by Sandra Arnold
Of course I’d noticed Bonnie Fitzpatrick. Everyone noticed her. Wherever she appeared, in the playground, in the streets, in the shops, people turned and stared. At the age of ten she was heart-stoppingly beautiful. Fine-boned, slight, shiny raven hair, big brown eyes and pretty clothes, sewn by her dressmaker mother. Always top of the class. Teacher’s pet. I heard grown-ups say that when Bonnie was older she’d break hearts. She’d be a stunner. Probably a film star. Probably famous. If I heard them say anything at all about me with my wiry ginger hair and freckles it was usually along the lines of ‘Some children improve when they get older.’
Even though Bonnie and I were in the same class I’d been too shy to speak to her until the day we bumped into each other as we rounded opposite corners at the Mission Hall. I was so surprised I dropped my shopping bag, spilling packets of soup and tins of corned beef on the pavement. She helped me pick up my bag and all the scattered bits and pieces and asked where I was going. I blushed beetroot red and said I was going to the chemist’s to pick up a prescription for my mother. She asked if she could come with me. I almost burst with pride that people would see her walking beside me. Me? The girl who lived in a shabby council house. The girl who wore second-hand clothes and scuffed shoes. The girl the teacher couldn’t resist shaming in front of the whole class for not knowing her multiplication tables. When we picked up the prescription Bonnie asked if I’d like to come to her house and play. I thought I would die of happiness.
On the way there I saw people’s heads turning in our direction. Bonnie seemed not to notice. Her house was a small pretty brick bungalow with a neat garden full of flowers. Across the road there was a forest which surrounded the mansion of a local factory owner. And surrounding the forest were vast acres of farmland. I’d always wanted to explore that forest. It struck me as dark and magical and mysterious, but I had strict instructions from my mother never to go near it, though she never explained why. Bonnie saw me looking at the forest as we walked up the path to her house. She opened the back door. In the living room her mother was lying on the sofa with a folded towel over her eyes. She lifted it to peer at us and said in a croaky voice that she had another migraine so could we girls go into the sitting room and play quietly. Instead, Bonnie said we’d go into the forest and play there. To my amazement her mother just nodded before putting the towel back over her eyes.
Over the following months I went to Bonnie’s house every weekend. On rainy days we went into the sitting room and read Bonnie’s books or wrote stories in a notebook. Each time there was Bonnie’s mother lying on the sofa with a towel over her eyes, always complaining she had a migraine. Occasionally, Bonnie’s father would drift in from digging the garden, greeting Bonnie with ‘Hello, my bonny little lass,’ and me with ‘Hello, again sweetheart,’ but not saying a word to his wife, who ignored him.
In the summer holidays we went into the forest every day. We flew down the path through the trees, pretending to be birds, and climbed into the highest branch of a big oak. Up there we gave each other different names and made up adventures involving our bravery in the face of danger. We wrote notes in a special code that only we could decipher and hid them in little hollows in the tree. We climbed along a low branch that stretched out over the stream and dangled our bare feet in the water, gazing down at our reflections, no sound but the singing of blackbirds, the wind rustling in the leaves and our own breathing.
I had never been so happy in my entire life, but though I tried not to think of it, I knew the end of the summer holidays was looming. In the new term we’d be going to different secondary schools. Before that happened I needed to clear a few things with Bonnie. For example, why was her mother always lying on the sofa? And why did she so often make mean comments when I visited their house? Like the time she said my father was too fat. I told her that when he was young he’d been an athlete and that my dad said when athletes got older their muscles turned to fat. Mrs. Fitzpatrick gave a hollow laugh and said he was fat because he stayed too long at the table. Another time, still lying on the sofa, she was looking at her rates bill. She told me it was very unfair that people like her had to pay a mortgage and also, through their rates, subsidise council houses for people like me. My face burned. Mr. Fitzpatrick happened to be walking through the room when she said that and he stopped and glared at her, shaking his head. She ignored him and as soon as he went out into the garden again she gave another laugh with no mirth in it and said there was nothing so hideous as a naked man, even a skinny one, and she couldn’t imagine how my mother could stand to see my fat father naked.
I was lying across the branch and gazing into the water while Mrs. Fitzpatrick’s words gripped the edges of my mind like the weeds I could see choking the edges of the stream. Just as I opened my mouth to say something to Bonnie she began to sing. I decided then it would be unwise to criticise her mother and that my criticism might spoil our last days together. Instead, I thought I’d tell her how much her friendship had meant to me all these months. But first I had to work out a way of saying this without sounding stupid. Unlike Bonnie, I was not good at expressing my thoughts. I listened to her sweet voice while I tried to think of the right words. As always, her singing brought tears to my eyes. When she finished her song I wiped my eyes with my hand and blurted, ‘You know, Bonnie, I really don’t know why you chose me for a friend. I really don’t know what you saw in me.’
Bonnie turned and looked at me. Then she laughed and said, ‘Well, you’re not pretty and you’re not clever. I suppose I felt sorry for you.’
My breath caught in my chest and something in me died.
I climbed down the tree and ran all the way home. I didn’t return to Bonnie’s house for the remaining days of the holidays. She had never come to my house before so my mother didn’t notice her absence.
At the beginning of the new term we went to separate secondary schools, Bonnie to an expensive private school and me to the local comprehensive. Later, she won a scholarship to Oxford. I went to the local redbrick. After a year I heard on the grapevine that Bonnie’s parents had left town when it became known that Bonnie was pregnant. Neighbourhood gossip reported the hurried registry office wedding instead of the grand affair her mother had been planning for years. Bonnie and her new husband disappeared overseas. ‘I always thought that lass would reach for the stars,’ someone said. ‘So much for that, eh?’
I graduated in Asian Studies and went travelling around Asia where I met my future husband who worked as an interpreter. After ten years we came back home on a visit and went to the local church at Easter. I saw Bonnie’s father in the front pew. Outside the church we went up to him to say hello. When he recognised me his eyes opened wide and he said, ‘Oh what a bonny lass you’ve turned into!’ I introduced my husband and asked how Bonnie was these days. He told us she and her husband and daughter were now back in England. Mrs. Fitzpatrick had died a year ago, he said, and Bonnie had come back to help him move house. He asked for my phone number and said he would ring Bonnie and tell her we were back in the country too.
I didn’t expect her to ring me, but she did. She suggested meeting one evening at a local pub. I wrote down the address she gave me and when I put down the phone I realised it was in the forest where we used to play.
When we drove down once-familiar roads to get to the pub I hardly recognised the place. All the surrounding farmland was gone, buried under sprawling housing developments. The forest was gone too, all the trees chopped down to make way for more subdivisions. We followed the path to where the oak tree once stood and in its place was the pub Bonnie had recommended. It was called “Ye Olde Oak.”
As we entered the pub I saw a dark-haired woman at a table in the corner with a man. They seemed to be arguing. The woman looked up and saw me staring at her. She quickly rearranged her expression and waved. A shiver ran down my spine. For a second or two I thought I was looking at Mrs. Fitzpatrick.
At a loss for words, just as I had been two decades earlier, the first thing I could think of to say as we approached was, ‘Why on earth did they destroy the forest?’
Bonnie shrugged and asked a passing waiter to bring us the menus.
Husband introductions over we sat down and stared at each other. I tried to break the ice by talking about the times we’d played here when the oak tree stood in this exact spot and all the adventures we’d planned in its branches. I thought we’d go on to tell each other about the real-life adventures we’d all had since. However, after fidgeting with the menu, Bonnie launched straight into a monologue about the academic qualifications she’d amassed while living in the USA and that she’d gained prominence in her field of astronomy. She asked no questions about travels or jobs or future plans. As she talked, I realised why I’d first thought I’d been looking at her mother. Her skin was lined and the roots of her hair were grey. She’d also put on weight. Her voice was full of gravel like a smoker’s. But more than that was my realisation that there was nothing in her conversation of the Bonnie I remembered. No humour, no excitement, no curiosity, no joy. Intent on impressing me with her achievements she seemed oblivious to the fact her husband was eyeing a group of young women laughing in the opposite corner. One of them with shiny black hair and sparkling eyes reminded me of Bonnie before she turned into her mother. I remembered the disparaging comments Mrs. Fitzpatrick had made about Bonnie’s father. I wondered if he still called his daughter ‘my bonny little lass.’
During Bonnie’s one-sided conversation I was aware of my husband’s polite fixed smile. When she finally stopped talking to drink some wine, he looked at me and raised one eyebrow. The signal for ‘how soon can we go?’
After two more hours we stood to say goodbye. Bonnie gave me a stiff hug. Her husband flapped his hand in our direction and walked away talking into his phone. I smiled at Bonnie and said I was happy to know she’d found her way back to the stars. She nodded and said we must catch up again sometime. We both knew we wouldn’t.
Sandra Arnold is the author of five books including The Ash, the Well and the Bluebell, Mākaro Press, NZ, Soul Etchings, Retreat West Books, UK and Sing no Sad Songs, Canterbury University Press, NZ. Her novella-in-flash The Bones of the Story will be published in the UK by Impspired Books in mid-2023. She has received nominations for The Best Small Fictions, Best Microfictions and The Pushcart Prize. She has a PhD in Creative Writing from Central Queensland University, Australia.