Hamster-cheeked girl – me, eight – and the pony Jet, standing side by side, my arms wrapped choke-hold around his neck (I loved him, I loved him). Smiling small enough to be real, because Mum takes the photo and Jet is the thing we love together. He is black with a white lightning blaze and he will go down in a blaze of lightning tomorrow when a careless kid crinkles a crisp packet, the sound of crunching limbs –
Mum can’t take me to the airport. She has Pilates class and then brunch with Shrill Katie. She has three friends called Katie and she meticulously devotes equal amounts of time to criticising their life choices.
I know Shrill Katie because she has a son, Frederick, and he’ll be at Oxford with me next year. “Oh darling,” Mum says, whenever she brings it up (which is often), “maybe you’ll get married.”
So she and Shrill Katie discuss my non-existent wedding, pecking at sourdough toast like two blubbery pigeons, while I swallow over and over, patting the plane door twice for good luck.
The Landrover celebrated its sixteenth birthday last month, and it takes two of us to work the gears. Ash and I sit side by side in the front: blue eyes and small-town smiles. Behind us, the horses huddle miserably under a wooden lean-to, our beach ride cut short, the ranch’s clients sent home saturated. Ash starts the jeep, cranking it into first, and his hand closes over mine – just for a half-second.
South Africa’s Wild Coast begins to rumble, the thunder cracking like breaking bones.
“I don’t think…”
“Ja, Em, you’ve got this. I promise.”
Ash and I ease into a gallop, my first in ten years. We stream down Kei Mouth Bay like whirling kites, the horses’ tails making puff-cloud plane-trails in the winter fog. Light washes our faces clean and a mild breeze rustles in the trees to the left of the beach, like fingers gently peeling back the leaves, making a path up through the cluster of yellowwoods towards the bright sky above. To our right, the Indian Ocean, and the flick-twist-glisten of the sun-soaked waves.
I lean against the Yellowwood Ranch sign, my eyes fixed on the road that runs out of Kei Mouth, middle and index fingers placed against the inside of my wrist. Breathe and count. Early evening, and shadows leap and dance across the tarmac. I twist these pockets of blackness into shapes; one is a car speeding along the highway, then I see our Landrover though the edges are hazy. It approaches from the opposite direction. The vehicles smash and tumble and explode right in front of me, darkness trickling like blood from the wreckage…
But then I blink, and they are just shadows.
In a moment, I will turn to see Ash with his camera, and we will go to the braai and I will smile wide and laugh loud.
He tastes of migration, of the freedom that the greater striped swallow feels as it spreads its wings and soars towards the South African sun.
The rain beats against the Landrover’s windows as the sky gets gloomier; patches of brightness fight through the grey-black fog, lighting up the telephone masts that stand at intervals like stony sentinels against the wind that twirls and dives and grabs at the truck as we pass.
“I know I can’t get too into you, though,” Ash says, as though he hasn’t just told me he is really in love for the first time in his life, “because of Oxford.”
He has scored me out with a penknife. Angry white scratches where my face should be. He’s gone through the photo at points in his rage so there are dark spots, too. This is the only picture he’ll keep, he says. The others, he has already burned.
He sent the message after I boarded, so I only pick it up as I transfer at Cape Town. By this time, our memories will be smoke trails, concentric exhales in an otherwise-clear sky.
Swallowing over and over, I queue for my final flight home.
I pat the plane door four times – to cover us both.
Oxford is bone-cold. I join the University Equestrian Club and beg-borrow formal riding boots.
Mum visits most weekends, though I don’t ask her to. We go to restaurants and look at other people and then at our phones.
I get the message about Ash at one of our lunches, a buzz-vibrate from another of the Gap Year Girls that I open, unsuspecting.
I bite down on the inside of my lower lip so hard I taste blood, and then, when the dribble slows, I bite down again.
I open my mouth. My jaw hangs locked and the redness leaks down, staining my chin, trickling into my tomato pasta sauce like a meandering hillside tributary that will grow to flow and feed into the wide, greedy mouth of the Indian Ocean.
“Close your mouth, darling. Did you hear? Frederick – Katie’s son, you remember – has switched from PPE to English Lit. Maybe you’ll have a tutorial together.”
Our faces and the endless veld beyond are purple and grey in the dim light, flicker-flicker, in and out. The photographs are half-lit, and it was half-real, but my yawning sadness is full and solid and pounds at me like a demon-horse that gallops in endless circles, round and round my body, spiralling.
Ash’s funeral is on the day of my first exam.
As I put on my academic gown, hollow serrated grief begins to scrape desperately at my skin and my stomach lining with its hoof-claws, fighting, fighting to get out and show them –
And I can’t seem to leave my room.
Resigned, I sink down onto the floor. Swallowing, clutching at my limbs.
Holding myself in place, dark-eyed.
Amy J. Kirkwood writes MG/YA and flash fiction. She has been commended for the Pageturner Prize, as well as longlisted for the Bath Novel Award and the Write Mentor Children’s Novel Award. She is represented by Therese Coen at Hardman & Swainson and can be found on Twitter at @amyjkirkwood.