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Billy and Me, Page 3

Giovanna Fletcher

  I briefly look up to see the frustration leave his face and watch as it’s replaced with a look of intrigue as he sneaks a peek behind me in Miss Brown’s direction.

  ‘Really? Why? Have I done something to offend her? Did I eat with my mouth open? Slurp noisily on my coffee?’ he asks, clearly amused.

  I hear the elderly lady loudly tutting behind me.

  ‘Actually she’s worried about the fact that you’ve been talking to yourself for the past hour,’ I force myself to continue. ‘According to her it’s the first sign of madness …’

  Suddenly he breaks out into another huge laugh, making me look up from the floor and take in his joyful face – causing a smile to spread across mine uncontrollably. Once he has composed himself, he leans forward, lightly holds my forearms, pulls me towards him slightly and looks into my eyes as he continues in a calm and quiet voice.

  ‘Please tell dear Miss Brown that I’m sorry for upsetting her. There’s no need to call the men in white coats yet. I’m just lear—’

  I stop listening.

  Something jolts within me and I’m suddenly light-headed and shaky. I can’t stop the fear mounting. I can’t tell my brain that it’s ok. I can feel the panic rising through me, causing my mouth to go dry, my breathing to shallow and my mind to get momentarily lost. I’m rooted to the spot.

  ‘Are you OK?’ he asks, concern breaking out over his face.

  ‘I’m sorry …’ I try and say, but no sound is coming from my mouth.

  ‘Hey, you’re shaking. Here, sit down!’

  Before I can try to protest he leaps from his chair, pulls out the one next to him, gently takes me by the shoulders and lowers me into it.

  ‘Can I get you something? A camomile tea?’ he asks calmly before running behind the counter and rummaging around.

  The noises he makes pouring and stirring are intensified in my head. SWOOOOOOOOOSH. CLANG. CLANG. CLANG. PLOP. TING. TING. TING.

  ‘Here, drink this,’ he says coming towards me.

  I take the tea and slowly sip at it, attempting to concentrate on the hot liquid as it works its way down through my body, trying to ignore the irrational terror that bubbles away inside me.

  I’m aware of the stranger as he pulls his chair next to mine and reaches out, taking one of my hands in his, gently rubbing the inside of my palm with his thumb. Instead of freaking me out further, it has the opposite affect; it feels soothing and calming, reminding me I’m safe.

  I’m grateful that he isn’t staring at me. Instead both of us sit and look at our hands. Mine in his.

  We sit in silence like this for a few minutes.

  Slowly the fear leaves me and the nice feeling of calmness rises within me, causing me to sigh heavily in relief.

  ‘Better?’ he asks, his hand stopping the rubbing motion but continuing to clasp mine.

  I nod slowly. Instantly feeling stupid, I keep my eyes on the cup I’m holding, too humiliated to look elsewhere.

  ‘How embarrassing!’ I say, closing my eyes.

  ‘No it’s not. Don’t be daft.’

  I look up at him with another sigh. For the last five minutes or so I’d turned into a trembling idiot. It’s more than embarrassing. It’s humiliating.

  ‘Hey … it’s OK,’ he says, giving my hand a squeeze along with a sympathetic smile.

  I glance over at Miss Brown and find that, thankfully, she seems to be preoccupied with a crossword puzzle. She’s probably even forgotten sending me over in the first place – little does she know the drama she’s sparked.

  ‘At a guess, I’d say you were having a panic attack,’ he continues cautiously.

  I close my eyes and let out a groan.

  ‘Oi! I said don’t be daft,’ he says, squeezing my hand again. ‘Does that happen a lot?’

  ‘They used to. They’ve not happened for a long time, though … and never in front of anyone before. I’m so sorry.’

  ‘Don’t be. I know what it’s like.’

  ‘You do?’

  ‘Yeah,’ he says, glancing around the shop.

  He doesn’t add any more so I don’t question him further. It’s enough to know that he understands in some way and that he doesn’t just think I’m a nutter or some freak.

  Closing my eyes, I try to focus on the calmness. Enjoying the steadiness that comes with each breath.

  I can still remember my first panic attack. I was eleven years old.

  I guess you could say I was in a fragile state – my world had fallen apart overnight, huge changes were happening at home and I was experiencing feelings I’d never felt before. Despite this, I was made to go back to school straight away. I think my mum thought it would help, perhaps make me forget the troubles at home. Or maybe she wanted me out of the way so that she could deal with her own thoughts. Her own heartache. Whatever her reasons for making me go back, I couldn’t help but feel sent away. Banished because she couldn’t bear to look at me.

  Waking up that day I managed to take comfort in the normality of putting on my school uniform: a pleated grey skirt, white t-shirt and green jumper, white socks to my knees and black buckled shoes, the same as it had always been since my first day at Rosefont Hill C of E Primary School. It was familiar. However, walking into the school gates, through the main door, down the corridor and into my classroom made me more than aware that things had changed. I felt like an alien, different to everyone else in the room. I could feel everyone’s eyes on me as though they were surprised to see me, their looks scrutinizing my face. Judging me. Looking for clues of my torment or guilt.

  Unable to cope with the unwanted attention I kept my eyes on the ground as my feet shuffled along to my desk. I sat down and stared at my pencil case, trying to ignore the fact that I could hear them all whispering and feel them all continuing to watch me.

  My skin started to itch, I felt uncomfortable in my own body – I wanted to get out, away from their goggling eyes.

  I sat still and silent, wanting to disappear.

  My teacher, Mrs Yates, a tubby woman with rosy cheeks and a love of pastel-coloured clothing, entered the room with authority, causing the majority of the class to go to their tables straight away.

  ‘Morning, everyone. Can get you get into your seats quickly, please. Hush, hush,’ she chimed, sweeping her long blonde hair from her face. ‘Now, later on we’re going to be starting a new painting project, but, before we do that I’d like to us to continue with the Tudor work we were doing last week. Jamie, this is a warning – stop faffing with Luke’s hair and sit down,’ she barked, causing the classroom to fall silent as the work commenced.

  I was pleased. I liked the Tudors – all the anger, tragedy and passion that surrounded them. I managed to pull out my textbook and continue with my summary of the Tudor period that I was working on – I’d just got to the interesting bit about Henry VIII making up a religion just so he could get a divorce. I worked away, immersed in their world, blocking out the hubbub of the rest of the class.

  It didn’t take long for Mrs Yates to make her way over and kneel beside me, placing one hand on my back and the other on my writing hand, stopping it from moving along the page, pulling me away from my solitude.

  ‘Sophie, look at you working away. You’re such a good girl,’ she said softly.

  I glanced up to see her looking at me with such big sad eyes and had to look away, unable to cope with her pitiful expression.

  ‘I just want you to know that if at any point you want to talk about what’s happened, then I’m here for you. To help in any way I can.’

  To help in any way she could … it was sweet, but she couldn’t give me what I wanted. She couldn’t change what had happened, so why would I want to talk to her?

  I didn’t speak. I just nodded my head slowly and turned my attention back to my work.

  She lingered for a little while, probably unsure whether or not to push the matter further, before standing up and walking off with a sigh.

  It wasn’t long before I had ano
ther visitor at my desk; this time it was Laura Barber, my bestest friend.

  ‘Is it true?’ she asked bluntly, terror stamped across her face. ‘About what happened with your dad?’

  I didn’t know how to answer. I opened my mouth but no words came out.

  Luckily Mrs Yates saved me from the conversation. ‘Laura, back to your seat, please. Unless you want to continue your work in your break time instead?’ she asked.

  Laura gave my arm a tight squeeze and ran back to her desk.

  I felt relieved.

  At lunchtime I didn’t want to join the other kids in the playground. I didn’t want to run and prance around joyously and I didn’t want to have to answer anyone’s questions. I didn’t want to talk to them. So when everyone else had left the class to go play I lingered behind, deciding to do a bit more work on my Tudor project.

  They’d all been collected and stored in the class walk-in cupboard earlier in the day so that we didn’t carelessly spoil them when we were painting.

  I was in the cupboard, reaching up for my book, when my whole body tensed up and an overbearing feeling of devastation took hold of me. I gripped hold of a shelf in front of me for support, sure that the whole lot would engulf me and swallow me up.

  I was going to die. I was sure of it.

  Slowly I crouched to the floor, squeezing myself into a ball as my head started to feel woozy, spinning uncontrollably.

  The silence around me appeared deafening.

  The small space seemed to slip away from me, growing in size. Giant books and folders loomed over me, threatening to tumble and squash me.

  White light flooded in, causing me to squint my eyes in agony at its brightness.

  The end was coming. I knew it was.

  Death was coming for me.

  Yet, just as instantly as the feeling had started, it left. Replaced by a feeling of warmth and peace.

  I remained scrunched in a ball with my knees up to my chest, trying to make sense of what had just happened.

  I was unaware of how much time had passed, but the sound of people entering the room and chairs being dragged around the floor told me that lunch was over.

  ‘Are you OK, Sophie? You look a little pale,’ Mrs Yates observed as I stumbled out of the cupboard.

  ‘I want to go home,’ I pleaded.

  Given the circumstances they could hardly protest.

  I didn’t want Mum to have to come and collect me, I was perfectly able to make my own way home, especially as I came in on my own every day, but they wouldn’t let me. So I sat in that hallway, my eyes skimming over the various displays of children’s work, and waited.

  Mum took a long time to come. When she finally arrived she didn’t look at me. Her blotchy and puffy red eyes, no doubt caused by fresh tears, darted around the room in a troublesome manner. She mumbled something to the receptionist, signed me out and then walked out of the door. I followed silently behind, in the shadow of the broken woman in front of me.

  I vowed never to make her collect me again. It would do no good to add to her worries.

  In hindsight, it’s clear that the episode in the cupboard was my first experience of a panic attack, but I didn’t know that at the time. All I knew then was that I wanted to be as far away from other people as possible. The only person I cared about was Mum … but she was the only person, it seemed, who didn’t want to talk to me.

  A loud bang at the door and the commotion of Molly walking in with her hands filled with carrier bags brings my attention back into the room and to the fact that I’m meant to be working. Flustered from my thoughts, I begin getting up to go over to her when the stranger nudges me back into my seat.

  ‘You stay there. I’ll help her,’ he insists, as he strides over to Molly.

  Her eyes widen as he approaches her and takes the bags from her hands; she’s clearly happy of the help. However, then I spot the worry start to cross her face as he starts talking to her. He’s speaking too quietly for me to make out his words, but one look in my direction from Molly tells me all I need to know. He’s grassing me up.

  Surprisingly, Molly doesn’t come over and fuss over me, instead she ushers the stranger behind the counter and gets him to help her unpack the shopping where they continue to whisper.

  I’m not permitted to do anything for the rest of the afternoon. Molly would love me to go home and pop my feet up but, for once, I don’t want to be home alone. I want to stay here. I spend the rest of the afternoon (once the handsome stranger has said his farewells), perched at a table with an endless pot of camomile tea, while Molly sends over a steady stream of cakes and naughty treats – which I happily pick away at.


  Lying on my bed that night, my mind wanders off as I look around my bedroom at the pale pink walls with photo frames hung on them. Full of photos taken years ago, when we were a happy family unit. I’ve never redecorated – I’ve not even changed a photo in a frame. Occasionally, I might Blu-Tack a poster or something on the back of my bedroom door, but nothing more than that. Nothing that can’t quickly be removed; letting me know that what once was is never too far away.

  I can still vividly remember the three of us in B&Q and me being given the choice of what colour I wanted my room to be. As soon as I said pink my Dad grunted and moaned that I’d be sick of it in a few months and that he’d have to repaint it, but he let me have it anyway. As always. Being an only child I generally never heard the word ‘no’ when asking for something. In hindsight he was right of course; pink might have seemed like a fun idea at the time but as I got older it seemed too girlie and childish. Still, I would never change it. Not after the fun I recall us having as we turned it into my little den.

  I can remember the excitement as we bought throwaway overalls and dustsheets then went home to decorate the very same day. Opening the tin of paint, mine and Dad’s jaws dropped as we gasped at the brightness of the colour, although Mum reassured us it would be less garish once it was up on the walls. Plus, she said, it would fade over time. We all giggled to each other as we dipped our brushes into the bright paint and started applying it to the walls, carefully lining all the edges before joyously using rollers everywhere else. Pink paint flew everywhere as we laughed our way through the task; I can remember purposely getting a blob of pink on Dad’s nose (with Mum’s encouragement) and then having him run around the room trying to get me back, which he obviously managed, prompting me to chase him again. It turned into a very messy game of tag, so by the time we’d finished painting we were as pink as the walls. I was ordered to have a bath to wash away the paint that had made its way into my ears, up my nose and into my hair, while Dad went out and bought us a family bucket from KFC – fast food was a rarity in our household and only eaten on special occasions. We ate the treat whilst sitting in the middle of the floor in my freshly painted room, looking around at our handiwork. It was such a great day.

  When I came home from school the following afternoon I walked into my room to find Dad banging nails into one of the walls and hanging up thick wooden photo frames, all in various sizes. He’d carefully worked his way through the photo albums to select special pictures of us on days out in parks feeding ducks, on holiday or simply snuggled up at home. The three of us. Before it all disappeared. How I have wished over the years that I could jump into those frames and relive those little moments. Moments that I didn’t realize were so special until they were no longer attainable.

  I’ve hated change. Hated moving further away from something that I treasure so much. Something that seemed so perfect. However, lying in my room now, for the first time in years, I feel excited by the possibility of something new. Thrilling thoughts whirl around my head of the handsome man who walked into the shop today.

  Once I stop cringing at the fact that I had a near panic attack in front of a complete stranger, I can’t help but grin to myself at the thought of his smile, his touch, even his smell. Just thinking about him is enough to make my insides flutter. I’ve never experie
nced a feeling like this – I’m giddy and full of what I think is hope.

  I managed to avoid company for the latter part of my childhood and have since been surrounded by women every day, so it’s fair to say I don’t have much experience when it comes to male interaction, other than saying hello to the local men I pass in the street. There’s been the odd fleeting relationship or blind date set up by a few of the elderly women customers at the shop, who on occasion try to pair me off with their grandsons, but none of them have been that successful. So I’m baffled by the feelings stirring inside me.

  I find myself replaying tiny bits of the day in my head – his hand smoothing out his hair, my hands in his as he rubbed them with his thumbs to calm me down, his concerned smile as he said goodbye … I’m a complete loser. What makes it worse is that I know nothing about this handsome stranger. I have no idea what has brought him to Rosefont Hill, although I’m guessing Molly’s right and that he has something to do with the filming. The thing I find most irritating is that I don’t even know his name.

  Will he be back in the shop soon, or is that it? Has he disappeared to wherever he came from, never to return? I spend the night rolling around my bed unable to sleep as questions about the newbie fill my brain.

  After lunchtime the following day, just as I start to lose hope of the stranger ever coming back, in he walks. I can’t help but smile at him.

  ‘Hello, you. Feeling better?’ he asks.

  ‘Yes … although I still feel like the world’s biggest plonker,’ I admit.

  ‘Really? Hopefully these will cheer you up a little bit, then,’ he says, holding out a bunch of multicoloured tulips.

  I’m shocked. No one has ever bought me flowers before.

  ‘You didn’t need to do that,’ I say, as I reach out and take them from him, gazing at their beauty.

  ‘Oh it’s nothing. I was walking past the florist and saw them sitting there,’ he says with a shrug and a smile. Batting away the idea that it could possibly mean anything more.