The Lost Generation, a short story by Rosemary Jenkinson
Past and present collide at a school reunion when a woman meets up with a lost love
As she walked into the La Mon, a hedonistic dance anthem was pumping out of one of the private rooms. It clearly didn’t belong to her reunion though she would have laughed if it had. She didn’t know why they’d chosen the La Mon anyway, as it never had the best of vibes about it since the bombing. All day she’d been keyed up, wondering who’d be there. Twenty-five years was a ferociously long time. And even if you didn’t show it much on the surface, the years were there somewhere inside you, like growth rings in a tree.
She saw the sign for her school and went in. A woman in heavy make-up let out a cry of delight and grabbed her.
Deep in the clinch, Kate didn’t have a clue who it was. The woman pointed to her name badge.
‘I’m Nina. Don’t you remember me?’
She could see the disappointment in Nina’s eyes. She played an image of the more reticent, eighteen-year-old Nina alongside this blond, sexualized woman. It didn’t really compute except for the same fun in the eyes.
‘Yeah, Nina, of course! It’s just your hair’s all straightened now,’ added Kate to soften the let-down. ‘So, what are you up to?’
‘I’m a yoga teacher.’
‘Divorced, one daughter. But I got the house,’ she crowed, ‘so it’s all good.’
Kate bought a pint and was buffeted by the force of Nina’s enthusiasm through several groups of old classmates. Her closest friends from school weren’t there. The women who’d turned up had tinted, straightened hair and plucked eyebrows, and the ghosts of their teenage faces only played in their smiles.
Kate gravitated immediately towards Lisa, the wild girl who’d been expelled. Lisa was wearing bohemian black, but anticlimactically revealed that she was a teacher now. Surely one of us, Kate thought to herself, could have been a brothel keeper or a computer hacker – a terrorist at the very least!
Some of the men were unrecognizable without their puppy fat. Alan ‘M-acne-roy’ McIlroy, as he’d been cruelly renamed back then, looked good now and you could hardly make out the scars under his hipsteresque stubble. In a misguided effort to be comic, he was wearing his old school tie. He screwed his eyes up when he was introduced to Kate, trying to place her. All it took was one puzzled glance to turn the night into a bruising arena, dispelling the illusion of how popular you were at school and reminding you of your own insignificance.
‘There’s Mark Matthews,’ Nina pointed out excitedly. ‘Let’s go over.’
Mark Matthews had possessed chiselled, heroin-chic good looks. The man of the same name was tubby and balding but turned the same intense eyes on them.
‘God, you used to be the school stud!’ exclaimed Kate with too much surprise for Mark’s liking.
‘Yeah,’ he said almost sheepishly.
‘You had sex with Miss Kernaghan, didn’t you?’
‘I was having a lot of sex back then,’ he grinned.
Kate kept playing a fragmented film of the past in her mind alongside the present; it was like the room was in split screen. She found a moment to escape on her own. Along the corridor, the dance music was still thumping. A couple of teenagers bounded out of the room, buzzing. They looked at her and giggled, their cheeks round and full, their lips like overripe fruit, like they could burst at any second.
It was late September. She drove Dan up the winding lane to Dundrum Castle, a faint sweetness in the air from the tangled bank of blackberries. It had been an achingly long summer between the end of school and the start of university but it was now her last night and she was packed to go to Bristol the next morning. Dan was leaving for London in a few days himself.
They reached the locked gates of the castle and she turned the car so it looked out over Dundrum Bay. They seemed to be the only ones there, though you never knew if a few glue-sniffers were hanging round the keep. In the distance, they could see the lights from the army base in Ballykinler reflected in iridescent shards on the dark water. The soldiers were shooting flares into the sky.
‘Northern Ireland’s version of a son et lumière,’ joked Kate wryly. ‘I’ll miss it.’
‘I got a leaving gift for you,’ Dan said, digging a box out of his shirt pocket.
She opened it to find a brooch he’d made for her. It was a tiny feather with strokes of colour through it; one of the feathers he used for fly fishing.
He kissed her. She could feel his pent-up frustration. He’d kissed her for the first time some weeks ago and it had been rough too. It was just him; the way he’d walked through the school corridors with a long, urgent stride like he wanted to move quickly in life and couldn’t wait. She pressed back hard too, grabbing the back of his neck. He pushed a hand in under her top; the other slipped down the front of her jeans.
‘Can we all sit down for dinner, please?’ said Ruth, who’d organized the reunion and seemed to be glorying a bit too much in reliving her role as head girl.
There was a cutesy touch of lots of retro sweets on the tables – Black Jacks, Fruit Salads, Refreshers, Love Hearts, Parma Violets…
Just then, Dan came in. She felt a heat rise in her chest as he walked over and hugged her.
‘Kate, it’s so great to see you.’
Ruth’s voice barked out, ‘Dan and Kate, could you sit down please?’
Dan tried to join another table of lads but there were no free seats, so, embarrassed, he sat down beside Kate after all. Kate looked at his wedding ring. She’d heard he’d married years ago from one of her relatives in Dundrum, so it wasn’t a surprise. He hadn’t changed much apart from a few flecks of grey and a few light lines round his eyes; upturned ones like ticks, no crosses.
‘So, what are you up to?’ he asked.
The truth was she was employed for only ten hours a week lecturing in English. She was part of the academic precariat and had just spent the summer on the dole, but there was no way she was going to admit it.
‘Lecturing at Queen’s,’ she replied, trying to move on quickly. ‘And you? Last time I heard you were working on oil rigs.’
‘Yeah, but I got made redundant. It was great – I was in Africa and Iraq.’
He told her eagerly all about Kenya. During a scary dispute he’d taken spears and knives off the workers.
She noticed that his blue eyes were bloodshot. It was probably nothing but it looked like he hadn’t slept all night, or he’d been crying or drinking.
‘So what do you do now?’ she asked.
‘I make seats for airplanes in Kilkeel. They employ eight hundred people there. It’s huge.’
‘Next time I’m on a plane,’ she flirted, ‘I’ll imagine your hands were on my very seat.’
‘You do that,’ he laughed.
Nina started reminiscing at the table about how Kate had got her into trouble for mimicking a teacher.
‘Hmm. Not like you to get into trouble, was it, Kate?’ Dan teased.
It was strange but she couldn’t remember being part of Nina’s story. She looked at Dan and wondered if her memories of him were real.
After dinner, she followed him to the bar.
‘You haven’t changed a bit, you know,’ he smiled.
‘Well, you have.’
She lightly touched the ring on his finger. He hid his face in his Guinness, not wanting to talk about it.
‘How many kids?’ she asked.
‘Four. I put the oldest on the road this year. Cost a lot, driving lessons.’
An image flashed into Kate’s mind of being in the car with him. Of the feel of his body.
‘No kids for me. I always wanted to be free.’
‘I know,’ he nodded. ‘I’m just so glad, Kate, you’re doing well.’
‘What, me?’ His voice darkened. ‘God, I hate my job. I work at a factory, I’m sitting in with my family every night. Before, I would travel, I was free for months at a time. Do you know what I do now? I go to Ballykinler and I take my knife and I hack and hack through the shrubs, just hack and hack for hours.’
Alan bounced over to him and she drifted away. Nearby, Nina was showing off like mad, hoiking up her skirt and doing the splits in front of everyone. Some of the women looked horrified but the men were mesmerized – it was fun to have a bit of train-wreck madness.
‘Hey, Nina,’ she called out. ‘Love the Las Vegas floor show.’
‘Christ, did you just see me?’ Nina giggled. ‘It was their fault for asking about my yoga moves.’
Her teeth were dark from the Black Jacks and the red wine. Kate could see the prickling roughness of the skin under Nina’s make-up and guessed that alcohol use had turned her into the exhibitionist she was now.
‘You looked brilliant,’ she said, wanting to be kind. ‘I couldn’t have done the splits even when I was at school.’
‘Neither could I!’ replied Nina.
While the men stood chatting at the bar, the women remained seated, tethered by their high heels. It reminded Kate of the old division of the sexes in the sixth form common room. It was getting late but no one would leave. It was like they were waiting for something.
Alan McIlroy was talking about one of their year who’d died in his twenties. Ciaran had been knocked down on a road in Spain and killed. They all shivered. Alan’s wife was beside him, nodding. She was from Brazil and she was tactile. Kate felt her long, sweeping stroke on her bare arm.
‘I wonder if we’ll all be here at our thirtieth reunion,’ said Alan.
‘Well, I’ll not be here,’ Kate told him, thinking one reunion was enough.
‘Oh, you will,’ Dan said and she wondered why he was so insistent. ‘We’ll all be here.’
A couple of the non-drinking Presbyterians were leaving early. They signalled to Dan.
‘Kate, I’ve got to go now,’ he explained regretfully. ‘They’re giving me a lift back to Newcastle.’
‘Oh. You have to?’
He kissed her on the cheek.
He was kissing and pressing her hard. His fingers ground against her so much it hurt, but it was a fiery hurt that thrilled her. His eyes were half-closed like he was in a trance. He tried to move her jeans down her thighs, but she made her body a deadweight, suddenly scared of him. What if he made her pregnant? All she could think was she was leaving for Bristol and wasn’t coming back. As all the teachers had said, ‘Go. Everywhere’s better than here. You can’t even get a job here because of the Troubles.’
The gunfire rat-a-tatted across the bay from Ballykinler. She really liked Dan but she didn’t want him to be waiting, tying her with his expectation.
At her retreat, Dan’s touches faded, his kissing ebbed. His fingers stroked her face.
‘I’ll see you at Christmas, but if you like I could come up from London and visit you.’
‘I don’t know,’ she answered. She started the car. ‘I’d better get back. I’m up at five.’
The stars were pinholing brightly through the black sky as though telling her that God’s light was behind everything. Just like she’d outgrown school, she’d outgrown Dundrum. She couldn’t even contemplate what she wanted out of life because even to start thinking of things, it felt like her heart was exploding with its own power.
The car wheeled down Castle Hill to the Main Street.
He was quiet. She could feel the tension in him.
Birds hooted across the bay.
‘You could come back to my house if you want,’ he said.
‘No. I’ve got to go home.’
It was ironic, thought Kate. You turn someone down only to be turned down by him twenty-five years later.
She was barely listening to Nina’s recollections. They were about how she used to dance on the dining room table with her dinner guests; a party trick her ex hadn’t found remotely amusing. Nina kept looking at Mark Matthews. She licked her red wine lips like a vampire feasting and muttered that she was going out with him for a smoke.
Kate felt an arm grab hers and she swung round. It was Dan, his eyes shining.
‘I didn’t say goodbye to you.’
‘You did.’ He looked drunk but then everyone was pretty drunk by now.
He hugged her and kissed her hard on the lips. She could feel her skin crushed against her teeth; that tiny bit of pain that proved you were alive.
And then he was gone.
The classmates all drank together for a couple more hours, still waiting, still yearning for something. The barman let them stock up on double pints when he called last orders. They talked about the ones who went to England and the USA for work and never came back; half a generation had been lost.
‘The funny thing was the teachers lied,’ Kate mused, ‘when they said England would be better than here.’
‘To think at eighteen we were going to set fire to the world,’ romanticised Lisa.
‘Christ sake,’ Kate laughed. ‘We’d need a fire lit under our chairs now!’
She finally stumbled into her taxi at about three.
‘Where are you from?’ the taxi driver asked, detecting the English traces in her voice from having lived there for years.
‘Here. From County Down, originally.’
‘You don’t sound County Down. What part?’
‘All of me,’ she quipped and the taxi driver smiled. But she could see him looking at her in the mirror, still wondering, still hoping to establish a kinship.
The late September weather had changed. A leaf slapped against the windscreen like a clammy hand. The limbs were flailing on the trees that lined the country roads back into Belfast. A couple of branches were sheered clean off and the taxi driver swerved to avoid them. The leaves fizzled and fomented on boughs that hacked and hacked and hacked at the wind.
‘Wild, isn’t it?’ she said, looking out.
‘Wild,’ said the taxi driver.
This story is taken from Lifestyle Choice 10mg by Rosemary Jenkinson, pulbished by Doire Press