath.
"Meaning I pretty much only came to this on the off-chance that you'd be here."
"Oh." As the fizzing in my stomach threatened to reach the 'bubbling over the top' stage, I could only think to pluck at the jade green material that 'I'd fanned becomingly across my lap as we'd sat down and admit, "In that case, in the interests of full disclosure, I guess I should let you know that I wore this dress in case you came."
He looked down at the garment in question, studying it seriously before announcing, "It's nice."
The moment hung heavy with expectation. We gazed at each other, my internal monologue a repetitive jumble of 'is he…? Are we…? Really? Now? Eddie? I hope we are… Is he…? Are we…?'
He lifted his left hand and gently traced the curve of my cheek with his thumb, a caress and a question in one. In answer, I tilted my head ever so slightly to one side and leant in until I felt his mouth close over mine. We kissed slowly and softly; acquaintances who had read the other person's diary once years ago…and had liked what they'd seen.
"Wow," I said, as we drew back after a couple of seconds, tentative of the newness of it all.
"Yeah, I wonder what our 8 year old selves would've thought of that." Eddie's lips curved against the corner of my mouth and I let out a little puff of laughter.
"They'd probably have been horrified," I said truthfully, although, as he made as if to pull away, I quickly clarified, "my 25 year old self, however…" And kissed him again, fiercer this time, emboldened as I was by the success of our first attempt.
As he reached up to cup my face again, I heard a rustle and opened my eyes to see that the napkin I'd spied the corner of before had fluttered down to rest between us.
"What's that?" I asked and, following my gaze to the item in question, he suddenly looked a bit embarrassed.
"Yeah, uh…" he picked it up and I saw that it had writing on it. "When I was back in there," he nodded towards the pub, "I thought I'd take a moment to, you know, write back to myself."
"Really?" I asked, trying to pull my just-kissed self back together as I could tell he found some importance in what he held. "What, your grade 3 self?"
"Yeah. Do you…" he gave a little cough, "…d'you want to read it?"
Was he mad? 'Course I did! "Hand it over," I reached for it imperiously and he obediently passed the crumpled paper towel across to me.
With one hand I smoothed the napkin out, but with the other I hesitantly reached out to link my fingers through his. It was a relief to feel him immediately squeeze my hand back, and I happily turned my attention to the letter that I saw almost at once echoed his previous one and was every bit as endearing.
How are you? I'm good. I'm sitting in a pub writing to you. I'm not on the moon, but that's OK because I reckon the company is better down here.
I am still excellent at Mario Kart and beat my brother way more than he beats me.
I'm sorry to say that I'm not married to May and we don't have any kids. I'm going to ask her out, though. I'm going to suggest we play Bomberman and eat Twisties, and try and convince her that Rocky is an awesome name.
I still like soccer and Transformers, and I'd probably still like Power Rangers, if I'm honest, I just haven't seen it for a while. Unfortunately our dad's a bit of a dud, so we don't go fishing together anymore, but we go with Uncle Jimmy and you'll be pleased to know that the boring bits aren't as boring when you're older.
Head's up that you're going to be a bit of jerk at the start of next year and stop talking to May because of something stupid our dad said. You'll feel crap about it and hurt her feelings and it'll be one of your biggest regrets. On the plus side, you'll go to this letter digging up thing and see her again and be able to apologise in person. She's amazingly cool about it all because, as you know, she's that kind of person.
No sign of a jetpack yet, mate, but if I ever do get one rest assured May'll be the first person I ask to go flying with me.
p.s. Here's a picture of May and you/me with jetpacks.
A lump swelled in my throat as I looked over his, truly atrocious, sketch of the two of us flying with jetpacks. A captain of industry he may have been, but an artist he certainly wasn't...which was not to say it wasn't still the best picture I'd ever seen.
I wanted to read over his letter again and again, but I could feel Eddie looking at me intently, waiting for my response, so contented myself with just a couple of re-reads and then carefully refolded it and met his gaze.
"You know what?" I said firmly.
"What?" He asked, his tone distinctly nervous.
"I'm going to absolutely annihilate you at Bomberman."
He let out a short bark of relieved laughter and immediately reached out to draw me back in against him.
17 years was a long time. Puberty and adulthood and all manner of life-altering events had moulded Eddie and me into completely different people. As I matched him smile for smile, kiss for kiss, however, I was struck by how similar the important things were.
17 years ago Eddie Kingsley and I had wanted to fly jetpacks together. And we still did.
Hello! Been a while, hey? I swear I've been trying to finish something, anything, for about a year now and then this story turned up and consented to being thrown together in less than 24 hours. Writing is weird.
I had my own sweet, hippy, 'native flowers are our future' Ms Clarke in grade 5 who wrote in my report that my storytelling was 'particularly entertaining' (and that I needed to work harder in maths…). Shout out to the teachers whom you remember, for all the right reasons, 17+ years after they taught you.