She had come cycling down our lane on an old boneshaker one early August afternoon. School had finished a week before and I had nothing to do and nowhere to go so as usual was just sitting in the front garden watching the world slip away from me. The sun was at its peak, and although the shadows from the trees in the orchard were short, I knew that they were already lengthening. I hated that midsummer was in the middle of the school term, that by the time we had our freedom everything was already creeping steadily towards the fall. Apples ripened on the branches, slowly blushing whilst the plums dropped and decayed into the grass. Endings always seemed much closer than beginnings then.
No one ever came past our house. There was nowhere to go, after all. The lane just petered out a hundred yards past the red tin barn and although you could jump over the fence and walk across two fields to the river, no one ever did.
That afternoon she was wearing a pair of faded cut off jeans and a loose red t-shirt, stained with what looked like white paint around the bottom. Her shoes were beaten up blue Converse.
“What’s at the end of the lane?” she demanded, nodding past the trees and the hedgerows. No introductions, just a demand. I eventually got used to that from Chris, but that first time I just thought she was a rude tourist, lost in the lanes. I just looked dumb and shrugged my bony shoulders. “Nothing much” I finally replied. “Just a couple of fields and then the river.”
“Can you swim in it?”
“I guess so. Maybe. I never tried. All the kids go up to the next village. There’s a weir downstream there and they jump off the bridge into where it’s deepest. If you want to swim you should go there.” I’d seen them there every year I could remember, so I knew it was true. I had never done it myself though because I always hated taking off my shirt and I looked so stupid in swimming trunks.
“I saw that earlier. I rode over the bridge.” She yawned and looked at the sky stretching cloudless and pristine above us. “They were all shrieking and ducking each other.”
I wondered what she was going to say next and already wanted her to say what I’d always thought.
“I hate all that stuff. It’s so immature.”
I smiled inside and laughed aloud. “Yeah. Stupid kids stuff.”
Her smile was broad and shone through her eyes which I later knew to be a deep brown like the Devon soil when the fields are freshly ploughed and mark the end of winter. “But we should go swimming in the river at the end of your lane. It will be ours and ours alone.”
We didn’t even know each other’s names then and already she was claiming rivers for us. But that was Chris. Always wanting to try something new and understand everything about where she was and what she found around herself. Full of mysteries too, but I didn’t discover that until much later.
So it was Chris who made me see my world for what it was, or for what it could be. Then again, perhaps she would say the same about me.
The next day she cycled up to the gate like it was her who had always lived there and not me. She propped her bike against the hedgerow and flopped down on the grass. Her hair glistened like a fresh morning and a hairslide with a tiny pink piglet for decoration held it off her face.
“What you reading?” she asked, pointing at the book I had just abandoned on the grass. I picked up a battered copy of ‘Franny and Zoey’ and waved it pointlessly in the air.
“Oh cool” she said and grabbed it from my hand. “I love Salinger. I read this when I was eleven. Of course you know he was stationed near here, don’t you?”
I just looked dumb. I have always been good at that. It’s like how I always look pissed off. Everyone always tells me to cheer up, that it might never happen. Like they’d know. Because it always does, or it already has. Later Chris told me that people said it to her all the time too. She thought it was just a teenage thing, and I used to think the same. Sometimes I look back and wonder if it would still have happened to Chris if she made it past sixteen, but it’s a moot point so I never dwell on it, like she didn’t dwell on my blankness that afternoon. Instead she just went right on with her monologue.
“My god, how can you not know that? That story, ‘For Esmé with Love and Squalor’, it’s set in a Devon town. Well, that’s Tiverton. Daddy says so, anyway. He says that Salinger was probably stationed in the old manor house out there before D-Day, when he was in the Intelligence Service. Is it true it rains hardest in the centre of town? When it rains again I want to go and find out.” We looked at the sky doubtfully.
“No-one in their right mind wants to go to Tiverton. You’d get kidnapped and sold into the white slave trade if you went there alone.” I was only partly joking. “And anyway, how would your Dad know about that story? I thought you just moved here from Kent?”
Chris just shrugged. “Oh, he teaches American Literature at the University. Well, he will in October when the term starts. He’s writing some book about Hemingway at the moment. We only just moved and he’s already off to Key West for more research. He says it’s quieter there in the middle of summer because it’s too hot for the tourists.”
“Yeah, I imagine” I said, although of course I couldn’t.
“Have you read Hemingway? You really should. You’d love him.”
I didn’t know how she could tell that then, but in the end she was right about that like she was right about everything. “We did ‘The Old Man And The Sea’ in school last year” I offered.
“Hmmm, okay. But ‘The Sun Also Rises’ is best. We went to Pamplona last year for the bulls running. I’m vegetarian so I thought it was all really horrible what they were doing to those poor animals, but the book is just divine. You can forgive a lot when Art is divine, don’t you think?”
I just looked around helplessly and nodded. No-one said 'divine' except the posh second home idiots from London, and we really didn’t get much talk about Art or Spain in Stoke Canon. Unless it was Mrs Jones’ watercolour classes at the church hall, or the lads in the pub talking about their holidays to the Costa Brava. I’d heard them, Sunday lunchtimes when Dad took us out for roast as a special treat. They stood by the bar for hours, smoking cigarettes and drinking endless pints of beer. They would guffaw and roar like belching lions.
Chris talked so fast and was full of so many things I had never heard of. Neither of us knew it then of course, but in the two years we would have together we would teach each other so much.