The next month’s posts will feature brand new fiction, beginning today with Part 1 of ‘The Emerald Cave, a psychological drama. In Part 1, Kate begins to look back at an event from her teens that caused her mental illness…
There was a period years ago when I lost my memory. At the time it was said by the counsellor to be caused by the trauma. I suppose these days you’d call it PTSD. I’ve always worried that I’d suffer more bouts of memory loss as I got older, but since adulthood it hasn’t happened; in fact, I feel I can recall more and more of the events of my childhood and teenage years as I age.
While I wasn’t bullied at school, it’s safe to say I was ignored. Why? I was a quiet, nondescript child. I was neither beautiful nor ugly. I had no stand-out features. Back then I’d have been described as ‘mousy’, my father even calling me ‘Mouse’, thinking it a term of endearment. I was the middle child of three girls; my elder sister, Sarah being the one of whom great academic things were expected, my younger sister, Jo, the vivacious, pretty all-rounder, loved by everyone.
I attracted no attention either way from my peers at our all-girls grammar school, ticking along with average results, the teachers barely acknowledging my existence, so when Emerald Blackman began engaging with me and involving me in her life, nobody was more surprised than I was.
Emerald. She joined my class when I was fourteen, making a swift and dynamic impact, imbuing every girl with a desire to be her friend, to belong to her circle. It was not only that she was beautiful, blond and blue-eyed with clear skin and a svelte, athletic body but that she exuded such confidence, even the teaching staff were in awe of her. We learned that she’d moved to the area with her mother following the split of her parents, a situation that in itself seemed glamorous and exciting to those of us who lived in humdrum, nuclear families with two parents. She also appeared to enjoy a remarkable level of freedom for a fifteen-year-old, by all accounts and was already working at a Saturday job, sweeping up and making tea in a salon and earning enough to get out and about at weekends.
At some point during the first term, she acquired a boyfriend, further elevating her status in our eyes. The fact that the boyfriend had a car thrilled everyone to fever pitch, inducing most of us to press our eyes to the window each afternoon at the end of the school day, when the young man’s battered, black, souped-up Ford Fiesta swerved up the school driveway and squealed to a halt beside our exit. There would be a pause. Emerald, lingering in the cloakroom, didn’t dash outside and leap into the passenger seat, preferring to raise a languid arm and pull a brush through her long, blond hair, releasing it from the confines of its regulation tied back style. Then she’d sigh, pack a few things into her bag and dawdle to the exit, looking everywhere except at the boyfriend as she opened the car door; a masterclass in cool. Once the car had swooshed away down the drive, we’d sigh and begin our own plodding walks to bus stops.
I’m daydreaming all this as my feet turn the bike pedals and we follow the easy, shaded tow path along the Canal du Midi, a trail we’ve taken on many occasions during our forays into the South of France. I got lucky with David, meeting him in my late twenties and marrying at thirty-two, later than most did, then. We were old enough to understand that sharing common interests and backgrounds was as good a basis as any for a strong marriage. A few weeks after we met, when I was comfortable enough to confide in him, I told him what happened with Emerald when I was fourteen, a story I’d never been able to tell anyone else outside of the family, a story that still dogs my dreams, entering my consciousness uninvited. I asked David, a clinical psychologist, if he thought the effects of that time had shaped me and he said he couldn’t say, since he hadn’t known me before then, but that our teens are an impressionable age and it’s likely that some aspects of my character may have been enhanced or suppressed by it. But I was never a socialite, never gregarious or popular, never one for small talk or banter. I’m an introvert, a trait that has continued into adulthood. For that brief, early period of my life though, my standing amongst my peers became elevated as a result of my friendship with Emerald Blackman, as if I’d inhaled some of the magic that surrounded her and been transformed into a teenage socialite.
We take most of our holidays in France, David and I. We find a gite, one that is near to centres of historic interest or natural beauty. We like to explore by bike or on foot. This time we’re staying in a Dutch barge on the canal between the coast and Narbonne, from where we can cycle down to Gruissan at the coast, or up as far as medieval Carcassonne and beyond. We might pick up groceries and cook in the barge’s galley kitchen or we might find a brasserie and eat there. The barge has a comfortable deck area where I like to read, or often to sit with a glass of wine and watch the water drift past carrying ducks, driftwood or weed. The canal is flanked by a row of plane trees along each side, their canopy of leaves casting a soothing green glow on to the water, glints of sunshine filtering through as the breeze blows.
It’s a therapeutic space to sit and process painful life events. I may be much older now but I still need to replay the scenes that led up to what happened with Emerald and how it played out in the immediate aftermath. My problem is not knowing. I will never know what happened to her, or to me, in the cave; the cave I’ve come to think of as ‘The Emerald Cave’.
I’d been waiting at the bus stop for half an hour when the noisy, smoky Fiesta pulled up and she wound the window down. I’d mislaid a text book in our form room and had missed the school special as a result. At first, I didn’t register that it was her, that she was calling to me. I remember looking round at the other people waiting, thinking she must know one of them. She opened the window and beckoned me over.
‘Need a lift?’
I couldn’t recall that she’d ever spoken a single word to me before. I walked across to the window and leaned down, conscious of the lank strands of hair that had escaped from my inexpert pony tail and the crop of spots that had sprung up on my chin the day before in preparation for my period. She put a hand out and pulled the lapel on my blazer so that my face was inches from hers. I felt my cheeks burn and knew the boyfriend was looking my way as he revved the engine, making noxious, grey smoke billow around the bus stop.
‘I’m not…I don’t…’ I spluttered in a pathetic squeak.
‘Come on, Kate. We’re going for a quick coffee. Hop in the back. We’ll take you home after!’ She beamed at me, continuing to pull on my lapel.
‘I don’t have any cash on me’, I managed to blurt.
‘Oh, don’t worry about that! Lincoln’ll get them, won’t you, Linc?’ She relinquished the blazer and grinned at the lad beside her, who rolled his eyes.
I cast a sheepish glance over my shoulder at the waiting passengers before grasping the rear door handle and sliding in, pulling my backpack in next to me. The car smelt of stale cigarettes and there were discarded cans, crisp packets and polystyrene cartons strewn around the floor. Just as I was wondering how late I’d be getting home Emerald turned to me.
‘Are your folks cool with what time you get home?’
‘Um…not really, I mean I don’t know.’ I looked out of the window.
‘You could call them.’
There was a pause while the car, driven by a silent Lincoln, swerved round a corner and into Tesco car park.
‘I don’t, um…I don’t have my phone.’
We three girls had phones, the cheapest, most basic pay-as-you-go’ type that could be bought, for what my mother called ‘safety’ purposes, although we were not allowed to take them to school and were only to use them for ‘emergencies’. What type of emergency there could be she’d never elaborated, but we rarely did anything independently, which was what I was doing now.
Emerald did not scoff or laugh or make a scornful remark. She tossed her phone at me.
I knew my parents were not home yet. I called and left a message to say I’d missed the bus and would be a bit later than usual. Then we all got out and went to the coffee bar on the High Street.
There’s a small, canal-side café ahead of David and me. It’s bathed in sunshine, wrought-iron tables and chairs arranged outside and a blackboard of delicious-sounding snacks. It isn’t lunchtime yet but we feel we’ve cycled enough miles this morning to have earned a slice of tarte-au-citron and a café-au-lait. It’s a far cry from the fare on offer at the ‘Hard Mock’ café, a long, thin diner offering CDs, posters, T-shirts and rock band memorabilia, alongside coffee, toasted sandwiches and doughnuts. David locks up the bikes and I settle in the sunshine.
We slid into one of Hard Mock’s booths on a plastic-covered bench, Emerald squeezing in next to me, leaving Lincoln, who’d gone to the counter, to order our drinks- cappuccino for Emerald and flat white for me, to occupy the opposite seat. I’d taken a quick look at the price list and selected the cheapest Item I could find.
‘Fancy a doughnut?’ Emerald spoke into my ear to be heard over the top of the music which was playing at a high decibel level, heavy metal of some kind. I shook my head.
Lincoln brought the coffees to our table. ‘Thanks Babe’, Emerald cooed, pursing her lips. My mind flipped at the idea of one of my peers calling a boy ‘babe’. I nodded and muttered my own thanks. Lincoln continued to look at his phone while Emerald chatted with me, asking what music I liked, what I did outside school, did I get on with my sisters? I began to relax as she seemed so interested in me, making me laugh with tales of her own home life and sly digs at Lincoln, who did not appear to be listening.
‘I wish I had a sister’ she sighed. ‘It must be so cool to always have someone to hang out with.’
‘It’s not always like that,’ I told her, ‘We’re all different. My older sister doesn’t lower herself to fraternise with me and my younger sister has so many friends she doesn’t need me.’
Emerald threw an arm around my shoulders and pulled me close. ‘Well,’ she whispered, ‘you’ve got me, now.’
David is accustomed to my long silences, having known me for so many years. He’s pouring over a small map of our route for the day on his phone, searching for somewhere to explore this afternoon, somewhere we’ve not been before. He is not handsome, my husband, but he does have a calm, restful face, which is what attracted me to him after I began my weekly visits to his surgery. He inspired, and continues to inspire confidence in me, deftly foiling my panic attacks and cheering me with gentle humour.
Before he was my husband, David was my trauma counsellor. It wasn’t until I was in my twenties that I experienced the mental health crisis that led me to seek him out and he helped me to understand that I’d never fully processed what had happened in my teens.
Check in next week to read Episode 2 of ‘The Emerald Cave’…
Grace is also known as the novelist, Jane Deans. Her latest novel, The Conways at Earthsend is available from Amazon, Waterstones, Goodreads, W H Smith, Pegasus Publishing and many more sites. Visit my website: janedeans.com or my author page on Facebook: (1) Jane Deans, Novelist, Short Fiction and Blog | Facebook.