We’d been school friends,
good friends when we were younger,
had liked the same books, games and people.
The high school years saw a divergence of interests
a dilution of closeness
but still talked regularly –
speaking of our football teams
opinions of teachers
and prospects with girls.
No topic was taboo, except his brother,
who was bigger and stronger and beat me up once.
His mother died two years after high school
mine saw the notice and told me.
I attended her service thinking it appropriate,
a gesture he would appreciate.
His brother was there of course
bearded and dressed in black, but
not funeral black.
I went to speak to him – to offer sympathy
before I could extend my hand, he turned away.
Every time, three mornings a week,
for five or seven years
she smiled with warmth and without effort
clipped the ticket – literally
one less swim from a 20-visit concession –
3×20 gave a free 10
issuing the loyalty card always produced an extra wide smile,
something she genuinely enjoyed, considered a privilege to do so.
Once or twice I forgot, rummaging through my bag
coming up empty-handed,
“ that’s alright,” she snapped the air
“ you come here often enough. ”
When offered the arrears, she waved them away
saying again, “ you come here often enough.”
I never knew her name, never thought to ask,
never overheard it used, or called,
later I imagined I must have. But know I didn’t.
She was just the very nice woman on the front desk.
18 years later,
when late middle age needed to get a grip
and returned to swimming.
She wasn’t there the first two months,
then one Monday morning about the same time
I was holding laminated plastic to a scanner
as I would have been handing cardboard to her
a photo was being attached to the wall above the front desk,
with an inscription,
almost exactly behind where she stood –
“ So long Lovely Jill, rest in peace.”
Everything was formal at the new school –
the one with the black robed clergyman,
11, most of us, some 12, but all
feeling much younger
an overwhelmed, scared if truth had been.
There were no Steves or Phils
no Petes or Andys
only Stephen and Phillip and Peter and Andrew,
even when they never had been.
never Edward, even though he was.
An athlete : hand and eye
good with a bat and ball – like DiMaggio –
Different in other ways too.
No present father, just absent, not dead
the term solo mother yet to exist
but his mum was.
I sometimes wonder how they afforded it
later enlightenment concluded, perhaps welfare.
Which might explain, what I thought preposterous –
what he told me once we were good buddies.
That he would say
a teacher, a man of God,
would touch there, and in that way.
I didn’t believe him then. I do now.