Hennessy New Irish Writing: August 2018’s winning story

How We Met, a short story by Lauren Mackenzie

No running. The school had painted the edict on the playground’s brick walls and shouted it in all caps in weekly memos. Illustration: Gavin Connell

No running. The school had painted the edict on the playground’s brick walls and shouted it in all caps in weekly memos. Illustration: Gavin Connell

 

No running. The school had painted the edict on the playground’s brick walls and shouted it in all caps in weekly memos. Clare did her best but thought it a hopeless task. Stopping children running was like trying to stop the world from turning. It was a glorious spring day. She had retreated to a quiet corner of the playground during break, tilted her face to the sun and let the warmth wash over her. A drip of sweat rolled down her spine. A light breeze skidded up her arm. The children’s high-pitched, happy squealing evolved into sleep-inducing white noise. She let her eyes close.

When Lucy Hunter-Byrne ran head-first, smack-bang into a corner wall, Clare was thinking about the newly divorced dad of one of her five-year-olds. She wanted to initiate a text conversation, a casual bit of banter on a topic they could pick up after school, toss about, update at morning drop-off. After careful consideration, she’d dismissed making his son the topic. The boy could never be mistaken for gifted and suggesting a child had problems when they didn’t would only lead to trouble. Eventually, she accepted that using the child at all was completely counter-productive. She needed newly divorced dad to see her as something other than his son’s junior infants’ teacher.

In Clare’s recounting of the day, she admitted she hadn’t seen nor heard a thing, but she had felt a shift in the air, a tiny tremor, moments before Ruby Paredes swamped her, screaming. She tried hard to calm Ruby down but as soon as Ruby stopped to take a breath, another child started up. Slowly, dozens of little hands pulled her in the right direction. And there was Lucy, standing all alone, dripping blood from her head to her toes, looking like first prize in a Halloween contest. Except she was five and Clare was supposed to be in charge.

She ran, tripping over children, please please please let it not be serious, and dropped to her knees in front of Lucy. Right in the middle of Lucy’s forehead was a four-centimetre vertical split, dark red and dripping like a tap. Lucy was worryingly quiet, but when prompted she knew her name and she knew where she was. Clare found a tissue in her pocket and pressed on the wound. The blood oozed through her fingers, the tissue a mere courtesy. She took Lucy’s tiny hand in hers and they walked very slowly to the principal’s office, a horde of sombre five-year-olds trailing behind them.

The principal called the parents who, thankfully, understood the definition of accident. Both were busy, important people and would have difficulty extricating themselves from work to get to the school within an hour. Lucy’s mother asked if it would make sense for someone to bring her to Dr Harris, their GP, rather than spend an eternity in the children’s hospital and risk Lucy catching some awful vomiting bug. The clinic was only down the road from the school. Clare was confident Lucy was fine, a little shook, at worst she might need a stitch. Her offer to bring Lucy to the doctor herself was met with relief. In that moment, Clare felt both exhilaration and deep, gut-rolling shame. She saw herself, in years to come, surrounded by friends at a candlelit dinner, offering the story of little Lucy Hunter-Byrne as irrefutable evidence of divine intervention.

Dr Harris just happened to be a newly divorced dad.

Lucy’s wound had swollen and now looked like a Fabergé egg; pale blue with a ruby insert, encircled by tiny gold curls. She was silent, all eyes, staring up at them. With the principal’s help, Clare mopped up the blood as best she could and taped a large piece of gauze over the wound. Outside, the crowd of children parted for them, silently waving bye bye as they passed.

Clare strapped Lucy into the back seat of her car and told her she was being very brave. She assured her Dr Harris would make her better. He’d probably make her laugh too. But she was not to get distracted by his lovely smile. She needed to play it a little cool in the circumstances. Clare wasn’t sure if she’d said the last out loud and Lucy was giving nothing away. She asked if she was still okay? Lucy whispered that she felt a bit sick in her tummy. Clare fought her panic. No, you can’t feel sick, that would suggest concussion, that would mean we should drive you straight to the children’s hospital. She opened her window. It’s hot and stuffy in here and you’ve had a shock. Take some deep breaths, Lucy. In. Out. In. Out. Lucy did as she was told. A cool breeze wafted over them. That’s better isn’t it? Lucy nodded.

At the clinic, Clare ensured they were bumped up the queue. Dr Harris would see them as soon as he was done with his current patient. Clare couldn’t decide whether she should pretend it was a total coincidence and she had no idea he worked here. Or that she knew and brought Lucy to him specially, certain he was the only one who could be trusted with her precious charge. It wasn’t that she thought he was vain, on the contrary she thought the opposite.

She hadn’t really noticed him at first, it always took her some time to match parents with children and another couple of weeks to find out the parents’ proper names. In Dr Harris’ case, it was even longer because he only did the school run on Wednesday afternoons, Thursday mornings and Friday afternoons. Then came last Friday. A wild, raggedy wind was whipping everyone up. The children waiting to be picked up had folded in on themselves like a litter of puppies. Parents zig-zagged across the yard, hampered by younger siblings clinging to their legs.

A small girl, holding tight to a red ball, was blown over. She lay flat on her back, unharmed thanks to her padded snowsuit. There wasn’t a peep out of her until she discovered the wind had snatched the ball out of her hands. Then she screamed blue murder. Dr Harris pursued the ball until it rolled under a portacabin. Like Superman, he divested himself of coat and suit jacket to crawl under, emerging moments later, with the ball in his hands. Everyone cheered. It was only after he’d pulled his jacket and coat back on, that he noticed the filthy state of his hands. Clare offered him the children’s bathroom to clean himself up. He thanked her politely but then, as he passed her on the steps to the classroom he lunged towards her, muddy hands outstretched. She jumped and squealed like a 12-year-old. He winked and continued on, leaving her to blush in private and wonder what exactly was in that wink.

She heard her name called and there he was, filling the doorway to the waiting room. All bright blue eyes and generous eyebrows. She smiled and stood up, going with pleasant surprise. You? Here? How funny? His smile dropped, and a rabbit hole opened up at her feet. She’d been so sure there’d been a little bit of magic between them. He stepped right up to her, looking in her eyes, asking what happened, his hands at her waist lifting her top. She couldn’t breathe. Yes yes oh yes but not here? She glanced down to see what he was doing and then saw the blood all over her. He’d mistaken Lucy’s blood for hers. She laughed as she pulled Lucy out from behind. Dr Harris didn’t hesitate. He swept Lucy up into his arms and carried her into his surgery.

Clare scurried along behind, assuming she should follow. He laid Lucy down on his table, all the while firing questions at Clare – did she lose consciousness, throw up, appear confused? All Clare heard was butterfly strips and the head bleeds like a bastard. She watched him tuck Lucy’s curls out of the way behind her ears before gently peeling the gauze off, millimetre by millimetre. He glued the wound closed, leaving a neat little line and sealed it with butterfly strips. At one point, Lucy flinched, and he stopped immediately, waiting for permission to continue. He’s so good with children, thought Clare, all the while wishing those hands were on her.

Lucy’s mother arrived, having found the traffic easier than expected. She was bright and funny as she fussed over Lucy, making her giggle for the first time since the accident. Clare understood, going by the calibre of the banter, that Dr Harris and Lucy’s mother knew each other well. She found herself backed into a corner, completely ignored. Dr Harris issued instructions to Lucy’s mother, keep the wound dry and watch her carefully, after a head injury, you can never be too careful. Anything changes, he said, take her straight to the children’s hospital. Clare remembered Lucy’s complaint in the car and was suddenly ill herself with the realisation that she should have said something and now it was too late. Lucy’s mother thanked Clare, promising her a little extra in her end-of-term teacher present. Clare could only nod, all language had left her. And then they were gone.

Dr Harris asked Clare if she was okay, was there anything he could do for her? Everything, Clare thought. Time passed. She might’ve shook her head, he might’ve said something about shock. He reached into a desk drawer, dug around in the back and pulled something out. For emergencies, he said. It was a round, orange lollipop wrapped in cellophane. Then he laid his hand on the small of her back and nudged her out of his surgery.

Later that night, as she readied herself for bed, Clare could still feel the imprint of his hand on her back. She remembered the lollipop and dug it out of her bag. She hadn’t given up on her plans for Dr Harris, but she was struggling to keep at bay an overwhelming fear that Lucy had sunk into a coma and was now fighting for her life. Clare paced, lollipop in hand. She reassured herself there was nothing she could do now. The only person who knew that Clare knew Lucy felt ill after the accident was Lucy herself and if Lucy really was in a concussion-induced coma then she wasn’t about to tell anybody anything.

Clare also understood, as she tore the cellophane off the lollipop, that tomorrow morning at school, no matter what, she and Dr Harris would have something to chat about. She gave the lollipop a tentative lick. It was orange-flavoured and intensely sweet. She put the whole thing in her mouth and sucked hard.

Lauren Mackenzie is a screenwriter. She was born in Sydney, Australia, lives in Dublin, and is currently doing an MA in creative writing at University College, Dublin. She was recently shortlisted for the 2018 Cuirt New Writing Prize and has had a poem published in The Moth Magazine.

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